In the wee hours of Nov. 10, 2013, a man who goes by Bananasaurus Rex performed a genuine video game miracle. He completed a "solo Eggplant run."
If you're not a Spelunky junkie, the words "solo Eggplant run" won't mean very much to you. But as I see it, Bananasaurus Rex's feat is an important, downright historic achievement — not just for Spelunky, but for games at large.
I want to help you understand why.
At its core, 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.
If you're already versed in the world of Spelunky, start this journey by watching the run yourself. I'll embed some play-by-play highlights below, but the full video is oozing with gripping gameplay drama worth viewing in its own right. Don't let me spoil it for you!
If you can't be fussed to watch the entire thing, start at ~35:50 — that's when Bananasaurus Rex ("Rex" for short) gets the Ball and Chain and things start getting crazy.
For those of you who don't know much about Spelunky, or who didn't know about the game's ultra-obscure Eggplant item, let's start with some background context.
Spelunky: A Brief Primer
Spelunky's also a difficult game. Like, we're talking infamously difficult. Many players never make it past the game's first two worlds, and only a tiny fraction ever make it to Hell, the game's secret fifth and final world. Inspired by roguelikes like NetHack, Spelunky doesn't let you save your game. When you die, you're dead — game over. You lose all of your progress and items, and must restart from the beginning.
And oh, how easy it is to die! The unrelenting difficulty is the core appeal of Spelunky. The game is brutal, but you do get better over time, learning from each death. Spelunky rewards patience, practice and discipline. Sure, other video games reward those virtues too, but few games foreground them as clearly as Spelunky. In a sense, the game is kind of like a 21st-century sport. It's endlessly replayable, and its skill ceiling is intimidatingly high. People will still be playing Spelunky years from now, just you wait.
Spelunky is infamously difficult
Originally created by Derek Yu, Spelunky was first released in 2008 as a freeware game. Yu, with the help of programmer Andy Hull, released a significantly revamped commercial version of the game in July 2012. This "HD" version was exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade for a little over one year.
Spelunky has proven especially popular among other game developers (don't be surprised if it's your favorite game designer's favorite game). It won the Design Award at the 2012 Independent Games Festival, and was even nominated for the 2013 Game Developers Choice Awards.
Like Spelunky, this piece is about little details, and information about the game's release history is unexpectedly important to the tale of the Eggplant.
This summer, the HD version was finally released for Windows, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. The Windows port in particular seems to have breathed new life into the game. I suspect that's because it's far easier to livestream off a PC than it is off the Xbox 360, and as such, the game has enjoyed a resurgence of streaming activity on channels like YouTube and Twitch. (The Steam version of the game also released with a new "Daily Challenge" feature that is well-suited to livestreaming). Playing for the public, and with the public, Spelunky streamers have been pushing each other to explore the limits of the game's systems, traveling farther and farther down the proverbial rabbit hole.
As it turns out, even after a year of exclusivity on Xbox 360, there was still a lot left to discover.
What's this Eggplant business?
The Eggplant is an ultra-obscure item obtained by sacrificing an unopened Mystery Box on Kali's Altar. Don't worry, even if you've played the game — a lot — it's reasonable if none of those words mean anything to you.
Despite having played the game for over a year, I didn't even learn about the Eggplant until this summer. There's no mention of it in the game's otherwise comprehensive in-game journal of items and enemies. Until recently, the developers refused to acknowledge its existence.
It takes a considerable amount of both luck and knowledge to even obtain an Eggplant. First, you need to find a Mystery Box in a shop. You probably want to buy it, not steal it, because you don't want a raging Shopkeeper to shoot it open. Moreover, Mystery Boxes are rare, at least in solo runs. Most shops don't carry them.
The developers refused to acknowledge the Eggplant's existence
Once you have a Mystery Box, you must sacrifice it at an Altar. Again, luck plays a factor. Unlike most items, you can't carry a Mystery Box with you between levels. That means you need to wait until the game generates a level that contains both a shop carrying a Mystery Box and an Altar.
Only then, if all these pieces fall into place, will Spelunky reward the player with the mysterious Eggplant.
