Derek Yu made the perfect video game in 2008. He’s had to live with it ever since.
The first has arrived Spelunky, a pixelated PC adventure released for free on a video game forum for friends and colleagues. It puts you in the shoes of a tiny Indiana Jones-type explorer who abseils through a series of cavernous stages cluttered with traps, baddies, and dangerous falls, using little more than bombs, ropes, and whatever the casual shopkeeper sells him. A touch of math and creativity procedurally generated the game’s stages, which is an elegant way of saying there aren̵
Yu expanded perfection in 2012 with the help of a small team, creating Spelunky HD, a prettier overhaul and expansion of the original game; was released on Xbox 360 and possibly elsewhere. Yu and the team have added multiplayer, along with a daily online leaderboard. Released alongside the rise of live video game streaming, the HD edition found a fiercely dedicated fandom of video producers, mining it in search of secrets. Then came the toys, the T-shirts, and countless reviews of servility, including mine.
Yu published Spelunky the book in 2016, which explains how he made the “perfect game” in an autobiography-slash-design-document. It felt like a closure.
It’s not like Yu was unproductive for the next 12 years Spelunky debuted. He co-designed a card game and gradually developed something like a video game mixtape. He has become a husband, a father and something of an elderly statesman in the world of indie video games, his work has inspired countless other games, books and podcasts. But for better or for worse, he had created Spelunky, and most of us had a question for him, even though we were too afraid to ask it out loud: “What’s next?”
The answer, as you know by now, is Spelunky 2, which launches on September 15 on PlayStation 4 and will arrive on Windows PC at the end of the month. You’ve been patient with my board, so I’ll tell you above: I love this game. If you are a fan of the original, I expect you will fall in love too.
But how the hell do you go about creating a sequel to a perfect game? My best answer, 20 hours in depth, is that you don’t.
Spelunky may never be finished
Spelunky 2 it’s not a sequel or, at least, I wouldn’t use that term. It’s something different, like so many modern games that blur the lines between remastering, rebooting, remaking and reimagining. Guarantees new words.
Spelunky 2The early stages resemble the original Spelunky, just a little prettier. Imagine someone using tracing paper to recreate a favorite painting, adding their own flourishes and revisions. Once again, you begin in a cave filled with spiders, skeletons, bats and golden idols that encourage you to set to unleash their lethal traps. Except now, things are very different.
Yellow lizards roll across the room like that big ball chasing Indy, and agitated moles cut through the ground like tremors, you know, Tremors. Pass over a dirt surface containing a pack of moles and the sharp-toothed creatures pop up for a bite, transforming the familiar terrain into something reminiscent of “the floor is lava”, with our hero jumping from one floating platform to another.
The early stages (and, over time, the whole game) feel familiar but more lethal, like Yu’s redesign Spelunky specifically to punish those of us who had become complacent after eight years of speedrun, used to smashing them like Bill Murray jumping into the back half of the groundhog day. Your muscle memory is armed against you.
Like its predecessor, Spelunky 2 it functions like a miniature clockwork universe, with every creature, trap, and object serving a purpose and every action on screen provokes an appropriate reaction. For newcomers, it is daunting and difficult. This is not a game you beat on the first try. Or your penny.
The goal of Spelunky however it is not beating the game. The goal is to understand his world. Find out how to use everything in the room and, in turn, how to survive. Each session ideally lasts a little longer than the last. Five minutes. Six minutes. Then 15 minutes. Progress, die, lose every upgrade and item, then start over with nothing but what you’ve learned along the way. An inspired Twitter follower recently showed me his technique for documenting success, by inserting the stage where he died in a spreadsheet and creating a chart. Slowly, the line tends upward.
The biggest advantage in Spelunky it is sight: you are always able to see threats above and below you. So now, Yu & co. take away this advantage. For this go-round, the team found a way to hide entire swaths of each stage. In all levels, you will now find doors, many of them locked, which lead to additional treasures, enemies, traps and secrets so vast that they become completely new levels.
