The Ghost Buster Down Under
A Spelunker is a somewhat outdated term for a person who explores caves. In this game, you not only explore caves but also raid treasure, apparently left deep underground by a lost South American civilization. It's an intriguing setup that is carried out superbly.
Spelunker was originally developed for the Atari 400/800 in 1983 by the three founders of a short-lived company called MicroGraphicImage: Tim Martin, Robert Barber, and Cash Foley. Tim conceived of the game and coded the game logic, Robert Barber designed the levels and graphics, and Cash Foley coded the graphics engine and level editor. In true rock-star mentality, the company wanted a "name" attached to the game. Spelunker was Tim's original idea so the three made a strategic decision to put Timís name out front, convinced this was the first of many games and they would all have their turn.
In 1984, MicroGraphicImage was already faltering and they turned publication over to Broderbund. The same year, Cash Foley made a direct port to the Commodore 64. He did not take advantage of the superior graphics and sound of the C64, which explains why the C64 colour palette, sprites and sound are very Atari-like.
In Europe, Ariolasoft bought the distribution rights. Then in 1985, Japanese company Irem made NES and arcade versions of the game. Over the years, the game has developed a reputation for being wickedly difficult but fun. The C64 and Atari versions are a little more forgiving than the NES, since the Spelunker can fall the height of his body without dying.
The beautiful title music sets the mysterious atmosphere of the game. You initially descend by a cable elevator, which acts as your home base as you descend deeper. Finally it takes you to the bottom of the first level, where you must say goodbye to the elevator for the rest of the game. There are six levels in total: Elevator, Ropes, Falls, Shaft, Pyramid, and Treasure. Each level is a continuously scrolling area that you can explore at your leisure and backtrack as much as you want. The game features an amazingly smooth scrolling algorithm and there's not a twitch or slowdown anywhere.
The game play is very refined. It's a perfect balance of difficulty, tension, and ease of control. Donít be surprised if you find yourself dying frequently early on, as the game requires you to be very precise. The style is probably most similar to Pitfall II: Lost Caverns which was released a year after this game. Whereas Pitfall II takes the game Pitfall and adds multilevel scrolling, Spelunker looks like it takes Miner 2049'er and adds continuous scrolling in all directions. But I find Spelunker to be more of a gamerís game compared to Pitfall II. It's not as repetitive or confusing as Pitfall II and it contains more diverse game play.
When exploring the great unknown you expect to find great things, and this game delivers. The caverns are not at all repetitive, and you are always finding new things to use and strange natural underground phenomenon. The rough, uneven, almost random floor makes jumps more challenging since obstacle height changes, and you need to space your jump for each situation.
Other than various treasures, there are objects you can use: flares, dynamite, air tanks, and keys. The keys are occasionally required to pass through doors that block your progress, but mainly you are just trying to get further into the caves. There are also pick-axes scattered everywhere. I suspect these were once part of the game play to allow you to bust through walls, but they don't appear functional and merely count as treasure. There are also a few one-time objects, such as a rope gun you find later in the game.
Tension is maintained by a few things. First, your air supply is constantly running down. If you run out of air, you are obviously dead, so you need to keep finding new air tanks. Even more frightening, ghosts appear randomly. You'll sense his presence before he appears by the "scary ghost music" theme that plays while he's around. Soon he floats in from one of four corners of the screen. You can run away but he keeps pursuing you. To get rid of him, hit the spacebar to emit a ghost busting spray of air. This uses up some of your air supply, and sometimes when you are really low on air he appears and can really mess you up. You have to wait for him to drift in close enough to disintegrate him, or you can decide to try to get to some other area and hopefully get there by the time he is close enough. Other times he appears when you are operating the elevator or on ropes, or near obstacles, which creates a tricky situation. Since your fan takes a few moments to disintegrate him, it can be very close call. The ghost adds a wonderful dynamic to the game.
There are also bats around to harass you. These bats drop acidic guano on you, so while they are hovering around it is difficult to get past them, especially while jumping from one platform to another. Luckily you can launch flares to temporarily scare the bats away by pressing F.
Occasionally large rocks block your path. To get past these you need to find some dynamite to blow them out of your way. Press D to plant the stick, but be sure to run far away otherwise the explosion will also take you out.
This game is fun because your character is such a wimp. Apparently the Spelunker has glass legs, because he can only fall about the equivalent of six feet (his scale) before dying. That doesn't leave much room for error. This leads to some frustrating moments when you just can't place a jump perfectly and keep dying at the same place. However, this exacting game play is all part of the Spelunker experience. Most of the time there is enough leeway for jumps, thankfully. One inconsistency that had me puzzled was that at the end of first level he can suddenly survive a ten foot drop, leading me to believe I came to a dead end. For the longest time I didn't understand it was a leap of faith.
Many games use up all their tricks in the first level or two, but not this one. There are new challenges and things to see the further you go. The level designer arranged the various obstacles in clever ways throughout the game. The wavy ground is not much of an obstacle at the start of the game, but by combining it with other obstacles he creates new challenges, like making the player hop between wavy platforms, or running under bats over wavy ground. There are also various one-time puzzles later in the game, such as mines or bridges. These are a lot of fun and add to the diversity of the game. Each level is a steady advancement in difficulty, and by the time you get to the deepest depths the ghosts are appearing more frequently, which further adds to the difficulty.
The game takes a long time to complete, and there is no save state or password system to access later levels. Because of this, the game allows you to amass many free lives. The sparkle object delivers a random object, which is sometimes a free life. You can also get free lives at certain score intervals. A pass-code system would be nice, because without it, not many people will end up seeing all the wonderful levels deeper down in the caves.
My only real complaint is with the graphics. This is obviously an Atari port, because there are only four colours: brown, purple, blue and black (plus the deadly pink color). It's a pity, because the Commodore 64 could have been much more graphically impressive. The cartoon look of the Spelunker clashes horribly with the serious tone of the intro music. Perhaps they should have gone with Impossible Mission style realism over the tubby Spelunker. If they went with a realistic, well animated player sprite, this game might have been more popular than it was. The fat round guy makes the game a bit of a joke.
The beauty of this game is that it gives you lots of time to explore. Sure your air supply runs out if you don't refill it occasionally, but it isn't so hurried that you don't have time to stop and think. The tension doesn't come from feeling overwhelmed, but rather from not wanting to make a false move after getting so far into the caverns. I hated unplayable C64 games where the screen was crowded with enemies coming at you at once with no time to catch your breath. This game lets you take in the atmosphere, think about your next move, and enjoy yourself while still requiring skillful movements, thinking, and planning. And that's what Spelunking is supposed to be about.
Downloads: Music, Advert
|GRAPHICS - 5/10|
|Graphically, the game takes its cartoon artistic style from Miner 2049'er and other early eighties games. Even the main character has a big belly, like Bounty Bob. On the other hand, the caverns themselves have a rough look, and you won't find a smooth surface anywhere. It's not synthetic looking at all. |
|SOUND - 6/10|
|Title screen music only, but very excellent. It plays a nice excerpt from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. The game has no music when playing, only sounds which are typical early eighties arcade sounds. The bat sound can be annoying, but that's probably the point.|
|PLAYABILITY - 10/10|
|Very tight controls. Nice game mechanics. Great versatility in level design. It's a good game to spend a few days chipping away at.|
|OVERALL - 10/10|
|Spelunker is a dream game. Give it a chance and you will keep coming back until you reach the bottom of the caves and receive the secret message. How can it get 10/10 when the graphics and sound are so low? It just did! It's one of the best platformers of all time, and compares well to Giana Sisters, Super Mario Brothers, and Jumpman. This is a very underrated game.|