Spelunky is a perfect videogame—the perfect videogame, perhaps. Or at least, it is if you forget that the 2012 version shipped with a deathmatch mode. Not many people talk about Spelunky deathmatch, in which up to four players brawl on a single-screen arena, using bombs and ropes and shotguns and rocks to pound the ever loving spe-lunk out of each other. It's adventure mode's weird, less-popular friend.
I think I understand why: If you dip into the mode solo using the default settings, you’re fending off three erratic AI opponents, in addition to a laser target which roams the screen smiting anyone who stays still for too long. Oh, and the ghost: the dreaded ghost from the adventure mode turns up as well, so the whole thing just feels like a frantic mess to most newcomers. You’ll likely die within three seconds of spawning (no exaggeration) and then you’ll likely quit the mode three seconds later. It’s about as bad as a first impression can get.
But for the last two years at least, Spelunky deathmatch has been my bread and butter. I’ve played Nidhogg, Towerfall: Ascension, Sportsfriends, Videoball… and none of them are as good a couch multiplayer game. You may believe Spelunky’s finely wrought roguelike adventure mode was the modern classic, but nope: deathmatch is up there with it.
The first step to enjoying Spelunky deathmatch is to ignore its default settings. They’re crap. Turn off ghosts, turn off targets, turn off bots. Never, ever use bots. Then increase the amount of lives per match to 10. Then, increase each player’s bomb amount to 10 (just do it). Now you’ve got at least one perfect deathmatch game, but you might find other settings that work better for you.
The best thing about deathmatch Spelunky is that it inherits all of the complexity of its more popular sibling, while also demanding speed and reflexes the likes of which are rarely needed in adventure mode. For example, most adventure mode players know you can whip bombs to carefully nudge them into awkward places with more accuracy, but did you know you can whip away airborne bombs that have been lobbed at you? It’s tricky, but you can and you’ll need to, because being stunned is a death sentence.
Other tricks you might not use often in adventure mode become crucial in deathmatch, too: for example, learning to lob bombs with precision as an offensive attack, or just as a means to stun an opponent. Bombs are less tools of navigation and more automatic grenade launchers, and learning to predict their bounce patterns and trajectories is one of the first hard lessons you’ll receive—especially if your opponent has lobbed 10 at once.
Elsewhere, ropes are surefire ways to stun opponents from below; the teleporter is a neat portable telefragging device; and learning the maps and the best positions from which to lob bombs becomes more important than mere dexterity. Meanwhile, obscure items from the main game such as the shield—only found in a single hidden area in adventure mode—become powerful tactical tools in the deathmatch setting. Lessons that couldn’t vaguely apply to adventure mode (except map learning, of course) compose the moment-to-moment stouches in deathmatch, where having the baseball gloves, a jar of sticky glue and a full inventory of bombs can prove disastrous to your opponent.
Will the newly announced Spelunky 2 have a deathmatch mode? No idea, but I hope so. I wouldn’t blame creator Derek Yu and co for leaving it out, since it gained no traction in the original, but I reckon even the existing deathmatch mode could have its fate reversed just with a few tweaks to its default settings. There’s so much potential, and if it had online support that would be a dream. I want Spelunky deathmatch to be an esport. I want it to be on ESPN. It would make the world nicer.
Let’s assume for a moment that Spelunky 2 deathmatch exists: how can it improve upon the original? Aside from the obvious tweaks to its default game settings, I’d definitely include a level editor, and I’d be careful to remove items that are utterly useless in the mode (such as the parachute, as none of the maps are high enough to permit fall damage). Player spawns can also be a bit uneven and unfair, especially with four-players. Of course, we don't really know anything about Spelunky 2—its weapons, items, and so on—so apart from those elementary changes, it’s hard to guess at what else might be done.
Even Yu thought deathmatch was underrated, though he admitted he and co-creator Andy Hull were to blame. “I think it was because people just didn’t play it the way Andy and I did while we were developing it, where it was just much more tactical,” he told me last year. “We didn’t chuck bombs all over the place, we’d wait for that perfect opportunity and try to take out the person when they were vulnerable."
“I definitely don’t blame the players or anything like that," he added. "I think a lot of people do have a lot of fun with it, as a more casual thing. It may also be that adventure mode is more compelling than deathmatch mode.”
No, it’s not Derek. And while I’m at it, chucking bombs all over the place is totally a viable strategy.