Originally released in 1983 for Atari's 8-bit family of computers, Spelunker stars a frail, suspender-clad miner whose only goal in life is to reach the bottom of a colossal cave and the incredible treasure within. Complicating this task are the natural elements of the cave, the murderous creatures it contains and of course, the hero's uncanny ability to drop dead when met with even the slightest of challenges.
Spelunker was originally developed in 1983 by Micro Graphic Image, which largely consisted of former employees of Games By Apollo, an early third-party developer for the Atari 2600, as well as one of the first software companies to declare bankruptcy in the North American video game crash of '83. One of these employees was Tim Martin, whose name is attached to every version of Spelunker, including the 2009 sequel, Spelunker HD.
At the time, it was fairly common practice to have a developer's name attached to the title itself, à la Sid Meier or Will Wright. While Robert Barber and Cash Foley are credited as co-creating Spelunker, it was decided that Tim would receive top billing as he had developed the "game logic" and had come up with the original idea. The developers at MicroGraphic Image were confident that Spelunker would be the first of many games to come so eventually they'd all have their chance to place their name at the front of a game.
Unfortunately, Spelunker was released for Atari 8-bit in 1983 while the gaming recession was in full swing. After the initial release, Micro Graphic Image turned publication of Spelunker over to Broderbund who then went on to produce the Commodore 64 version of the title, as well as license it out to IREM who created the NES and arcade versions. While Micro Graphic Image never went bankrupt, they ceased operations in 1984.
In Spelunker, the hero begins by entering the cave from the very top, with his goal to reach the treasure at the bottom of the massive cavern by traversing over obstacles, climbing ropes, utilizing mine carts, elevators and more. In order to reach his goal, the hero must collect items to replenish his constantly depleting air supply, bombs to clear rocks from the path, keys to open locked doors and other power-ups to aid his quest.
Complicating this task is the notion that seemingly everything in the cave can and will kill the hero at a moment's notice, including himself. Starting with the cave itself, drops of water, uneven terrain, breakaway ledges, steam vents, sharp rocks, pillars of fire and more all threaten the hero.
There are also a few creatures found within the cave that threaten the hero's life. The most common enemy are bats that flutter in pre-set patterns and drop deadly (at least to our Spelunker) guano on the player, which can be avoided with carefully timed movements. Snakes are also fairly common and move along a pre-determined path and are the easiest enemies to deal with.
The most deadly of all the creatures, however, are the ghosts that inhabit the cave and are signalled to the player with a musical theme that plays should one be in the area. The hero is armed with a "flash gun" that can be used to expel the ghosts, but there are a few caveats to this. First, the player must have a flash gun item in stock, though this is a very common item. The ghost must also be visible on the screen when using the flash gun and in order to use it in the first place, the hero must be standing perfectly still, making him vulnerable to other elements of the cave, not to mention the draining of his oxygen bar.
Our Frail Hero
The most memorable element of Spelunker is also the most frustrating, as the hero is famous for his complete inability to sustain any sort of punishment whatsoever, whether perceived or not. Here are a few examples of some of the ways the player can doom the hero of Spelunker.
- Fall farther than the height of his jump
- Be thrust higher than the height of his jump by uneven surfaces
- Touch any of the enemies found in the cave (a given)
- Get hit by bat poop
- Get hit by a drop of water
- Stand less than a half-screen away from a placed bomb
- Touch a pointy rock
Making matters worse is the way the game deals with player death. While still playing the death medley, the game tends to place the hero in his last known place of safety with no warning and full control, making very rapid deaths a common occurrence for new players.
Ropes are prevalent throughout the cave and represent one of the biggest hazards found in Spelunker. In the NES and MSX versions, when the hero is holding on to a rope, the player must press in the direction they want him to jump prior to actually pressing the jump button. This causes the hero to actually shimmy along the rope before jumping, and can cause him to fall off resulting in a death.
Another contributing factor to the difficulty of Spelunker is that the overall level design does not seem to actually take the hero's shortcomings into consideration. There are many situations in the game that require pinpoint precision or else, naturally, the hero dies.
Rebirth through Nostalgia
In recent years, a totally inexplicable wave of nostalgia for this unfairly difficult platformer has swept through a niche population of Japanese gamers, though the movement continued to gain more mainstream acceptance through the continuing efforts of the most notable licensee of the Spelunker franchise, IREM.
Spelunker made its Japanese debut in December 1985 for the Nintendo Famicom where it is perceived to have sold fairly well, but was also met with a significant backlash. Many players were dismayed at the insane difficulty of the title and either returned or traded it in to used game shops. Over the years, the Famicom version of Spelunker gained a reputation in Japan as something of a mascot of used game bins, as its not uncommon to find dozens of copies of the game at used game shops throughout Japan. This distinction led to many gamers of its era to look back pseudo-fondly on the time they received Spelunker as a child and were utterly destroyed by it.
Spelunker nostalgia is most common in Japanese Internet culture, where the hero can be found starring in videos such as the popular " Michael Quest III" flash animation, fan art on the popular 2ch forum, music recitals, cosplay and of course, countless videos found on Nico Video, the "YouTube of Japan."
Back in Demand
At TGS 2008, IREM announced an HD update to Spelunker called Minna de Spelunker to be released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3 via the PlayStation Network. While it's commonly referred to as a "remake," that is not technically accurate, as Spelunker HD, as the game is called in English-speaking territories, does not contain any of the levels found in any of the original game. Instead, it features a "retro" mode that features the classic graphics of the NES version of the title, only with whole new levels and gameplay elements, including online co-op play.
Since the success of Spelunker HD, the nostalgia has only grown stronger; From Software is using a 3-D version of the game's fragile hero as one of the pre-designed templates for the customizable hero in their upcoming action-RPG, 3D Dot Game Heroes.