Spelunky features a robust leveling and XP system, but it exists only in your heart
You don’t play Spelunky as much as you study it. That doesn’t sound like fun, and the game’s simple graphics hide its depth of game play, but there are few games as satisfying to play once you begin to realize how all the systems work. Spelunky is a roguelike, although that word can be slightly controversial. Spelunky is also, above all, fair.
You don’t gain levels in Spelunky. You don’t bring anything from the last round into the next one except the skills and knowledge you’ve gained from exploring the depths. Everything can be used to your advantage, and if you don’t learn how the different weapons, enemies, and area effects all interconnect? You’re going to die.
It all works together
You’re not a character taking part in a story, you’re a cog in a vast system. The sooner you understand how to move so that system doesn’t turn against you, the quicker you’ll learn how to increase your score and progress into the deep.
“Spelunky's dazzling brilliance, which emerges very quickly once you start bouncing around inside its walls, stems from what Gunpoint developer Tom Francis calls ‘universal systems’ - game mechanics that apply to absolutely everything to which they logically should, with no exceptions,” the Eurogamer review states. “You can pick up and throw a stone, so you can also pick up and throw a corpse. Grey stone statues fire arrows at you when you wander in front of them, so they also fire arrows when an enemy hops in front of them, helpfully killing the enemy.”
The design of Spelunky shows just how much thought went into all these systems, with all their density and fun twists. Let’s take a look at the ghosts, the floating enemies that can’t be killed, and will chase you around the level. You can take their picture with a camera to stun them for a time, but if the ghosts pass through jewels in the level, those jewels will turn into diamonds, which are worth many more points.
So you can run from the ghosts, or you can stun them for a bit, or you can kite them around the level and use them to increase your score. As your confidence goes up, your ability to manipulate the ghosts to your advantage goes up. The game grows with you, and it doesn’t have to resort to explicit carrots or sticks in order to hook the player. Discovering these tricks to the rules, and then learning how to use them, and then mastering them is a process that takes place internally.
You may think that the teleporter just zips around the level randomly, but there is a method to your movement. From the wiki:
Teleporters are held in the hands and have infinite usage. Pressing the action button while carrying one will cause you to teleport between 4 and 8 tiles horizontally in the direction that you are looking, or within 3 tiles vertically if you are looking up. You can teleport downwards by pressing the button while holding down in mid-air.
If the destination tile is a solid block, the teleporter tries to find an empty space up to 3 tiles above the selected location - If there is no viable space, the teleporter will warp you into a solid block and you will be killed.
It gets better: You can use the teleporter to occupy the same space as most enemies, killing them instantly. You can also use the teleporter to kill shopkeepers without causing them to go mad, making it a safe way to steal their goods. When you begin, the teleporter will be a risky way to get out of bad situations. As you master the game, it can become an almost aimable weapon.
The PC version of the game introduces daily challenges, which add another addictive wrinkle to the game. While the levels are procedurally generated in the standard game, the daily challenge consists of a single level that everyone will play. You get one shot at the map; your score when you die is the score you put on the board. There is no way to save. No way to see what's coming. It's fair. You can either do it well or you can't.
This is why Spelunky is so special, and so beloved. It gets rid of most of the external signifiers of skill and rewards for the time spent playing, instead forcing you to simply learn and get better. The motivation comes from the pure fun of the game, and the joy in learning how to turn the maps inside out, using all the rules and possibilities of play to your favor. Few games are as well designed or as perfectly executed.
It's not for everyone, but everyone should at least try it. You'll never get to Prestige your account in Spelunky, but that's part of the point. The true rewards come from within, not without.
If I found a hidden idol that let me change anything I wanted about the game, I would put it back and walk the other way.