Thursday, 20 February 2014

Spelunker (MicroGraphicImage, 1983)

Written for the Atari 400/800 by Tim Martin, Robert Barber and Cash Foley in 1983.
Converted by Tim Martin for the Commodore 64 in 1984, and released by Broderbund.
Converted for the arcades in 1985 by Irem Corporation.
Converted by Irem Corporation for the NES and MSX in 1986, and released by Broderbund.



Tim Martin's underrated classic Spelunker has gained an unfairly bad reputation over the years, mostly because of Irem's lacklustre conversion for the arcades, which in turn was converted for the NES and MSX later on, almost completely missing the basic idea of the original game. So, I felt I might as well shed some light on the game's origins, and give as full a comparison of the five released versions, particularly as the indie hit Spelunky (very loosely based on Spelunker) has become such an enormous phenomenon lately.

The original Atari version has been rated with 7.6 at Atarimania with 205 votes, while the first conversion has surprisingly gotten a better score at Lemon64: 8.2 from 51 votes. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this score difference has any merit when the comparison has been fully gone through. Generation-MSX users have given their version 3.5 out of 5 with as little as 11 votes, and the NES version seems to be the least well regarded of the lot, having gotten an F at, and most of the other comments on the internet being a bit on the angry side. Some people just have no patience at all... but let's see whether there is a reason for all this negativity.



Spelunker's basic idea is simple: you, as the titular character, must descend into the depths of an underground cavernous maze complex, collect treasure and helpful objects, while fending off bats and ghosts with flares and bursts of air, or as the instructions manual says, the weapon is called a Phantom Blaster. Occasionally, you need to blow up some big rocks from your path by using dynamite. What is less simple is the way the game progresses: all the 6 levels are enormous, and most of the levels concentrate on different methods of movement. An elevator, a series of ropes, a waterfall and a large geyser within a vertical shaft await for you in the first four levels, while in the fifth one, your mission is to access a large pyramid using the more familiar gameplay mechanisms. The final stage sort of takes place inside the pyramid, although it doesn't necessarily look that way, and there you will have to platform your way towards the final treasure behind one final door and a horde of ghosts.

Perhaps I'm not the most believable person to speak of this game, since I have trouble even getting past level 2 without trainers or savestates, but I can tell you this: Spelunker can be an incredibly addicting game, but it can also be incredibly aggravating, and needs getting used to. Perhaps it will never become even close to being among your favourites, but it will stay with you from your first try as one of the most atmospheric gaming experiences... that is, if you have a go at one of the correct versions.



There is not a whole lot to be said about loading the game, since it was originally released in disk format. Tape versions do exist, but the game is a multi-loader, meaning that it loads the game sequentially: the intro and level 1 first, then level 2, etc. Therefore, I feel it cannot be all that important to include the loading times here. Also, since the arcade along with the MSX and the NES versions skip the loading bit altogether, there is no contest in that regard.



Since Tim Martin converted the C64 version from his Atari original, it might not come as such a big surprise, that the two versions play identically, so naturally, they share the top spot. So how do you play the original game, then? You need both keyboard and joystick for this one. The joystick controls your unnamed spelunker: up and down climb ladders and ropes, and the fire button makes you jump - but you can use it both ways, before and while commanding the man left or right. This becomes incredibly handy in some places, especially since you can fine-tune your footing on ladders and ropes by going left and right, although you have to be careful not to fall down by doing so. Your spelunker is a very fragile little man, and needs only to fall his own height in most places before it gets too much for him. The game is rather strangely a vertically scrolling platformer, with a curiously handled flip-screen method for horizontal movement, which I will talk more of later on.

The caverns are filled with the ghosts of previous spelunkers that have fallen to their deaths, and so they try to get you killed as well. To fend them off, you must use your ghostbusting equipment, which is basically an air-blower of sorts. This can be done by pressing the space bar on your keyboard. By doing so, you will lose some air from your air tank, but there are spare air tanks scattered around the caverns, which you can pick up in case you need one. Note, that when you hear the ghost music play, the best strategy is to stay put and wait for the ghost to enter the screen - otherwise, you might bump into it in the next screen and face your death, since you can move your man while the screen rolls on to the next area. You will also find dynamites laying around, which are handy for blowing up some big rocks blocking your way, and these are used by pressing the D key. Flares are useful for fending off bats for a brief time, and can be used by pressing the F key. On your way down, you need to collect blue and green keys, which will open similarly coloured doors as you progress. The item looking like circling dots is a random benefit, including extra lives, which I guarantee you will be needing a lot of during your sessions. All the other items are basically extra score, which is nice if you happen to have a disk version that saves the high score table.

