2015 is here and somehow I am alive to greet it after almost succumbing to acute marzipan poisoning over the festive period. To start the new year I'm looking at a game on a system never before covered here at VGJunk: the Atari 800 home computer, today playing host to a game about a spectacularly underprepared potholer - it's Tim Martin and Broderbund's 1984 unending carousel of death Spelunker!
The Atari 800 isn't just new to VGJunk, it's completely new to me personally, as I've never used one before either in real life or via emulation, so if you're a fan of the system then don't get too angry with me if I get anything wrong. Why the Atari 800? Because an extremely generous contributor to the VGJunk Patreon requested that it be so, and I'm happy to fulfil the request. Variety is the spice of life and all that, and it's nice to try out a new system, although I don't think I'd be going out too far on a limb if I said that playing the Commodore 64 version of Spelunker would have been a very similar experience.
I'm not coming into Spelunker completely blind despite never having played it before, because there's a certain aura of, if not fame, then at least of notoriety about the game. Specifically, it's notorious for being agonisingly, brutally difficult thanks to movements that require pixel-perfect accuracy and a main character who has the survival potential of a freshly-hatched chick in a snake pit. Have I ever mentioned that I'm really bad at video games? I think I'm going to be suffering for my art with this article.
Something else I know about Spelunker is that the Famicom version (pictured above) had a surprisingly large cultural impact on Japanese gamers: not only is the hero of the game something of a mascot for the bargain bins in used game stores, but his delicate physique also spawned slang words for people who get hurt easily, in the same way that we in the West might say "he really Sonic-ed his career" when someone used to be good at something but now just keeps stumbling from one disaster to the next.
Enough preamble, though; I'm here to play the Atari 800 version, so let's get into it. "It" being a system of underground caverns, I mean.
Here we are at the very beginning of the game. Your mission: to explore the cave network and find the treasures hidden deep inside while trying not to die horribly at every turn. You're playing as the little green fat man in the middle of the screen. If my body shape was "perfectly spherical" (no, I'm not quite there yet) I'm not sure I would have picked an activity that involves wriggling through narrow passageway and twisting channels carved in rock, but this guy's a spelunker through and through. Nothing can keep him from his spelunking: not his physical frailty, not his lack of equipment, not even the fact Mr. Spelunker's mere presence attracts the wandering spirits of the dead.
I'd barely been playing the game for five seconds, testing out the jumping mechanics to confirm that yes, they're like Castlevania's in that you can't change direction or alter the flight of your jump in mid-air, when a ghost floated onto the screen. An adorable ghost. Just look at that little marshmallow friend, boogieing through the cave in a manner that you could describe as "Hip-shaking" if his hips hadn't faded away into a wisp of ectoplasm. I wish I was a Ghostbuster so I could trap it in my Containment Unit, which is what I call a great big hug.
Touching the ghost is fatal to the spelunker, of course, but then so is almost everything else. Spelunker warns you when a ghost is approaching by playing the Mysterioso Pizzicato (I'm really glad I learned what that that tune's called) but that's the only favour you get - the ghosts appear randomly as you play, they kill you with a touch, they can float through solid obstacles and the only way to defeat them is to, erm, do whatever the spelunker is doing to them in the GIF above, and even doing that will reduce your lifespan.
You see, not only is the spelunker more fragile than a politician's promise but he'll eventually die even if you just have him stand still in a safe spot, because he's dependant on a limited supply of a life-giving something that gradually ticks down over time. If you run out, you lose a life. You can see the gauge for it at the bottom of the screen. I called it a "something" because I've seen two differing accounts of what it's supposed to be. One explanation is that it's the spelunker's air supply, the other that it's a supply of (possibly nuclear) energy. I personally lean towards the "energy" theory. Sure, it makes sense that you'd die if you run out of air, but the items you collect to replenish your supply are glowing ringed rods that look way more like an atomic power source than an air canister and the real clincher is how you destroy the ghosts. Pressing space while the ghosts are fairly close to the player makes them disintegrate at the cost of some of your "energy" bar, and I refuse to believe that blowing a puff of air at a ghost is enough to banish it from the mortal realm. No, it's definitely a flashlight of some kind and the spelunker has to regularly pick up fresh batteries along the way.
The only other traditional enemy in the game are the giant albino bats that hover around certain areas of the game world, usually areas where having a giant albino bat constantly defacating on your head - their poop is fatal to the touch, naturally - makes progressing much more difficult. Thanks, giant albino bats. The spelunker can momentarily halt their remorseless onslaught of shit by launching one of the flares you can collect throughout the game near them, the sudden illumination of the usually-dark cave presumably stunning them thanks to the sense of deep shame that overcomes them once they can see the terrible effects of their weaponized arseholes.
