Despite my, erm, established familiarity with terrible games, I’ve yet to touch on the subject of “kusoge,”(koo-soh-geh) a Japanese term that literally translates to “crap game.” Kusoge has been an institution in Japan for far longer than it has over here. While the masochistic interest in bad games seems to have sprung up with The Angry Video Game Nerd’s appearance (internet personalities did precede him in making fun of games, but the sub-culture around them didn’t explode until his contributions), Japan has been basking in them since bad games were being made. Kusoge may have well been its own sub-genre on the Nintendo Famicom with games like Takeshi No Chousenjou and Ganso Saiyuuki: Super Monkey Daibouken, the former of which was allegedly designed specifically to frustrate gamers.
The most infamous of all kusoge, and perhaps the original recipient of the term, was Spelunker, a game that was initially released on Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64 before mutating and making its way to the arcade and NES/Famicom. It reportedly sold quite well on its initial release in Japan, but then, E.T. on the Atari 2600 sold extremely well in the west; it was the backlash that cemented it status. Hobbyists were repulsed by the gameplay, and it reportedly flooded the used game bargain bins. The main character’s shocking vulnerability even morphed into a Japanese euphemism: “Spelunker taishitsu,” translated to spelunker’s constitution, a term for someone who is easily injured.
So, Spelunker has a notorious reputation over in Japan. Is it deserved?
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH SPELUNKY
Upon starting a game of Spelunker, you’re invariably going to kill yourself by stepping off the side of the elevator. Your character, a hard-hatted cave explorer, will fall a few pixels, stop abruptly, then blink out of existence. It’s disorienting.
Next, you’ll either repeat the mistake or jump the short gap between the ledge and the elevator, walk a few steps, then die again when you don’t time yourself stepping on the lifts correctly.
The goal of the game is to descend through four levels of caves to reach the treasure at the end, but the character you’re guiding is, as previously mentioned, as fragile as a gossamer eggshell. Absolutely everything can kill them. They can fall no further than their own height, they’ve got a limited oxygen supply, are constantly pursued by ghosts, can’t handle the utter humiliation of being pooped on by bats, has a tendency of burning themselves on their own flares, and has great difficulty judging and escaping the blast radius of bombs. Why a human with ceramic bones is plumbing the depths of the earth is a mystery, but my money is on death wish.
Between you and the bottom of the cave is a vast array of obstacles. Spouting geysers, small mounds of dirt, incontinent bats, holes, short ledges; pretty much everything can kill you. Refreshingly, and perhaps most strikingly, there are very few actual enemies in your way. It’s largely man vs. nature. Bats also flutter around to poop on you and make a torturous screech that plays incessantly whenever they’re on screen, but they don’t deliberately attack you, making them more of an obstacle than an aggressor. Ghosts pop up occasionally to harass you, heralded by telltale music but easily dispatched with a blast of your… air gun, or whatever it’s supposed to be. Again, they feel more like an environmental hazard than an enemy.
Once you learn to recognize all the hazards, most of your deaths are going to be caused by missteps and accidents. It’s not always easy to time a jump, so sometimes you’ll tumble off a ledge or bounce off a mound of dirt and into a hole. It’s easy to fall into small gaps, since it’s not always clear when you can walk across a crack or if you’ll plunge to an embarrassing demise. Bombs have a tremendous blast radius that is difficult to judge since it just makes the screen flash without any indication of range, which makes it necessary to just flee in the opposite direction until it goes off. There’s also the vines, which allow you to easily slip off if you don’t release the directional button immediately after your character grapples onto it. It’s not a very forgiving game, is what I’m getting at.
DEALING WITH THE DESCENT
The challenge is, therefore, quite often extreme. Surmounting a single one of the game’s four levels is a feat of strength, since it tries to screw you over at just about every junction. Holes form over small pits, ceilings are strategically placed to try and get you to step under your own flare, platforms are place with gaps so small that you’re not certain if you need to jump or if you can just walk over them, vines are elevated off the floor in a way that it looks like you can survive the fall, but you probably can’t. You’re going to die in this cave, a lot. Worst of all; it’s likely going to be your own fault. To an extent.
Every game under the sun has ways of judging and punishing failure, Spelunker is just a bit harsh about it. Once you learn to watch your step and that you have to run the hell away from a bomb once you plant it, you’ll start making more and more progress. It took me quite a while to finish the first level, and even longer to complete the second. Afterwards, level 3 took a couple of attempts, and I don’t think I’ve ever failed on the final level. I simply gained the skills to surmount the game’s obstacles. Once those skills are in place, the whole game is doable.
DOWN WE GO
Once you complete Spelunker, you’re given a chance to play through the game again, but this time the keys are invisible. Finish the second quest and you’re then given a third quest where the keys are invisible and you have to jump to collect them. It goes on like this, but the game doesn’t really get much more difficult, as long as you remember where the keys are. When you’ve beaten it once, well, you’ve beaten it. I played through the second and third quest, but when I just wasn’t dying, I stopped there. I’m satisfied.
That’s a rewarding feeling. Spelunker isn’t the most deftly executed of games, but it nails the fundamentals. It’s naked in the way that it forces you to learn the ropes and build you skills before it will let you proceed. When a game is so outwardly hostile in the opening moments, it just makes it more satisfying to finally be able to conquer it.
I didn’t find it as difficult as, say, Contra or Batman on the NES, but it was still a challenge with teeth. Its complete lack of continues also makes it a lot less friendly than a lot of its contemporaries.
There are a lot of terrible games out in the world, but Spelunker is not one of them. Similar to Superman on the N64, E.T. on the Atari 2600, or any other game that might land on a “worst games of all time” list, it’s not so much that the game is bad, it’s just got a high profile. Spelunker allegedly sold well in Japan but frustrated a lot of gamers. Its reputation was familiar to a lot of people who basked in the shared experience of having been disappointed by it. Thus, the kusoge was born as people could relate over their humourous observations of the title character’s brittle form.
Yet despite its reputation, I actually really like Spelunker. Like, a lot. I really enjoyed it from the first moments of laughing at the many ways the protagonist can meet their end, to the excitement of finally reaching the end of the journey.
Whether or not I recommend it is a different story. At four levels, it’s a rather insubstantial game. Once you can overcome its difficulties, it’s possible to beat it in around 15 minutes. That makes it more akin to a “snack” game, rather than any sort of engrossing experience. If you’re in the mood for that and feel like a challenge, then yes, I do recommend Spelunker.
As I mentioned in the preamble, Spelunker was originally released on the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and Arcade platforms. They are reportedly very different games that lack some of the NES version’s characteristic qualities. This review does not apply to those versions; only the Famicom and NES platforms.
This review was conducted on original NES hardware using an authentic cartridge copy of the game. The author purchased the game out of pocket.