Until this summer, fans had failed to find any additional purpose behind the enigmatic item. However, with the arrival of the Windows port and the subsequent flurry of livestream activity, the legend of the Eggplant spread quickly, reviving speculation as to possible uses. Meanwhile, rumors began circulating; supposedly, the game was still hiding an undiscovered secret.
The release of the Windows version meant that fans would finally be able to more readily snoop through and tinker with the game itself. Soon, a peculiar set of Eggplant Monster graphics was discovered within the game's data files. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when YouTuber chaindead used a cheat engine to bring the Eggplant to the game's secret boss, King Yama. As chaindead demonstrated in this video, throwing the Eggplant at Yama's head transforms him into an (easily splattered) Eggplant Monster. The video spread like wildfire over Twitter among Spelunky devotees.
Daring players to carry a silly item all the way through a game is hardly a new trick — see the infamous Garden Gnome in Half-Life 2. However, Spelunky's Eggplant secret is a particularly nasty take on the tradition. For one thing, the Eggplant is delicate. Any hit or collision aside from carefully placing it down on safe ground will liquefy it instantly. Moreover, it's difficult (as you'll see below) to "juggle" the Eggplant with other items you might need to carry.
Though Derek Yu has never openly commented on the design intention behind the Eggplant, it seems clear that the Eggplant Monster was designed for co-op play. First, Mystery Boxes are far more common in co-op, in which every item you buy is automatically packaged into a box. Second, and more importantly, it "should" be almost impossible to take an Eggplant to King Yama by yourself.
It seems the Eggplant Monster was designed for co-op play
See, to reach the secret Hell world and King Yama, you need to follow an arcane sequence of steps, one of which is killing yourself such that you resurrect in the World 3 Moai Statue. Upon resurrecting, you get to keep all your equipped items, but not items that are carried — items like the Eggplant. Presumably, this means that you'd need to get an Eggplant after you resurrect (in 3-3, 3-4, or 4-1), the chances of which are very small, as shops are rarer in Worlds 3 and 4 than they are in World 1.
One straightforward solution to this problem is to have a human (co-op) partner carry the Eggplant (it's important to note here that a Hired Hand will not carry it). With the aid of a partner, you're able to bring an Eggplant with you all the way from World 1 (well, in theory, at least — it's not easy). A partner also saves you from having to juggle the Eggplant with other items. It's no surprise, then, that the first legitimate (i.e., non-cheated) Eggplant runs were completed in co-op mode (see here, here).
But the challenge still remained — could anyone complete a legit solo Eggplant run?
Bananasaurus Rex: The man, the legend
Newfoundland's Bananasaurus Rex is clearly the world's best Spelunky player.
That might sound like gobbledygook to you, but to someone who's played Spelunky, those times aren't just impressive — they're superhuman. They're like the four-minute mile of video games. And watching Rex use the Teleporter, one of the game's most lethal tools, is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball with a bomb, successfully.
To watch Rex play Spelunky is to watch someone who has spent hundreds of hours — entire days — with the game, training his muscle memory, familiarizing himself with every possible situation, memorizing Spelunky arcana and honing techniques. Yes, he's naturally gifted, but his talents are clearly bolstered by a colossal amount of experience. If anyone were going to pull off a solo Eggplant run, it was going to be Bananasaurus Rex.
Rex's times aren't just impressive — they're superhuman
Two days before his fateful Nov. 10 run, Rex had already flirted with success, carrying the Eggplant all the way to 5-3 before an untimely demise. Crucially, Rex had devised a feasible (and clever) plan to complete a solo Eggplant run. The plan, as I document below in a play-by-play, incorporates techniques and glitches discovered by the Spelunky livestream community, as well as some of Rex's own inventions. It draws from countless hours of experience, experimentation and community wisdom.
All Rex had to do was execute on the plan, this time without dying in Hell.
... which, as it turns out, is pretty damn difficult, even for a man named Bananasaurus Rex.
I'll begin each section with an embed linked to its timecode.
