Veni, vidi, whippi – thoughts on Spelunky strategy

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Okay, so now that I have completed* Spelunky, I obviously feel like I’m in a position to dole out advice on how to do it. This isn’t basic tips or do’s and don’ts like Tom Francis’ blog post from a few years back but more of a general attitude with which to approach the gameplay.

Spelunky – as I’ve said before – is a complex game. Each playthrough presents the player with a huge amount of tiny decisions from the mundane – how to kill the bat heading towards me? – to the strategic – what is my goal for this level? Cash-in-hand? The damsel? Ghost mining? Some specific achievement? Misc.? Complex games tend to develop a body of thoughts on strategy. So the question is: Is abstract strategy applicable to a game like Spelunky or is success just a matter of pure muscle memory?

Know your goal

This should really read: Know your priorities. Because most players will have more than one goal in mind and new opportunities present themselves. A simple example:Suppose you’re saving up for the Ankh in the first 5-6 levels. But just when you hit 15,000 you get an offer of a shotgun. Do you stick to your saving or do you go for the gun? A good strategy – whether that tells you to buy or to save – should avoid  impulse decisions or waffling. The former might ruin an otherwise decent shot at achieving your goal, the latter will cost you precious seconds. Knowing that goal should also allow you to make hard decisions when faced with time constraints. In a recent game I knew I couldn’t accomplish everything that I wanted (get the damsel to the finish, find the key-and-chest, take the mattock with me) and I was ill prepared to face the ghost. Caring more about completion than about points or golden cities I focused on escorting the damsel and making off with the pickaxe, deliberately banning all thoughts of the Udjat Eye.

Resist greed

Even when you have clearcut priorities, you will run into temptation. In an otherwise cleared level you’ll suddenly spot some gold. Or a crate on the other side of that tiki trap. Or a tiki man with a boomerang that rightly belongs to you. Resist the temptation. These things will kill you. When you’re done, leave in an orderly fashion.

When I had gained some proficiency in the game (say around 100 hours in?), I started exploring ghost mining, figuring that this was the missing ingredient in my attempts to conquer the game. If I could just make enough dough to buy everything, then victory beckoned. I did make a lot of dough. I also died a lot a lot. What I ended up with was what I call “poor man’s ghost mining”. The rules are simple: 1) If you are to engage in ghost mining, you have to have a plan and 2) it’s restricted to the lowest (sometimes the two lowest if you can jump from one to the other) floors and mostly to the mines and 3) you play it safe – if you’ve miscalculated a route you use whatever resources you have rather than courting death by going cheap. A plan means that you can run from end to end of the floor and at either end you know of a way to get around the ghost. And by restricting it to the lower floors, you avoid throwing ropes away on some harebrained scheme to get filthy rich. On average you’ll probably only make around one diamond per level but you’ll make it out alive more often than not. And the added income should still just push you into the jetpack set.

Establish explicit rules of thumb

Any child chess player knows the saying, “A knight on the rim is dim”. It’s not a commandment, it’s a rule of thumb. It helps narrow the field of possibilities when faced with overwhelming complexity. Sometimes placing a knight on the rim is the best of bad options but as a general rule, avoid it. There are tons of unwritten Spelunky rules, most of which do not need to be stated (“When confronted with an oncoming bat, find a high spot with room to jump before whipping”) but those are mostly tactical that do not have any implications beyond the here and now.

I think you need rules when the implications stretch into the future. A knight on the rim might achieve some immediate objective – a check, a threat – but in the long run it’s a waste of the knight’s potential. Spelunky rules can be rules of economy (e.g. “Always keep at least two bombs and two ropes for emergencies”,”Only investigate urns that are in your direct path”), rules of caution (e.g. when and where to push down to look ahead), player specific preferences (e.g. disregarding giant spiders as a source of jewels because you don’t want glue on your bombs) or specific tactics where there are more than one way to do things (e.g. do you throw urns or whip them? Do your pick up the rock or the arrow) The open question is whether hard and fast rules actually help you in such circumstances. Isn’t it better to just do what seems best in the light of the circumstances? Possibly but I don’t think so. Establishing rules makes playing easier on the mind. Spelunky can overwhelm the player with tons of decisions. Each one requires attention and thought that could have gone into other matters, like awareness of your surroundings and the dangers and opportunities it presents. A rule is a default setting – “This is how I deal with this”. It can be overwritten but then and only then will you have to think about it. As to the specific rules, experiment but do so systematically. Experimenting at random is no experiment at all.

Don’t give up, don’t quit

My name is Mads and I am a quitter. They say the first step on the path to change is awareness. So there, I’ve said it. When things go awry quickly, I hit the escape button and choose ‘End adventure’. Or just find a nice pair of spikes and jump on them. And the I start over. Slightly more frustrated, slightly less forgiving of my own shortcomings. It doesn’t take an analyst to see that this can turn into a nasty spiral. So after reading Christian Donlan’s piece on how his playing of Spelunky had prepared him for the challenges of multiple sclerosis, I felt like a petulant child for giving up so easily. I still quit a lot (it’s horrifying how many exceptions I can invent to that hard and fast rule) but the idea that you don’t quit just because you’re a little below optimal health saved the run that ended in succes.

This is my advice on how to stay alive longer in Spelunky. As for how to defeat Olmec when you get there you’re on your own. I just lucked out and came with a jetpack and almost 30 bombs and still almost f***ed up. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a rendez-vous with a certain ‘Yama’ fellow. See you in another 150 hours.

  • Yeah, I know about the Hell level, and the city of gold and speed running and the solo eggplant run. But what else should I call it when I get to the part where the credits roll?

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