There’s an easy way to tell when you’ve got a veritable indie hit on your hands: its TIGSource forum thread goes from 0 to 34 pages in just over a week, before the game’s even been properly finished. So it has gone with Derek Yu’s Spelunky.
You might know Yu from his work as co-creator of the previously mentioned Aquaria, TIGSource itself, or more mischievously from his 2006 freeware gore-em-up I’m OK, a fully playable answer to Jack Thompson’s ‘Modest Videogame Proposal’ (which I wrote up slightly more in depth at the time).
Most easily and commonly described as Spelunker meets Rogue, Yu’s game retains all of the unforgiving difficulty of both (though much more forgiving than the former’s trip-to-death strictness I noted before), but excels at the latter’s sense of procedurally-generated loot collecting and cave crawling, just now in 8-bit sidescroller form.
In your travels downward, you will die — you will die a lot, sometimes within seconds of entering the first level, for stupid reasons and even when you’re at your most careful, but every cheap death is a necessary part of the learning process (its readme.txt implores, “Don’t be afraid to die! But also don’t be afraid to live!”), and the sense of accomplishment for a smart and successful run is one of the best we’ve seen in some time.
Yu hits all the right notes from simply its run/jump physics (not since Cave Story has it felt so joyous to just move), to its itchy-trigger-fingered shopkeeper, destructible landscape and Indy Jones boulder chases, to that burdensome sense of dread that builds with each successive bar of gold you collect, knowing how important it is that this time you make it out alive. His algorithms are able to smartly weave together endless scenarios with those building blocks for players to create their own stories in ways the code couldn’t possibly have conceived.
Now thankfully natively supporting joypads (its somewhat clumsy initial keyboard configuration being the only thing hampering full-on recommendation at the time), Spelunky would have made an apt ‘best indie’ of 2008, but let’s now call it a bar set very, very, high as we plunge into 2009.