Why I Love: The brilliant clunkiness of Spelunker World

Spelunker World never stood a chance of standing out, and I'm willing to bet you had no idea it exists. That's just what happens when you're an obscure, free-to-play PS4 platformer being quietly released on the same day as Fallout 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Compared to those titans of triple-A gaming, Spelunker World appears to be a cruel joke, largely on the player. It's comparatively ugly, incredibly punishing, and built on a foundation of purposely primitive design. And yet, I find myself plunging hours into Spelunker's dark, treacherous depths when I really ought to be using my free time exploring the Commonwealth or raiding tundra-encased tombs. Either I must hate myself, or Spelunker World has tapped into some deep-rooted sense of 'hardcore' tenacity that few games can evoke from me. I'm pretty sure it's the latter.

At first glance, you might mistake this for a hackneyed Spelunky clone, unaware that Spelunker's legacy is a massive influence on Derek Yu's modern roguelike hit. In a sense, Spelunker World is like a playable piece of gaming history, calling back to a time-honored movement that absolutely fascinates me. That would be the pursuit of 'kusoge', the Japanese expression for 'crap games'. It's a similar concept to pop culture's appreciation for legendarily bad movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or The Room: finding value in games that are endearing for being so unbelievably terrible or unrelenting in their user-unfriendliness. The Spelunker we now know as the quintessential kusoge is actually a 1985 Famicom port of a simplistic Atari platformer that was seemingly made by one guy. All that is to say: this relatively unknown, American-made game found a cult following with Japanese gamers who both appreciate and revile its bizarre design choices, which make the game all but unplayable for the average person. I absolutely love that.

Spelunker World closely adheres to the core philosophy of the original Spelunker: make the player feel as frail as possible. It goes against everything you've grown accustomed to in platformers modeled after the smooth physics and forgiving, improvisation-friendly design of the Super Mario games. Instead, Spelunker opts for level layouts that are as simple as they are cruel, and controls so tight they're downright rigid. There's no inertia, so every jump you make had better be methodically plotted out, lest you miss your mark by a pixel. Death is instant and constant; your cave explorer will meet their end countless times to hidden pitfalls, the giant explosion radius of your own bombs, or the hailstorm of guano raining down from the bats overhead. There's a limited oxygen meter that's constantly ticking down, and is further depleted when you use your air gun to blow away tenacious ghosts or deathtrap-obfuscating fog. Pressing down on the D-pad won't let you crouch underneath deadly obstacles - it just makes your character look down at the floor. Most damnable of all, this is one of those platformers where fall damage will kill you. And in Spelunker's twisted version of reality, a fatal drop is about, oh, two feet off the ground.

This all adds up to an experience that often diverts your inner stream of consciousness into a cascade of increasingly creative profanities. Yet somehow, Spelunker World's presentation manages to soften the blow of every cheap death and personal failure, inviting you to laugh at the absurdity of it all instead of seethe from mounting frustration. Each of the myriad, deliberately laid-out levels is broken up into manageable chunks, full of discernible patterns and simple trial-and-error tests. Proceed with the right amount of caution, and you'll pre-emptively avoid the kinds of pitfalls that used to make a fool of you. The synth-filled soundtrack (which reminds me of Gunbound's catchy themes) seems like it'd get unbearably annoying really fast, but it's so chipper that I just find it charming. And the sparse, toy-like visuals have an appealing simplicity (along with officially sanctioned Lara Croft costumes, given that Spelunker World is also published by Square Enix).

Unlike other infamously difficult platformers like I Wanna Be The Guy or Syobon Action, which explicitly set out to kill you in ways you can't possibly see coming the first time, Spelunker World isn't out-and-out sadistic. It just sticks to the series' guns despite twenty years of improved game design, as though every game was still made to be as difficult and merciless as in the NES era. Playing Spelunker World is like a litmus test for your gaming tastes, gauging your patience, determination, and tolerance for purposely obtuse game design almost instantly. If you've got a PS4 and ten minutes to spare, I implore you to give it a try. It costs you nothing, and you might just learn a thing or two about yourself.