How many games save their best stuff for last?
The “Suicide Mission” from Mass Effect 2 comes to mind, which we still consider the culmination of the entire series years later. But on the other hand, I can understand why many games don’t want to put their best story, best boss, or best level at the very end. In the end, a surprisingly large proportion of the players do not play to the end.
Spelunky 2, even as one of the best platformers of this generation, is no exception to this practice. According to Steam achievement statistics, only 60% of players even completed the first four levels starting area, Dwelling. This takes about 10 minutes. Even with people who own Spelunky 2 but haven’t played it, this is discouraging data if you’re a developer. Further down the list of achievements, you can see that only one in five players has received the Ankh, an important item that grants an extra life. You get it by defeating the game’s first boss, Olmec, in the “correct” way, by throwing his giant golden Cabeza into the lava.
4.6% of players – less than one in 20 – managed to reach the Cosmic Ocean, a repeating sequence of 95 random levels, which is located after the most difficult ending of Spelunky 2. Honestly, I understand why. To get there, you must complete a complex chain of maneuvers, the equivalent of a marathon scavenger hunt.
You’d better get Vlad’s Cloak or jetpack if you want to get to 7-99. (Image credit: Mossmouth)
- Obtain the Eye of Ujat by finding the golden key in the Dwelling.
- Complete the lunar challenge
- Defeat Quillback and get to the volcano
- (Not always possible, but very useful) Obtain Kapala by sacrificing maidens or enemies on the altar.
- Complete the Lunar Trial, get the bow
- Saving Van Horsing
- Drill the bottom of the volcano to get to Vlad’s castle, kill Vlad, take his cloak and crown.
- Defeat the Olmecs
- Pick up Excalibur in the second stage of the Tidal Pool.
- Defeat Kingu, get the Tablet of Destiny
- In Neo, Babylon takes the right Ushabti
- Ride the flying Mount Qilin to the top of Tiamat’s Lair, reaching the Sunken City.
- Survive the Solar Trial to earn the Arrow of Light.
- Defeat Hundun, the hardest boss in the game.
- Shoot Hundun in the eye with the Light Arrow you picked up earlier.
Ugh. All this in a procedurally generated world where lava, wasps, and teleporting crocodiles swarm the world of knife boxes.
But waiting at the end of this complex chain is something magical: The Cosmic Ocean, a celestial marathon of 94 levels, culminating in Spelunky 2. This is the endgame of Spelunky, and this is ingeniously designed transcendent chaos. Spelunky 2 shuffles the tilesets from the previous eight stages and pits them against a starry infinity – if you fall off the edge, you’ll simply be returned to the start of the level. A giant space jellyfish blocks the door until you (or something in the environment) pop three purple orbs that release the jellyfish in a circle towards your character.
Mossmouth’s decision to repurpose existing levels gives them new life. Your techniques for dealing with familiar enemies and traps must adapt to their new context: in the endless void, a poisoned arrow or a clumsy caveman can fall forever. This hard work of endurance (the best Spelunky 2 players in the world can run 7-99 seconds in less than an hour) is softened by the best music in the game: an 11-minute melody that wraps every tense moment in soothing serenity. It’s the perfect encoding that gives Spelunky 2’s acrobatic speedrunners a treacherous scene to show off and, for the average player, a sense of wonder that lasts as long as you can stay alive.