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artwork from Spelunky with purple overlay Mossmouth via Polygon

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Why Spelunky is the most important game of the decade

A simple game can be mined for greatness if you dig deep enough

Spelunky made a splash like a pebble in a pond. Small. Quiet. So many ripples.

The original open-source version was released in 2008 on TIGSource with modest but potent fanfare, winning over an outspoken and important band of acolytes from indie designer Jason Rohrer to Double Fine studio head Tim Schafer. Critic-turned-narrative-writer Anthony Burch wrote of the pre-1.0 version of the game, “Spelunky may well be one of the most unassumingly mind blowing games of the last 10 years.”

On Christmas Day 2009, creator Derek Yu gave fans a gift — the source code — that fed oxygen to this spark of a community. Fans created mods that allowed them to add characters, port the game to Mac OS X, and mine its files for any hidden secrets.

But the Spelunky most people know is actually a remake, released in 2012. Created by Yu and Andy Hull, it’s a more polished, colorful, and somehow even more enigmatic game. During this decade, this version of Spelunky (sometimes labeled Spelunky HD) has made good on the potential Burch saw in the last decade.

This refined Spelunky revived an underappreciated genre; fostered a community of critics and sleuths, modders and speedrunners; and has single-handedly kept my PlayStation Vita charged since it got ported onto the forsaken portable.

FTL: Faster Than Light, Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, and many other games that will land on best-of-the-decade lists would not exist as we know them without Spelunky for inspiration. Countless designers and academics who haven’t borrowed from the game spend no less time discussing it at parties, in lectures, and of course at great length on podcasts. Have you listened to The Spelunky Showlike, a Spelunky-inspired show hosted by some of the great game makers and thinkers working today? It’s 30 episodes deep and counting. (Start with episode 6, in which the hosts talk with Yu about Spelunky 2.)

Arguably more fascinating than the impact Spelunky has had on game design is the mark it has made on the lives of its players. See, you don’t beat Spelunky, as its final boss isn’t really its final boss. Nor is its last stage the end of the game. Completing Spelunky is more like finally learning how to swim or ride a bike — you’ve completed the initial hurdle, but the real fun is how you apply your skill next.

Speedrunners have treated it like a gymnasium, concocting a variety of challenging obstacle courses, then accomplishing them at eye-melting speed. Modders have filled it with beloved characters and new stages. And streamers have mined it for secrets that I’m not entirely sure its creator ever expected people to find.

In 2013, game designer Douglas Wilson unpacked what he called the “most fascinating video game moment” of the year: the solo Eggplant run. “At its core,” wrote Wilson, “the solo Eggplant run is a thrilling story about how livestreaming is changing video games in radical and exciting ways; how the internet has finally triumphed over Spelunky’s creators, Derek Yu and Andy Hull; how mastery can lead to a beautiful kind of performance, showcasing the value of gaming as human culture. And it hinges on a mysterious eggplant.”

For years, players continued to uncover similar secrets hidden within Spelunky’s caverns. And when they felt they’d found everything its creators had intentionally created, the fans mined Spelunky for unintentional treasures. It’s reminiscent of a classic painting in the way it rewards intense, thoughtful, and regular viewings. That it benefits from years of critical interpretation. That it hides secrets that can only be found with an X-ray machine, or, in Spelunky’s case, some code manipulation.

That is why I can comfortably say Spelunky is the closest that video games have come to perfection in this decade — or any decade. Its flaws and bugs aren’t problems; they’re brushstrokes, evidence that this little slice of the divine was in fact made by humans.

The most influential video games aren’t always the most popular, and rankings never tell the whole story. To mark the end of the decade, our editorial team published a list of the top 100 games. We’ve also created this supplemental series, in which individual Polygon writers get to talk about the most important games from that same period, and exactly how they changed the course of the industry.

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