'Spelunky 2' Is Fascinating Because It Doesn't Need to Exist

Nothing about 'Spelunky' suggested it ever needed a sequel, and yet, we're getting one. It's playing with some interesting fire.

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Oct 31 2017, 5:11pm

Image courtesy of Mossmouth

It's not often a video game announcement genuinely shocks me—I'm usually aware of news ahead of time, and it's an industry built on revivals and sequels—but when a trailer started rolling yesterday with imagery reminiscent of Spelunky, I stopped in my tracks, and basically refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation, until the Spelunky 2 logo appeared in full.

"The walls are shifting once again," teased a trailer that largely showed nothing.

The mere existence of Spelunky 2, however, is interesting.

As a critic, I'm not a huge fan of the word "perfect" because it doesn't really mean much of anything, but push comes to shove, Spelunky is a game that comes awfully close. In more meaningful terms, when I finished playing Spelunky, it never crossed my mind that a sequel was needed. After I'd survived the secret world of Hell and defeated Yuma, I was satisfied.

Would I have played another world as DLC? Sure. Would more weapons, enemies, and items have have kept me playing longer? Probably. But did the game need any of that? Absolutely not. Spelunky was a game of smart, efficient design choices. There's zero fat.

That's not the way I usually feel while playing games, a medium often defined by the first in a series laying the groundwork for a stronger sequel. Most developers will tell you they have no idea if their game is going to work until it's almost shipped; so many systems don't come online until the game is nearly done, forcing designers to cross their fingers. It's a little different for smaller, independent productions, but they have all sorts of other issues; if they commit to an idea and it doesn't entirely work out, they may not have the resources to start from scratch. For these reasons and others, sequels are a chance to build on good ideas.

The version of Spelunky that shipped way back in 2008 was rough, but it contained many of the ideas designer Derek Yu and his collaborators would endlessly polish for Spelunky's re-release on Xbox 360 in 2012. In many respects, Spelunky 2012 was a Spelunky sequel.

"When I finished playing Spelunky, it never crossed my mind that a sequel was needed."

So, why Spelunky 2? By all accounts, Spelunky has sold spectacularly well, as it's been ported to every platform under the sun in recent years. (Please port the original to Switch!) There's nothing to suggest Yu is returning to Spelunky because he's suddenly desperate, but Yu hasn't said anything publicly about what we should actually expect from the follow-up.

There's two ways to look at it. One, it's a sequel because sequels sell. It's possible, I guess, but doesn't jive with the way Yu talks about his work and the games he makes. Why else would one of his other projects be UFO 50, a collection of 50 (50!) games in one collection?

The other possibility is Yu is returning because he feels the itch. The reason he's making Spelunky 2 is because there's an explicit desire to make a sequel to Spelunky, or an idea popped into his head that made returning to Spelunky worth the risk of screwing it all up. That's the version that excites me. With so many sequels, I know what I want from the follow-up because the game's flaws make it clear what the developers could do better. With Spelunky 2, I genuinely have no idea what to expect. More spikes?

It's possible Spelunky 2 is the simplest, most logical thing: more Spelunky. New caverns, secrets, items, dangers. That'd be fine. I would play that game because I will happily take a reason to play (and stream) more Spelunky. But I'm also hoping it's more than that.

The mechanics behind Spelunky seem ripe for exploration in a new context. I don't think you need to tinker much with what made basic Spelunky work in the first place, but what if everything changed around it? I can't help but imagine a Spelunky take on Steamworld Dig 2, in which players are doing their Spelunky thing, but it's dropped in a much larger world, where you're being tasked with objectives. I'd play that.

Maybe it'll be something different entirely! The joy of the moment we're in is that nobody knows what Spelunky 2 is, we only know Spelunky 2 is happening. There's a real danger it won't live up to the absurdly high expectations the original game left behind, but that's also what makes the sequel so alluring, fascinating, and absurd.

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