By the time this particular run begins, Rex has been playing for about a half hour. He is playing the game again and again until the system generates the rare conditions that make it possible to obtain an Eggplant. He's creating his own luck. If Level 1-2 doesn't contain a shop with a Mystery Box, and if that same level doesn't contain an Altar, Rex will restart and try again. It's theoretically possible he could find those conditions in a later level, but unlikely. That's what he means when he says "Eggplant seed" — he's waiting for the random generator to "seed" (a computer science term) the right kind of World 1 levels.
Rex has already recklessly botched one Eggplant seed earlier in the livestream, and it's clear that he isn't taking the run so seriously yet (see the careless losses of health at 1:49 and 6:05).
Recklessness aside, it's worth pointing out how smoothly Rex plays the game. The sheer muscle memory on display is impressive. As one small example, watch the "up-whip" Rex uses at 00:39 to kill the bat, never hesitating as he runs by. This is clearly someone who has played a lot of Spelunky.
Rex sees the Mystery Box. We've got another Eggplant seed on our hands! Rex immediately goes to work, mining the level for as many gems as he can uncover. Note that he doesn't immediately collect the gems. Rex is about to employ an advanced (and tedious) technique called "Ghost-mining."
In a Super Mario level, when time runs out, you die. Spelunky levels enforce a time limit too, but in a looser way. After two and a half minutes in one level, the Ghost spawns. The Ghost slowly chases you until it hits you (instantly killing you) or until you finally exit the level. As long as you can keep avoiding the Ghost, you can stick around the level as long as you like. However, it's easy to get trapped in tight spaces. Successfully avoiding the Ghost takes knowledge and experience.
There's also an additional, more obscure function of the Ghost. If the Ghost passes over an unearthed gem, that gem is transformed into a valuable diamond, each of which is worth $5,000. That's what "Ghost-mining" is — leading the Ghost around a level to maximize the value of all the available treasure.
Rex doesn't care about his score, but he needs as much money as he can get to buy items in the Black Market. Typically, a player would just kill the shopkeepers and take any items for free. But in an Eggplant run, Rex would rather minimize risks. Carrying around the Eggplant is difficult enough, and he certainly doesn't need vengeful shopkeepers after him in each level, especially in Hell.
Rex finally converts the Mystery Box into an Eggplant. The game is afoot!
(If the in-game music were on, you'd hear the special Eggplant tune. We'll forgive Rex, though, as he's broadcasting rad indie game soundtracks and Chrono Trigger remixes.)
Note that Rex immediately proceeds to bomb the Altar. This is important, because Rex needs to destroy two Altars in total to unlock the secret Ball and Chain item (more on that later).
Rex uses his last remaining rope to get the Key. He brings the Key to the Big Chest in order to unlock the Udjat Eye. The Eye will help guide him to the secret Black Market level — one of the steps necessary to enter the secret Hell world. (Getting the Eye is not absolutely necessary, strictly speaking; if you're lucky, you can sometimes spot the Black Market entrance yourself.)
Note that Rex does not bomb the Altar here in 1-4. He'd rather not juggle the Eggplant and Ball and Chain all the way through World 2. Instead, he's gambling that he'll find another Altar later in World 2 or, better yet, early on in World 3.
This is an impressive bit of Ghost evading, and it almost feels like Rex is showing off. To make up for his earlier mistakes, Rex needs to buy some health from the Kissing Booth. Watch Rex pass through the very bottom of the Ghost graphic on his way out. For most players, this situation would spell instant doom. For Rex, the Ghost is just an inconvenience. He knows the exact dimensions of the Ghost's hitbox. Badass!
Uh-oh, a dark level. This turn of events is bad luck for Rex, who now has to juggle the torch and the Eggplant. As Rex notes in the stream, dark levels present additional threats to the ever-delicate Eggplant. Adding to this challenge, the entrance to the Black Market turns out to be on this level (see 19:55).
Still, Rex handles the level with relative ease, and even ends up Ghost-mining and cashing in an idol!
In better news, Rex is able buy a Bomb Box and Climbing Gloves in the 2-1 shop. The Climbing Gloves (which let him climb walls) are an especially key pickup, as Rex will be low on ropes for much of the run.
