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#Redux: Spelunky Glory, Videogame Rituals, and Nifflas’ Miracle Run

#Redux: Spelunky Glory, Videogame Rituals, and Nifflas’ Miracle Run

This is the first post in a new series for the Die Gute Fabrik blog. Redux, from Game Designer and Co-Owner Douglas Wilson, takes some of his old game design posts from 2012, published on our former blog, and re-posts them here, sometimes with additional commentary. Some of these posts have been linked from various places, and so we wanted to save them from the abyss.

[This post was originally published on October 5, 2012]

Today, my roommate Nicklas – the renown Swedish indie developer better known as Nifflas – beat the secret “Hell” world in Spelunky. It was truly a run for the ages, full of daring feats of skill and a well-timed miracle or two.

A photo of Swedish developer Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren standing in front of a television showing the videogame Spelunky. The screen is on the CHOOSE ADVENTURER screen, with the avatar Yang currently selected.
Nifflas posing with his reward – a Yang avatar!

But I’m getting ahead of myself! First, some background:

Spelunky is an addictive, procedurally generated platformer game for XBLA. It’s the follow-up the widely acclaimed (and freely available) classic version.

Over the course of this past summer, I gradually got sucked into the game. Nifflas is very good at the original version, and so he’s been teaching me along the way. Of course, Nifflas has had to adjust to the new XBLA controls, so we’ve both been honing our skills.

About a month ago, Nifflas and I started a daily tradition – a ritual, if you will. Every night, each of us gets one – and only one – Spelunky run. The other sits and watches, cheering along and providing advice. On rare days we’ll indulge in a few practice runs, but it’s only the “official” run that really matters – at least to us!

This ritual has been deeply enjoyable for several reasons. First, the tradition gives us something to look forward to every evening. Second, the “stakes” of the game feel so much more real when you only get one shot. One error and you’re done for the day. Nerve-wracking, but invigorating! Third, and perhaps most importantly, I find that it’s far more rewarding to play the game with somebody spectating – a witness with whom to share your triumphs and tribulations. After all, Spelunky is all about the stories you the player end up producing. As my hero Hannah Arendt puts it: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

Jokingly, before each run, we make a little prayer to Derek Yu, the game’s creator. (For example: “Derek Yu, please grant us plentiful bombs and protect us from dark levels. Amen.”). The prayer has itself become a key part of our daily ritual – to the point where we feel like we’ve almost created a Spelunky religion/cult. Like, why do bad things happen to good Spelunky players? And does Derek Yu even exist? Spelunky theology is tricky!

This leads us to Nifflas’ epic victory today. (Warning: spoilers ahead).

Hell is a secret world in the XBLA version of Spelunky. Actually, it’s a kind of secret within a secret. First, you have to make it to the well-hidden City of Gold – a difficult task that itself relies on beating a very particular sequence of secret challenges. I myself have managed to make it past the City of Gold, but I’ve never made it to the Hell world.

A photo of a tv screen showing the videogame Spelunky. A player character with a shotgun enters Yama's Lair. There's a big bomb box on the left.

There were many highlights of Nifflas’ run, including how he (barely) managed to rob the Black Market (and the Ankh) despite the level being shrouded in darkness. However, there is one particular moment that stands out – a genuine Spelunky miracle.

By the time Nifflas had reached Olmec (the boss of World 4), he was almost out of ropes, and almost out of bombs. Worse yet, he possessed no flying gear (cape or jetpack). Of course, it would have been possible to beat Olmec, though trickier. But forget conquering Hell without flying gear – it just wouldn’t have happened.

Now, above Olmec, if you can make it up that high, you’ll find a treasure trove of crates and items. Nifflas proceeded to use the rest of his ropes, making it up to one platform with one crate. Unfortunately, the other crate-harboring platforms were out of reach.

And what did he find in that crate?

A jetpack. A fucking jetpack!

Unbelievable! With hope all but lost, Nifflas found exactly the item he needed. First, it allowed him to scour the rest of the level to collect the bombs he needed to defeat Olmec. Second, that jetpack would allow him to safely navigate the treacherous Hell levels.

I want to take a moment to emphasize how miraculous this turn of events was. I have played Spelunky for hours and hours, raiding countless crates, and I have never found a jetpack. The odds must be one in thousands. We felt like Derek Yu had finally answered our prayers – like Derek Yu himself was blessing the run. “Yes, Nifflas. After countless deaths, you have finally paid your dues. Go forth to Hell, and godspeed.”

I almost wonder whether the Spelunky code knew to “load the dice” in this situation. Did the game “know” that Nifflas desperately needed a jetpack? If so, Derek Yu (and his team) is a goddamn genius. Thinking about game design and procedural content, it seems to me that games like Spelunky should load the dice in very rare situations like this one. Don’t ever let the player know of course, but grant them some miracles… occasionally. Enable these kinds of epic tales! A powerful design trick indeed (albeit a dangerous one).

Photo of a TV screen showing a successful "Hell" run of the videogame Spelunky. A user interface menu reads "YOU MADE IT!" and shows a (difficult-to-read) final score above $30,000, and a time above 36 minutes.

Well, Nifflas made good on his opportunity, and managed to conquer Hell – on his very first go! Some tips we learned along the way: in retrospect, it was fortunate indeed that he had robbed the Black Market. As it turns out, angry shopkeepers still guard the exits in Hell (who knew?). This allowed Nifflas to acquire a shotgun, which proves very useful against the final boss. Earlier in the run, he had also picked up a pitcher’s mitt and sticky bombs – both critically important for beating the boss in his final floating-head incarnation.

All in all, I feel very lucky to have witnessed Nifflas’ Spelunky miracle. Maybe it’s one of those things where “you just had to be there,” but it certainly ranks among my most memorable videogame moments.

Perhaps it’s Yang who puts it best: “the journey is its own reward and mastery is the greatest treasure of them all!” Or maybe Yang only has it partly right. Mastery, yes, but also camaraderie, as we’ve learned from our daily Spelunky ritual.

Photo of a TV screen showing the secret Hell ending of the videogame Spelunky. The screen has the character Yang giving a quote: "That the journey is its own reward and mastery is the greatest treasure of them all!"

2021 Afterword

I have to admit, I feel equal parts nostalgic and embarrassed by this post. But I do still very fondly remember this ritual. This post was published mere weeks before I moved away from Copenhagen.

I'm honored that this little ritual of ours played a part in inspiring Derek and Andy to add a formalized "Daily Challenge" feature to the game, starting with the Steam release in 2013. Our ritual even gets a couple mentions in Derek's excellent book about the making of the game:

There was one aspect of Doug and Nifflas’s ritual that we couldn’t simulate with the Daily Challenge: having a witness to share your triumphs and tribulations with. For that, we’d have to depend on players to share their experiences online themselves.

In the nine years since this blog post, I have played a lot more Spelunky. In 2013, I wrote a big Polygon piece covering another incredible Spelunky feat — the infamous "Eggplant run."

I also started a Spelunky-themed podcast, The Spelunky Showlike, with my friends Zach Gage, Nick Suttner, and Andy Nealen. In recent years we rebranded the podcast as Eggplant (as we cover more games than just Spelunky), but we did recently do an in-depth miniseries about the sequel, Spelunky 2.

All of which is to say: big thanks to Derek and the various Spelunky dev teams for all these good times over the years! <3

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