Never mind the ghosts and the bats, however. The spelunker's greatest and most deadly foe is gravity, and if he falls down a drop longer than his own body height he is immediately killed. I do mean immediately, too, and Spelunker doesn't even give the player the minor satisfaction of seeing their character slam into the floor: once he's fallen the deadly distance, the spelunker simply disintegrates in mid-air like the seeds of a dandelion clock. Yes, that's it, it explains his spherical shape and his sheer unsuitability for existence in a corporeal universe - the spelunker is actually the seed-head of a dandelion. It's a good job I don't play videogames as a way to experience different worlds where I am not powerless and feeble, isn't it? It is a rare occasion indeed when I play a videogame where I myself would unequivocally fare better than the main character in the same situation, but that's Spelunker for you.
So you can't fall more than the slightest distance, but that's okay: this is a platform game, I shouldn't be falling down holes anyway. The thing that really provided the repeated blows to my metaphorical gaming testicles was the spelunker's complete lack of momentum, especially when walking off of platforms and ledges. As soon as he steps off into the void, all forward motion is cancelled and the spelunker falls straight down. This is different to pretty much every other videogame I have ever played, where you have some horizontal movement when you walk off a platform, and I just could not wrap my head around the notion of Spelunker's uncontrollable death-plunges. This lack of momentum probably accounted for more of my in-game deaths than any other factor, especially when traversing these elevators - every time, every god damned time, the subconscious part of my brain that has been moulded by decades of videogames that follow the same rules said "you can just walk over to the other side, your momentum will carry you across and you'll drop down onto the opposite platform!" but no, Spelunker doesn't work that way and I lost more lives falling into the elevators' central gap than I would like to admit.
This mine cart section was much more pleasant. Move your cart along the track, timing your movements so that the jets of flame from the ceiling don't melt you head. It's smooth, it's simple and there's no way I can fall off an elevator while I'm doing it. So far I have painted a picture of Spelunker as a capricious and sadistic foe that craves the bitter tears of those who play it, and I think that's a fairly accurate representation. That said, the controls are actually pretty good (with one expection). They're consistent, that's the main thing. The spelunker's jumps are always the same height and distance, and he jumps when you press the button. If the controls were worse Spelunker would be nigh-unplayable, but as it is they're good enough to trick you into thinking "hey, maybe I could actually beat this game."
After a while spent carefully negotiating the caves, falling off elevators and accidentally blowing myself up with my own dynamite that I was using to demolish some otherwise-impassable mounds of pink dirt, I hit a transition screen. "Now Entering The Ropes," it says, and it is not kidding.
I count sixteen ropes in that screenshot alone. It's a cavalcade of ropes, an orgy of ropes, an amount of ropes not seen in one place since the Great Rodeo War of 1895. Ropes festoon the caves of Spelunker, and they work as you would expect - you can climb up and down them, and you can jump between them. You have to jump between them here, it's the only way to get to the other side, and that's a damn shame because the otherwise-decent control system falls apart here. You have to press left or right and jump at the exact same moment, otherwise the spelunker will just sidle off the edge of the rope and fall to his death. This means that jumping from one rope to another always feels like a gamble, and when you reach a section like this, where you must swing across many ropes in a row, the odds of you surviving get lower and lower with each successive leap. Then you mess it up and have to do it all again, always trying to remember that each jump leaves you slightly higher up on the next rope and if the spelunker bumps his head on the ceiling while he's jumping he will, you guessed it, fall to his death. So, to recap, Spelunker takes what should be the flowing, dynamic motion of swinging between ropes and turns in into a frustrating roulette where any sense of enjoyable movement is killed stone dead either by the finicky controls or having to move slightly down the rope before each jump. The ropes are the worst part of Spelunker, which is impressive considering it also contains randomly spawning, relentless instakill enemies who require the expenditure of your life-force to destroy. At least the ghosts are cute. The ropes are just bad.
Yet Spelunker still has something to recommend it. It straddles the line between "extremely difficult but ultimately fair" and "screw you for having the temerity to play this game" and while it does often fall onto the wrong side of that divide, when it gets it right it can be rather enjoyable. Precision-hopping through the pitfalls and venting geysers is entertaining thanks to a simply and mostly accurate control system, the miniature graphics are appealing in their simplicity and the game gives you just enough leeway to think that maybe if you stuck with it you'd be able to complete it, each new game seeing you get a tiny bit further than last time before you make an easily-avoidable error and lose your last life.
Spelunker doesn't half go out of it's way to alienate the player, though. For example, here are a pair of locked doors. The blue door requires a blue key to open, the green door a green key. The keys are scattered throughout the cave. That's all straightforward, and about as "videogame-y" as a videogame can be, but the first time I reached this door I didn't have a blue key and there was no way for me to go back and collect it. There is a chance that I was just being a dope and didn't spot a route to climb back up to the earlier areas, but given Spelunker's outright hostility to the player I don't think that's the case. I think it just let me reach a point where I could neither continue nor retrace my steps, leaving "waiting around until my energy runs out and I die" as my only course of action. If I was playing this on the original hardware I would have had access to a second option, but "smash the Atari 800 in with a cricket bat" isn't any more useful.