Spelunker's entire map is hand-made and surprisingly life-like, when it comes to terrain smoothness and all the little details. This detailed and almost random look of the game affects the gameplay quite a lot, since you will have to be measuring your jumps almost pixel-perfect occasionally, and even look for footholds that might not necessarily seem to even be there at first. In addition to the first lift/elevator, there are many different sorts of automatic transportation mechanisms in the game, some of them appearing only once during the game, such as the barrel and the geyser lift. As cave exploration platforming games go, I have never come across another such a unique combination of elements (at least on an 8-bit platform), and the original game certainly deserves a playthrough, with or without save states, on either the Atari 400/800 or the Commodore 64.

Irem's coin-operative version plays a bit differently, but it isn't too bad. There are two really big differences in the game, which are a greater number and variety of enemies around, and that you have the ability actually shoot a projectile weapon. This, in turn, renders your flare gun useless, so it has been taken off from the arcade game. Opposed to the original game, you can't really move sideways on ladders and ropes, which makes the platforming bit slightly easier, but your drop distance  endurance has been made slightly worse. Also, the explosion effect has been widened for a slightly larger area. A nice new feature has been added in the form of hidden areas, which can be found by touching random things. What is less apparent from the list of differences is the map, which starts off similarly enough, but gets gradually very different from the original. To new players, this is not a problem, but the fans of the original game might be disappointed because some of the elements are missing. Still, all the other graphical differences playing a big part in disorienting you on your first plays, you probably will not notice much of the bigger changes due to the game's enormous speed change. All in all, not bad, but it feels too different, and might not satisfy the fans of the original, who have become used to a less hectic gameplay. As a unique feature, the arcade version has a two-player mode, but since it's turn-based, it doesn't add much to the experience now.

Getting back to the home systems, we are left with the MSX and NES conversions, which are a strange couple. Both of them seem to be a mixture of both the original game and the arcade version. The map feels slightly more faithful to the original, although I can't be sure, since I haven't been able to finish them (nor the arcade version, for that matter). The two big differences between these two are in handling and speed: the NES version plays almost as quickly as the arcade version, while the MSX version is slower than the original; and although both games have a similar problem with jumping  from ropes and ladders - as you have to move your man sideways precisely to the point where he's just about to drop before you jump - the MSX handles this slightly better, as the area where you are able to make the jump is just wide enough to be able to make it most of the time, while the NES version is almost impossible. I had to do about 200 reloads from saved states before I could get past the first level, and only then I gave up. It wouldn't be too bad at all, if it wasn't for the infuriatingly bad jumping mechanics. So, it seems Questicle was correct after all... Anyhow, I took a look at StrategyWiki's page on Spelunker, with some nice information regarding what to expect from the later levels of the NES and MSX versions, and it seems they are reasonably in line with what I expected, but different enough to call them abbreviations of the original, with less puzzles. To complete the playability section on a neutral note, let's take a look at the controls for these two versions: the NES game plays with the joypad - A for jumping and B for shooting the Phantom Blaster, with up + B for flares and down + B for laying down bombs; the MSX version plays with the arrows for moving, space bar for jumping, enter for Phantom Blaster, enter and up for flares, and enter and down for bombs.

3. MSX



For once, this is the easy part, since there are basically only three or four types of graphic sets, depending on how you count them. The Atari and C64 versions look strikingly similar, apart from the C64 having one less colour in use for some reason, and then the MSX and NES versions look quite close to each other, with only some minor differences, and finally very much apart from everything, the arcade version. But let's start with all the title screens before we head on into the game.

Title screens. Above, left to right: Atari 8-bit original, Atari 8-bit redone (1st screen), Commodore 64 (1st screen)
Below, left to right: Arcade (edited to feature all graphics simultaneously), NES, MSX

The original release from MGI on the Atari had a unique title screen, which you see above on the left. Not horribly bad, but it isn't exactly missed in the other versions. The later Atari and Commodore versions had a gradually revealed opening credits sequence, as if you were suggested to think you were watching a movie. On the Atari, every new credit came in with a faded animation, but on the Commodore, everything came in instantaneously, although both have the same rhythm of appearance, locked in ith the music. The arcade title screen is a bit more animated, and almost annoyingly cheery and shiny. The two later home conversions were just single title screens, and once you waited long enough, a demonstration would play of the game. Sure, the arcade version looks the best, but the two Broderbund versions before it have a better atmosphere to them.