Black Market! Unfortunately, the contents are somewhat disappointing. Ideally, he'd like a Jetpack, a Compass and even more bombs. Crucially, however, Rex is at least able to buy a Cape, as well as some bombs. This equipment will be just enough for Rex to squeeze by in the coming levels. In retrospect, it is partly these equipment limitations that helped make this run so dramatic.
Note that Rex buys the Ankh at 25:45. He'll need this item to enter the Moai Statue in World 3, which in turn will keep him on the path to the secret Hell world. These rules — collecting a series of odd items to enter obscure portals into increasingly difficult corners of the game — are never made explicit to Spelunky players. You could beat the game without knowing there is another game, chock full of unique items and enemies and stages and mysteries, hidden within it.
World 3 is the Ice World. This is where things start getting more serious. For one thing, Rex has to worry about protecting the Eggplant from the UFOs and their deadly projectiles.
Rex lucks out and finds an Altar. This is a relief, as it means he'll be able to get the Ball and Chain (see below) before reaching the Moai Statue. He sacrifices the damsel and the Yeti corpses in hopes of earning the very useful Kapala item (which converts the blood of enemies into extra life). Unfortunately, he comes up one Yeti short. If only he had sacrificed a single creature in 2-1, he would have had enough favor. "Good thing I never get hit by enemies," he jokes. Those words will haunt him later on.
Rex bombs the Altar, spawning the Ball and Chain item. Wisely, he makes sure that he and the Eggplant are next to the exit before the bomb actually explodes and the Ball and Chain spawns.
The Ball and Chain item is a penalty inflicted on players who destroy two Altars. It's an obscure item, and most players will never even learn about its existence. Perhaps because of its obscurity, the Ball and Chain also happens to be one of the buggiest, most poorly tested features of Spelunky.
Tethered to the Ball and Chain, the player must pick up the heavy ball in order to move around freely (albeit slowly). This is especially problematic in an Eggplant run, since it requires the player to alternate carrying the ball and the Eggplant.
Despite these downsides, the Ball and Chain brings with it one key advantage — the ability to break blocks, if gravity is applied correctly. As we'll see, that ability ends up becoming central to the entire run.
Rex gets a little unlucky, as 3-2 does not contain the Moai Statue. That means he'll have to lug the Ball and Chain to 3-3. His decreased mobility is especially problematic, given that he's low on ropes.
Watch as Rex uses careful placement, gravity and his Cape to drift down to the exit with both the Ball and Chain and the Eggplant. Masterfully executed!
This moment is arguably the key moment of the run, and warrants some explanation.
On the path to reaching the secret Hell world, you must let yourself die in the level containing the Moai Statue. If you possess the Ankh, you are resurrected inside the statue, thereby earning yourself the Hedjet item (which is needed to open the door to the City of Gold). The problem is, you're typically trapped inside the statue when you resurrect. As such, you're effectively blocked from taking any carried items with you. The ground below the statue is even weirdly impervious to bombs. As the game was designed, there should be no way to bring an Eggplant with you through the Moai Statue.
The thing is, video game systems are highly complex, and often allow for exploits that their developers never intended. Enter BaerTaffy and bisnap, two seasoned Spelunky streamers who have been searching for glitches and other strange strategies ever since the Windows release.
In late September, on a joint livestream, BaerTaffy and bisnap stumbled upon a startling glitch. Experimenting with the Ball and Chain, Baer was able to break the invisible blocks around the Moai Statue, effectively allowing himself to climb in and out of the statue. (This glitch gets even weirder if you walk over the door before resurrecting. Watch the Hedjet spawn as a diamond. As Rex points out, this is likely a mechanism designed to prevent players from acquiring the Hedjet by teleporting into the statue.)
(Note: Spelunky programmer Andy Hull has confirmed on Twitter that this Ball and Chain glitch is indeed a bug. Andy has indicated that he and Derek plan not to fix the exploit in future patches.)
