Spelunky by Derek Yu Review

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<i>Spelunky</i> by Derek Yu Review

Although the Shopkeeper is not the literal devil of Spelunky, he certainly is a character who I have, in turn, called an asshole, a shithead, and, ironically, “the literal devil.” For a while I would restart the game over and over again in order to face the Shopkeeper and perfect my method of murdering him and stealing his wares. It was even more important to me to figure out how I would kill the Shopkeeper that spawned at the end of every level after that point, and even though the shotgun-wielding man would come at me with the vengeant fury of a thousand unceremonious murders, I still managed to get pretty good at disarming and defeating him.

With the release of Spelunky by Derek Yu, the creator of the game, we finally know how the Shopkeeper works. We know that the Shopkeeper jumps partially to navigate through pathways and partially because the player character is above him. We know that he can produce a single shotgun only, and he holds it inside of his body until angry. We know that he is, in the heart of his code-based jerk-face soul, a being who can only become angered and never sated.

It’s possible to learn all of this through the tradition of empirical research. I’m sure that the speedrunners and wikicrafters have mined both their experiences and the code itself to tell you exactly what the Shopkeeper or the spider or the giant golden head thing at the end of the game does in any given situation, and it wouldn’t surprise me if people are running weird simulations to figure out the chances of certain scenarios to speed up their times in the game.

There’s something special about Yu writing about the Shopkeeper though. The book is written half as a biography and half as a postmortem on how Spelunky was created, developed, and released from proof-of-concept to full worldwide release. It is a format that is more well-written than your average Gamasutra developer postmortem, but anyone familiar with that genre will find a similar kind of information here in this book.

As per Boss Fight Books’ mandate, however, it doesn’t seem that Spelunky banks on you knowing much at all about the game, and that’s a refreshing take on a game that has such a profoundly deep and extensive fan culture around it. Asking questions about Spelunky often feels like asking something like “Who is Han Solo?” on the open internet. One can intuit the danger there.

Even though I have more than a hundred hours into the game on PC, and probably double that across a few platforms, there were still things I didn’t really know that Yu patiently and cleverly talks through. For example, he explains the Chain, a questline that is hinted at and never explained fully, in extensive detail that really drives home how a set of hidden events can drive home the intended goals of a game’s design. It is these moments in the book that are so refreshing. Too often do we see explanations of “I wanted this, that, and the other feeling so I created this, that, and the other mechanic to create those feelings” as a robotic explanatory mechanic when developers talk about their games. Here everything is weaved in nicely, and I very much appreciate the touch of style and grace in this book.

While I love the clear explanations of how the systems of Spelunky interact for the player and internally, the most exciting part of the text is when Yu discusses the development of the game after receiving the greenlight to work on it as an Xbox 360 title. Spelunky was released just after the crashing wave of indie titles that swept the console in 2008, and Yu’s stories of using (and abandoning) the Braid codebase, learning how to flash devkit hardware, and reconfiguring relationships with other developers are far more interesting than they have any right being.

There’s a lot of information in this book for Spelunky diehards and casual fans alike. For example, I was shocked to realize that my favorite song on the soundtrack, “Adventure Begins,” had been edited out of the game in an update before being replaced due to player sadness, and I don’t know where I would have ever learned that tidbit other than reading this book.

Spelunky was written by Derek Yu and published by Boss Fight Books.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.