Meet Spelunker, one of Japan's most treasured bad games


Don’t get pooped on in this week’s kusoge

While the phenomenon of appreciating bad games exists everywhere in the world, perhaps no player base is as conscious of it as those in Japan. Unlike us, they have a very concise word for describing terrible games: kusoge. That’s “kuso,” meaning crap, and “ge,” as in geemu or game. Crap game, see?

Perhaps the most infamous, and sometimes believed to be the original recipient of that title, is the Famicom/NES port of Spelunker. For some reason, Spelunker sold decently well, but its reputation for being unreasonably difficult spread to the point of it becoming a cultural phenomenon in Japan. The main character’s frailty even found its way into a turn of phrase, “spelunker taishitsu,” or spelunker’s constitution, which is commonly applied to athletes who are frequently or easily injured. I bet you didn’t realize you’d be getting a Japanese lesson here.

Spelunker was initially released on 8-bit home computers but was given new life and great notoriety when it was ported to Famicom. The differences between versions are pretty stark, so keep in mind that I’m only talking about the Famicom/NES version here.

The first thing you’re going to do upon starting a game of Spelunker is shimmy a bit to the right, fall off the elevator, and die. It’s okay, it’s only natural. The gap between the elevator and the ledge is so narrow that you’d expect to step over it, but instead, your little cave delver finds his way through the crack, plummets a few feet, and blinks himself to death.

Assuming you don’t repeat the mistake, you’ll probably kill your hapless character trying to get on the lift less than a screen’s length away. I’m not trying to question your skill at video games, I promise. I’m trying to demonstrate how ludicrously fragile the protagonist is.

Almost everything in his journey will kill him. Small steam geysers, short drops, bat droppings; it’s like embarrassment is poison to him and every small setback he encounters causes it. To be fair, embarrassment is a common weakness for platformer characters, demonstrated by the fact that physical contact is usually enough to fell mighty side-scrolling heroes. Our little spelunker is just a bit more dramatic about his failures.

If I was the paranoid type, I’d probably say that Spelunker is designed to screw with you, like the latter levels in Super Mario Bros. or the entirety of Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. Obstacles seem to be placed specifically so you’ll get killed by them. Vines are left so close to the ground that they invite you to simply step off, even though their short drop is fatal. Rocks that you rebound off of are placed next to pits in such a way that if you time your jump even slightly wrong, you’re sent back to your embarrassing death.

The only real enemies in the game are the pooping bats and a ghost that is easily chased away by sacrificing a bit of your oxygen. It’s slipping up with simple tasks that will kill you the most, like dismounting an elevator or climbing a vine. Most deaths come from simple mistakes rather than challenging design. You’ll burn yourself with your own flare or blow yourself up with a bomb you placed. You’ll step off an elevator at the wrong moment and fall just a smidge too far. The little spelunker is as fragile as a gossamer ballerina.

There are four levels to clear, which may not seem like it’s very long, but a lot of players don’t have the patience to clear the first. It can be difficult to be perseverant when the game kicks you in the stomach at every turn.

It is possible to meet the game’s unreasonable demands. Once you’ve learned the rules and how every obstacle reacts, reaching the end isn’t impossible. It’s just getting to that point is something not everyone will have the fortitude for. Personally, it took me a long time to beat the first level, longer to beat the second, but by the time I reached the third, all the skills were in place for me to topple it. Even today, I can generally get through the game while out of practice. I’ve just learned to speak its foul language.

To be honest, although Spelunker is perhaps one of the most legendary kusoge, I have a soft spot for it — a fondness, even. It’s like putting your hand on a car hood in the middle of summer, the blistering heat is quite painful at first, but once your skin is fried and enough of the heat has dissipated, it can be quite tolerable.

Spelunker is definitely a challenging game, but it behaves predictably and can be overcome by learning its patterns. It’s not quite the most taxing game out there, and reaching the end is satisfying. It then asks you to do it again while turning the keys invisible. Then, having finished that, you do it again, but not only are the keys invisible, you have to jump to collect them. The cyclical repeating of the game is pretty pointless, but that was just how games were back then.

It’s easy to hate on Spelunker at first glance, but it stuck in the Japanese mindset pretty firmly. It got a rather strange sequel in 1987, which, despite being called Spelunker II, was completely different than the first Famicom game. There was an arcade sequel, also called Spelunker II that was a little more closely related to the original. We’d later get Spelunker HD which is technically a remake, but it also adds 100 new levels, so take that however you want. The Famicom mechanics would also be applied to Spelunker World, re-released as Spelunker Party, which is a bit friendlier, but still based on the same clunkiness. It’s a whole series!

I’m not going to try and sell you on Spelunkerbecause I understand that it’s a hard game to love. Even still, I’d recommend trying it out just to see its bizarrely off-putting difficulty. It’s okay to just dip your toes in kusoge now and then and just leave swimming in it to broken people like me.