Left column: Commodore 64
Right column: Atari 400/800

As has been pointed out already, the original game has a very hand-made look to it. Throughout the enormous map, every pixel you walk upon seems to have been put in separately, in order to maintain a very uneven surface to walk upon and make your gaming experience less predictable. Of course, it only looks that way, but in truth, it's made from a set of blocks. It doesn't take away from the illusion, though, because it has been achieved to make the game have such a random look all over, that you wouldn't notice unless you really took some time to compare different blocks. All the non-passable surface has been painted in a brownish colour, which sort of makes sense, although if you really think about it, the deeper you go, the more colours you should find from the depths. All the passable area is predictably black. All the other colours have some different functions to them. Pink things either block your way, bounce you off or kill you, unless they stay in the background (pyramids). Blue things are mostly passages, ropes and ladders, but then there's also some water around in the game, which can kill you. Same goes for green things, except that the C64 version has no green things at all - the colour of any green thing there is either pink or blue. The only white thing you will see is the ghost, and that's all the colours there are in the game, unless you count the title screens. The graphics are rather blocky, as you would expect from a game from 1983, but considering the amount of detail, animation and the size of the map, it's not a bad feat at all. The C64 version has just slightly less detail and colour than the Atari version, along with it having a screen cut down about two character blocks' worth, and the intro is missing the faded animations, which is just a bit of a letdown. But just for those reasons, I will have to place the C64 version below the Atari version this time.

Screenshots from the arcade version.
Then, the next in order of release: the Irem coin-op. Sure enough, it is pretty like a 16-bit game. The only real problem I have with it is the lack of darkness, which makes the game uncomfortably cheery. Some minor complaints would be the strangely Marioesque overall look, and a lack of real imagination when drawing the updated things, but perhaps I'm in the minority here. When I think of miners going underground doing their mining business, all I can think of is darkness and tight places, with an ever-present sense of danger to the whole thing. As you might be able to tell from the screenshots, this Spelunker game has none of that feel, except perhaps for that black dinosaur creature or whatever.

Above: NES screens / Below: MSX screens.

The last two versions also look very similar, but the MSX has a less pronounced palette - in fact, it has slightly less colours. Still, the graphics are not bad at all - I like that the background is black, because it is darker than any sort of background, which is how it should be - very dark. All the other graphics are a bit bright, but they are also very high quality, and certainly less minimalistic than what can be seen in the two originals. As a rare feature on the NES, the ground tiles have been made to look as unpatterned as they possibly could, which is very impressive... unlike what can be seen on the MSX. My least favourite graphic element on the NES version is the water, although I only got to see it by taking a look at StrategyWiki. Therefore, I have put them separately on display here between this and the next paragraph.

NES screenshots copied from StrategyWiki.

So, in what order should I put all these five versions? The biggest difficulty, for me, is placing the arcade version in the right place, because it clearly has the best quality graphics with the most colours, and it even scrolls all the time. Then again, those exact factors make it feel less authentic than the other versions. As has been proven many times by the Top Gear presenters, sometimes the worst car is the best car, but for truthfulness' sake, I will have to let the arcade game win this round. Doesn't mean I agree with it. The next difficulty is in deciding whether I like the newer versions' overall graphic quality over the fact that the originals have a more imaginative and hand-made look to them.... actually, it's not that difficult - I will go with "no, I don't."

5. MSX



First off, let's concentrate on the music. The original Atari release from MicroGraphicImage is the only version that features the often mentioned excerpt from Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", and most likely due to some sort of legal action from Mussorgsky's family trust or whatever, all the later versions of the game feature original music instead. I have no proof of this action, but similar cases have been known to happen. No matter; I actually think the more often heard Spelunker title tune fits the game's overall atmosphere better.