Going over this waterfall in a little barrel was fun, though. Much more fun than the bit directly above it that involved swinging through the ropes, negotiating the moving platforms, grabbing the key and then doing it all again to get back. I must have done it, because you need every single key to reach the end of the game, but I don't remember doing it. Maybe in ten years I'll visit a hypnotherapist who can reclaim these no-doubt traumatic repressed memories.
You know, when I started exploring this cave I really thought the spelunker was going to be the first person to have ever ventured into its depths, but the mine carts and convenient barrel prove that's not the case. I really wish he had been the first person down here, then I wouldn't be scrabbling around in the dirt for keys that the previous explorers left in locations chosen out of pure spite.
I am now entering the Shaft. No, I cannot dig it. All I can do is die, repeatedly.
One of the other big set-pieces in Spelunker is this geyser-powered lift, a mighty jet of water that propels a little raft up and down at regular intervals. It seems fun at first, but the more you have to use it the more you realise that it's a truly reprehensible piece of level design. In a game where your "health" is constantly draining away, having to stand around waiting for an elevator that's in no hurry to get to you can be teeth-grindingly frustrating. Then when you do manage to get on the lift, a ghost spawns nearby. Your ghost-destroying flashlight / air jet only works when you're standing on solid ground. The raft does not count as solid ground, so you have to jump off the long-awaited elevator, deal with the ghost and then wait for it to come back so you can climb aboard again. There are also those two blue doors halfway up the shaft. You get one chance to use them, turning them into a bridge that lets you cross to the other side... until the geyser moves past the bridge, removing it from the game and leaving your without the keys required to try again. It's a good job Spelunker had already tenderised me somewhat by this point with it's unflinching dedication to my digital suffering, otherwise the geyser would have prompted some angry cursing rather than the exhausted sighing (and cheating, I cheated a bit) that saw me through it.
I have found a large and extremely pink ziggurat. Holy cow that ziggurat is pink as hell, is what I imagine a casual onlooker would say. Why is it so pink? Was it raised as a tribute to ham? A noble cause indeed, but perhaps unlikely given that meat is rarely quite that pink. Maybe I'm ascribing intention and form to an object that possesses neither, and this is in fact nothing but a gargantuan mound of chewed bubblegum. Go, spelunker, climb atop this glistening pile of saliva-drenched glory! Onward, to wherever the hell it is you're going! Let neither gravity nor ghosts nor masticated gum stand in your way!
Now this is more like it, I'm definitely ready to enter some treasure.
Hang on, this isn't treasure. This isn't treasure at all. This is yet more death, a thousand mis-judged jumps between moving platforms stretched out before me and not so much as a gold dubloon in sight. Oh well, I've come too far to stop now. I told you about all the cheating I'm doing at this point, right? Good, just checking. Wouldn't want you thinking I had any idea what I was doing.
At long last, the spelunker reaches his goal - another extremely pink ziggurat, this one with a box on top of it. He's so excited to see it that he suddenly gains the ability to smash his way through the solid rock around him in order to reach it. Had that skill in your locker the whole time, did you, pal? That might have been helpful, oh, I dunno, during the rest of the bloody game. No, I'm not angry. I can't be too angry at you, you waddling spook magnet. I can't even shout at you, because you'd just die.
Well, maybe not "skillful" and "brave" so much as "stubborn" and "pig-headed," but I got there in the end. I am apparently only one of the people to reach this fabulous treasure - a treasure so fabulous that the player never gets to see it, I assume because it's so awe-inspiring that it will stop your very heart in your chest - so I'm not holding out much hope that there'll be anything remaining but the dregs. It's going to be like a box of chocolates with only toffee pennies and empty wrappers left in there, isn't it?
For one horrible moment I thought the game was going to make me climb all the way back out of the cave while carrying a sack of loot, but thankfully that's not the case and Spelunker really is over.
I didn't have much fun playing Spelunker, but I don't think you're supposed to have fun with it. You're supposed to beat it, beat it into submission through memorisation and your own personal suffering. Can I recommend it? Yes, but only if you're the kind of person who really likes that kind of thing. It has a certain appealing precision about it, rope jumping notwithstanding. Removing the always-decreasing energy bar, or changing it to only power the ghost-killing torch, would have gone a long way towards making Spelunker more enjoyable, I can tell you that much. It's an interesting relic of a time when computer games held their players in utter contempt, but in 2015 it's just not that much fun. If you're after a cave exploration game that will kill for making slight mistakes, I would recommend Spelunky over this, and if that doesn't quite provide the level of challenge you're looking for then, erm, trying playing it with your feet or something? Look, why do I have to come up with all the ideas?
And that's Spelunker. Next time I'll be trying a more soothing activity, like picking up shattered glass using only the clenching of my bare buttcheeks.