The decision to superimpose new environments on top of each other is subtle, one plan hides the dangers lurking inside another. But it works, and I think that’s why Spelunky 2 is at the center of the pleasure of video games: giving and taking power. A good game makes us feel like a god, but a great the game reminds us that we are human.
I was skeptical of the caves inside the caves when I saw them in the first trailer of Spelunky 2. They looked too complicated and annoying, adding too much to a series known for its simplicity and visual efficiency. But I have come to love them and how they invite me to delve into the game, consciously stopping my progress, consciously risking everything for nothing but a discovery. And the stages within the stages are a literalized metaphor of Yu’s design with each entry in Spelunky’s canon, layering and layering and layering and layering.
With each version – the original freeware, Spelunky HD, Spelunky 2 – you come across all familiar things, now slightly different or upside down. Here is the shopkeeper with all the usual goods for sale. More bombs and other ropes. The compass that points you to the end of each level and the pickaxe that helps you create a shortcut.
But now, depending on what’s in stock, you can also purchase a handful of new items, like the Power Pack, which turns your whip into a flaming whip and your bombs into larger bombs. Or, the shopkeeper is replaced by a woman who sells tickets to a challenge room, full of traps and cash. Or neither is in the level. Instead, you find The Walrus Lady enticing you to roll the dice to win a prize protected by a sizzling beam of purple plasma.
All of these additions to Spelunky provide new ways to whiz through the world, bringing their own advantages and problems. An example: during the game you can find mounts, like a demon dog that breathes fire and a turkey that jumps twice and floats safely on the ground.
I’m a fan of the turkey, which heads your enemies once it’s been tamed. The turkey comes with options. You can return the turkey to its owner to receive a key to one of the aforementioned locked doors; you can ride the turkey to another stage; or you can burn the turkey with a flaming whisk, cooking it in a Thanksgiving-style dish that rewards you with some health. A fair warning, though: if you roast the turkey in front of the owner of said turkey, he will kill you immediately. Understandably so!
The more you go on Spelunky 2, the more its connection with its predecessors deforms into something strange. You’ll find two exits at the end of the preliminary caves, one leading to a familiar jungle and another to a lava-soaked cliff. Later, a familiar but less demanding boss reappears, plus a silly joke. Spelunky They famously contained secret levels that led to a secret boss, and they show up again, but family totems have new purposes and take you in surreal new directions.
I confess that, for these reasons, I did not beat Spelunky 2. I have reached the main “final” boss and I know how to defeat them. I can’t help but get distracted by all the other directions I can go in. If I see a mysterious door or grab an unknown object, if I run into a useful ally or risky bonus challenge, I’ll risk it all. Partly because I want to discover this world and partly because I don’t want to finish this game.
I know the game doesn’t end when it “ends”. I can play competitive multiplayer, which is chaos made flesh. And I’m completely impressed with the online co-op, which, unlike the previous one Spelunky, makes the game more manageable, especially for beginners. But the very act of discovery and completion? It only comes once.
I called Spelunky the game of the 2010s in an essay I wrote last year. “Spelunky it’s the most that video games have reached perfection in this decade – or any decade, “I said then.” Its flaws and bugs are no problem; they are brushstrokes, proof that this little slice of the divine was actually made by humans. “
To expand on this, Yu’s approach to Spelunky as a living project reminds me of J.M.W. Turner, a provocateur of the English Romantic painters. Turner famously hung his paintings at competitions, then kept editing and revising the work in the midst of public viewing. Already the beautiful landscapes have somehow become even more vibrant and surprising. Days later, he could return to a masterpiece and discover yet another piece of depth with a few additional strokes.
You know when you finish a movie, book or game you love and would like to see it again for the first time? This is how it feels to play Spelunky 2. I can play my favorite game again for the first time.
This is not a sequel. It is yet another opportunity to interpret Spelunky with new eyes; everything is just a little different, another trait that proves that perfection is imperfect. Even the best can be better.
Spelunky 2 will be released on September 15th on PlayStation 4 and on September 29th on Windows PC. The game was played on PC using a download code provided by Mossmouth. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find Learn more about Polygon’s ethics policy here.