This is the bug that Rex takes advantage of in his Eggplant run. After breaking one side of the statue, Rex kills himself at 40:06. He's able to climb outside the statue, grab the Eggplant and exit the level. Ace!
Before killing himself, however, Rex takes care of another problem — the Ball and Chain, which is no longer needed. Using his Climbing Glove, Rex is able to ditch the Ball and Chain into the Ice World's bottomless pit. Convenient! It's not clear whether this bit of Spelunky physics is intentional or not, but Rex's Eggplant run would almost certainly be impossible without it.
Note that there's a Jetpack hidden in the left-side platform! A rare and fortunate turn of events. But poor Rex fails to see it! (In Rex's defense, I also failed to spot it the first two times I watched this segment.) The chat room of the livestream tries to tell Rex, but he only gets the message after exiting the level. By this point, it's starting to feel like the universe is conspiring to make this the most dramatic run possible.
The Mothership! This is where shit starts getting real.
The Mothership is a bonus level that's always reachable from 3-4. It's also one of the game's most dangerous levels. It is appropriately cruel that Rex need visit the Mothership. Between the Ghost-mining, the dark level and the Mothership, this Eggplant run feels like a "Greatest Hits" of perilous Spelunky devilry. (The only thing that's missing is a trip to the Worm level!)
But why risk a trip to the Mothership? What does Rex stand to gain?
The trick Rex pulls here is both necessary and extremely clever. Once again, the explanation is convoluted, and requires some understanding of Spelunky arcana.
In order to reach Hell, you have to go through the City of Gold, a secret level accessed from World 4. To enter the City of Gold, you need the Hedjet (as explained above) and the Sceptre, a weapon found in 4-1. The problem is, the entrance to the City of Gold is always in 4-2, which means that you have to carry the Sceptre between levels. So, how do you carry both the Sceptre and the Eggplant into 4-2?
The answer is, with the help of a Hired Hand! This solution is awesomely wacky. Hired Hands are AI-controlled helpers — as in, they're controlled by the game — that you can buy or rescue from shops or coffins. The thing is, Hired Hands are notoriously unreliable, if not outright meddlesome. Worse yet, they refuse to pick up the Eggplant. Hired Hands will, however, pick up a weapon... including the Sceptre.
In theory, Rex could bring a Hired Hand with him all the way from Worlds 1 or 2. In practice, it would be very difficult to keep a Hired Hand alive for so long, especially in World 3. At the same time, shops are rare in Worlds 3 and 4, and the chances of him buying a Hired Hand are laughably small.
To reiterate the improbable odds, Rex's plan for the solo Eggplant run calls for a Mystery Box, two Altars and a Hired Hand, all of which make rare appearances in a typical game of Spelunky — and that says nothing of the skill required to accomplish the task.
Rex's solution to this dilemma is brilliant. He subverts the game's unlockable character system! In Spelunky, new characters can be found in the game's world. The first time you rescue a particular unlockable character, he or she tags along as a Hired Hand. Before this run, Rex has cleared his save data such that he hasn't yet unlocked one particular character. Said character, the Robot, is always found in — you guessed it — the Mothership.
The Mothership is a particularly convenient location for Rex to acquire a Hired Hand, because he'll only need to shepherd it through two levels (3-4 redux and 4-1). What's so cool about this trick is that it's totally "in bounds" of the game system. That is to say, Rex isn't cheating by manipulating the game's code. He is simply manipulating progress settings to his advantage.
That's the beauty of this run — it subverts so many seemingly disparate quirks of the Spelunky system, employing all of them together, in concert. Rex is using the game system against itself.
The intensity level continues to rise. Rex is carrying the Robot to prevent it from killing itself, but he's worried the UFOs might destroy the Eggplant, which is sitting there unprotected. With supplies dwindling, Rex manages to kill two UFOs with a single well-placed rope.
Here's another clever trick. With the UFOs taken care of, Rex bombs out the right side of the level to create a makeshift "cage" for the hapless Robot AI. Effectively, he's prevented the Robot from getting itself into any trouble. Rex can now grab the Eggplant and make his way to the exit. (Thankfully, your Hired Hand is transported with you to the next level, no matter where it is in the current level).