Mysterioso Pizzicato, the age-old villain's theme, used in innumerable amounts of film scores, TV programmes and video games, also has a rather predictable use in Spelunker's sound library - the cue for the ghost's approaching. Besides that, and the aforementioned title theme tune, the original versions have no other music, and it's all rather minimalistic. The main title tune is played with only two simultaneous instruments, and the ghost tune is played with only one beepy tone. Of course, this leaves plenty of room for sound effects, of which there are plenty enough: tapping effect for walking, screeching bats, dynamite fuse hissing and then blowing, your ghost defense mechanism's swishing noise, lots of different item pick-up sound effects and then some. It is as rich an enviroment to be playing in as need be in this case.

Although the Atari and C64 versions are principally identical, there are some minor details in sound effects that sets each version slightly apart from the other. I wouldn't say either one being exactly better - both of them have their different pros and cons that make them equally enjoyable. I believe this is because Tim Martin himself was on the converter's chair, and knew very well what he was doing, so he was able to achieve a very similar soundtrack for both computers.

But what of the other versions? The arcade version doesn't seem to have almost any atmosphere in the soundtrack: it's all very cheery arcadey platformey zippy-de-doo-dah music (except for when the ghost comes in, and even that fails to bring any sort of dread to the game). The title screen doesn't even have any music, apart from the coin-inserting effect, so it's all in the game. There is a wide variety of sound effects, which is expected from an arcade machine, but every bit of it sounds like it would have been more comfortable in Wonderboy or something. No sir, I don't like it. Granted, it's filled with more quality sounds than all the other versions, but the overall feel of the soundtrack ruins the whole experience for me.

On the Nintendo and MSX versions, at least you get the Spelunker theme tune in some form - both of them sound more or less wrong, but the MSX version is ridiculously fast, taking away a lot of the sense of dread and darkness that the cavernous maze is supposed to feel like. The version on the NES is not exactly bad, it just plays the bass part from an octave too high, and mixes up the two instruments awkwardly. There are some other, rather arcadey tunes fitted into these two conversions, which are for some reason completely different, although the conversions were made by Irem. All the levels (at least as far as I was able to get to) seem to have a different tune, though, which is almost rather impressive. Although the tunes are more fitting for this sort of game, they make you wish the game was faster to play, particularly as the MSX version is horrendously slow. The only really notable difference besides the speed of the main tune is that the NES version has a game over tune that the MSX version is completely devoid of. Also, as a whole, the NES tunes and sound effects are of a slightly higher quality, so it certainly deserves the higher spot in the sounds comparison list.

Again, we have a case of "less is actually more", where the only thing you really need to have is a good set of sound effects. The arcade version is just overdone, and makes the game feel like something it certainly isn't supposed to be, and therefore the NES and MSX versions have a better soundscape.

3. MSX



Update! 6th of January, 2019:
The Gaming History Source channel on YouTube uploaded this video comparison of Spelunker in April 2015, which escaped my notice for some reason for quite a while. Better late than never, I suppose. Here you can see the differences in all the original versions in action, as well as the HD remake made for the PlayStation 3.



As we reach the end of the comparison once more, we find again that none of the versions are completely useless. What is uncommon, is that the arcade version has clearly less advantage over the original home computer versions than usual, but the problem is that it's an almost completely different experience. Some of you might actually like it better, because you can shoot in it and look for hidden things, but it lacks the oppressive atmosphere that Tim Martin's original concept so well managed to bring forth. But this is how the scores add up this time, whether you like it or not...

1. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 11
3. ARCADE: Playability 3, Graphics 5, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 9
4. NINTENDO: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
5. MSX: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5

Definitely a clear win for the originals. So, what about the game's legacy? Well, strangely, the Irem version has spawned some sequels, mostly released only in Japan, most notable ones being the arcade sequel and the Nintendo Famicom sequel, both completely different games. The arcade sequel is a  more traditional continuum for the first arcade game, while the Famicom sequel takes advantage of the newer hardware additions to the cartridges, and has been turned into an open-ended action-RPG, much in the style of Metroid or The Goonies II. Apart from those and a few other titles bearing the name Spelunker for one reason or another, the most current gaming phenomenon is Spelunky, with its famous rogue-like twist on the cave exploration theme. Originally programmed by Derek Yu for the Windows PC's as a free distribution game, and released in 2009, it has more recently been released as an upgraded HD edition through Steam, and is currently also available to buy through XBLA and PSN. Of course, this is not in any way a sequel, but is said to have been heavily influenced by Spelunker. Still, if you happen to be interested in Spelunker's legacy, all of the above are very much recommended to take a look at.

That's it for now; comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as always!
Thanks for reading again, see you next time!

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