Five years ago, if you had asked me, I would have laid good money that this game–a treasure of the ancient past about seeking a treasure from the ancient past–was long forgotten. That was before Irem arranged for the NES version of the game to appear on the Wii Virtual Console, and created Spelunker HD for the PS3. Neither of those are the Commodore 64 version, because they’re based on the inferior NES port, but they’re enough to show how long a good game can live.
Spelunker, a Brøderbund release (completely coincidental to The Guardian Legend I posted about last time), was one of the earliest games I played on my Commodore 64, which is the version I’ll speak of here. It puts you in the role of–you guessed it–a Spelunker, making your way through an extremely large series of caves in search of hidden treasure from who-knows-when. Along the way, you’ll need to deal with the sort of dangers that real spelunkers face, such as instantly deadly bat guano, ghosts and dropping more than five feet from any surface. Don’t be fooled by the cover art from any version; you’ll be playing no fit and bold explorer, but instead a dumpy unfortunate with bones are made of crystal and whose ability to slip off any surface could make Groo look graceful.
This game is hard, make no mistake. Your movements require the kind of precision that would make many modern platformers look easy, and there’s almost no allowance for error. Virtually every jump that you slightly mistime will end in your death because if you fall more than about one body length for any reason, you lose a life. You don’t have forever to stand around figuring out how to make a sequence of jumps either, because, just like a real explorer trapped in a cave larger than that seen in The Goonies, you’re constantly running out of air. Go figure. Air supply tanks are plentiful, but they don’t last long when picked up, so you must continuously move from one to the next. To make matters worse, ghosts occasionally appear. While you can blow them away using a fan-type device (if only someone had let Egon Spengler know it was so easy), doing so consumes even more oxygen.
There are either five or six levels–I can’t remember how many because it’s been so long since I finished the game (a feat I’m proud of)–but many players will never make it past the first due to this kind of difficulty. If you survive to the third stage, consider yourself accomplished. Beat the game, and that’s one to put on your gamer résumé.
So what makes such a punishing game worth talking about? The atmosphere. No, not the literal atmosphere of the game, which must be something like 99% cyanide to kill you so quickly. The Commodore version of the game runs on a 320×200 resolution, sports 16 colors, has part of the display taken up by your score, the game’s title and a bar for the remaining air, and still manages to portray a large, immersive underground world. Each level (loaded from disk when you move from one to the next) is surprisingly large given the memory constraints of the machine at hand and the amount of things going on in each.
Curiosity about what you’ll find next (or at the end) constantly drives you forward. The puzzles, if they can even be called that, are incredibly simple; find dynamite, flares or keys and use them to overcome appropriate obstacles. Jumping and maneuvering around hazards takes real work and can send your blood pressure through the roof, but like the best of games, the challenge comes with a thrill of victory that’s reward enough in itself.
Spelunker is not for the faint of spirit, but it’s an experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Nearly 30 years later, many games can’t set the simple yet deep tone it provides. Check it out and see for yourself–just be sure to have some stress balls handy.