With two bombs, Rex easily takes down Anubis, who conveniently spawned right next to the level entrance. Anubis is a special enemy that always appears in 4-1. He carries the special Sceptre item (as mentioned earlier), a weapon that shoots a deadly energy field. Rex will need both the Hedjet (which he acquired in the Moai Statue) and the Sceptre to unlock the door to the City of Gold.
The Hedjet is wearable, but the Sceptre is not, so Rex will need to manually carry the Sceptre to 4-2. Or rather, since he'll be busy carrying the Eggplant, the Robot will have to carry the Sceptre for him. Uh-oh.
Rex clears out some traps in a left-side room, creating another cage for the Robot. Before he can make a run for the exit, he decides to clear out some traps and enemies below.
In my opinion, 4-1 is the most "controversial" part of the run. One immediate question is, why doesn't Rex just leave the Hired Hand in the cage, holding the Sceptre? And why does Rex bother to use all those bombs destroying traps, especially with supplies dwindling?
I talked to Rex by Skype, and he emphasized that he was confident that he had made the right decisions. First, Rex pointed out that Hired Hands sometimes put down the item they're carrying for no discernible reason. By carrying the Robot near the exit, he'd be able to keep tabs on whether the Robot was still holding the Sceptre. As for using the bombs, he explains: "I knew that I might have to run back and forth through the level dodging the Ghost, depending on how things went. And I didn't want any surprises."
Rex gives the Robot the Sceptre and makes a run for the exit with the Ghost hot on his heels.
It's difficult to convey how funny this moment is. (Someone should redub this bit with Benny Hill music). At any instant, the Robot AI could decide to use the Sceptre, unwittingly killing Rex with its deadly energy blast, which homes in on nearby creatures.
Rex believes that giving the Sceptre to the Robot in this moment is less dangerous than it looks. "I always make sure there's nothing for him to shoot at," he explains. Still, it feels like Rex is appropriating some neglected sub-system to accomplish something the game wasn't originally designed to do. I mean, it's a friggin' Hired Hand! Nobody uses those things seriously in any normal run.
This is one of the most dangerous moments of the run. As Rex enters 4-2, the Robot is on its own with the Sceptre. Fortunately, no enemies are nearby, and Rex is able to grab the Robot before it does anything stupid. He promptly disposes of the Robot using a Tiki Trap.
Poor little fella! It served so valiantly.
The door to the City of Gold (which is always located in 4-2) is near the level entrance. To unlock the door, you need both the Hedjet and the Sceptre — both of which Rex has acquired. Rex bombs his way to the door, grabs the Eggplant and enters the door, bypassing the rest of the level.
The City of Gold! A secret level where the walls are all made of gold.
But Rex isn't interested in the money. Rather, Rex needs the Book of the Dead, a special item placed at the center of the level. The Book is required to enter the secret Hell world.
As we go deeper into this explanation, it's worth remembering none of these tasks are required by, or even explicitly stated in, the game's primary adventure. All of it: The levels, items and techniques have been discovered by players, often alone, but sometimes in concert via livestreams. Like the tombs themselves, Spelunky is being excavated and mysticized.
Fellow Spelunky streamer Zer0Doxy joins in on the broadcast by Skype, providing live color commentary and moral support. "All the hard parts are over," she assures Rex. Famous last words.
(Note that while Doxy is speaking to Rex in real time over Skype, she's watching via Twitch. The footage she sees lags a few seconds behind where Rex actually is).
In my opinion, Doxy's presence is a welcome addition to the run. Her commentary adds a certain sense of "ceremony" to the run, as if we're watching the Olympics or an NFL playoff game. Actually, it's weirder than that — we're watching a sport where the lead commentator is also an active player. As a point of comparison, imagine if Mike Breen had to play for the Knicks while doing the play-by-play.
It's worth reflecting on this for a moment — the way that livestreaming is reconfiguring the relationship between performance, commentary and spectatorship. Unlike a real-time multiplayer game such as StarCraft or Street Fighter, a single-player game like Spelunky allows the player to take breaks. There's a different rhythm here, one that is oddly suited to livestreaming and in-depth analysis. Streamers are still making up their own conventions for this kind of broadcast, and we all get to witness the media form take shape.
Rex grabs the Book of the Dead, triggering the Anubis II mini-boss. Rex easily disposes of Anubis II, but has to use several bombs in the process. His supplies are dwindling — definitely a concern.
Olmec! The main boss of Spelunky.
To beat Olmec, you have to goad him into smashing all the way through the ground, down into the lava below. To shortcut the process, you can also bomb your own hole and lure Olmec into jumping through it.
To reach the secret Hell world, however, you have to lure Olmec to a very particular location, right under a secret door. (The door only opens if you have the Book of the Dead). You can then use Olmec himself as a platform to enter the door while he's sinking into the lava.
This maneuver would be rather simple for a seasoned Spelunky veteran like Rex, except that he's so low on bombs. Fortunately, the top of Olmec's Lair is littered in treasure and crates. Rex ropes his way up to the top of the room and eventually finds two bomb bags — just enough for the task at hand.
Rex bombs a hole down to the lava, but faces a dilemma. With only three bombs left, he has to decide whether to use two bombs to open the rest of the hole, or risk a sophisticated maneuver that would allow him to use just one bomb. He deliberates over the decision for several minutes.
The maneuver is this: If you teeter over the hole while Olmec approaches, you can get him to smash his way down, breaking one layer of bricks on his way. The problem is, if Olmec happens to be perfectly lined up with the hole (he travels a set distance each jump), he could jump directly into the hole. In that scenario, Rex wouldn't be able to get him to smash downwards, and Olmec would get trapped in any hole that still had any bricks blocking the lava.
In short, Rex has to decide whether to use two bombs to open the hole entirely, or to use just one bomb and use the teetering maneuver to get Olmec to break the bottom layer of bricks.
Rex really wants to hold on to two bombs. He'll need one bomb for Yama's Lair, but he'd like to keep a second bomb for Vlad's Amulet in 5-1.
Rex decides to risk using just one bomb. To ensure that Olmec is aligned correctly (or rather, misaligned) with the hole, Rex goads Olmec into a few smashes, changing his alignment. He successfully gets Olmec to smash down through the hole, grabs the Eggplant and makes his way into Hell.
Hell! The secret fifth world of Spelunky.
Don't let Rex's remarkable talents fool you. Hell is difficult. It's the extra-difficult mode of an already notoriously difficult game. The vast majority of Spelunky players never make it to Hell. Most players probably don't even know it exists.
Rex still has to make it through this level and three more. So close, yet so far...
Rex uses one of his two remaining bombs to make his way into Vlad's Tower. Vlad is the red vampire sleeping on the ceiling.
Rex makes a very fortunate pickup and finds a Bomb Bag in a crate. Three more bombs! In retrospect, this bit of luck may well have saved the run. I asked Rex about it, and he explained that he probably would have skipped Vlad's Amulet had he not found additional bombs. (Remember, he needs to keep at least one bomb for Yama's Lair to use on Ox Face or Horse Head). As Rex himself admits, things might have gone differently without the Amulet's protection from lava.
(Note that Rex does not equip the special red cape that Vlad drops. Even though it bestows a double jump power, Vlad's Cape is notoriously awkward to use.)
This segment is possibly the most nerve-racking part of the whole run.
Rex is trying to make his way through 5-2, but can't find a safe route through the mess of spikes, lava and enemies. It's like the level generation algorithm has decided to make him really earn this run.
The Ghost spawns, and Rex is in trouble. At 1:13:18 he's forced to keep moving, and just barely manages to protect the Eggplant from enemies. He takes some damage, though, and he's down to one health.
One health, two bombs. This run is going to be a nail-biter.
Rex lures the Ghost to the top of the level, then makes a run for it. As he makes his way downward, he chooses to go left. He doesn't have the Compass, and so he isn't sure where the exit is. As he reaches the lower-left corner, he makes a horrifying discovery — the exit isn't there, which means it must be on the other side of the level. Worse yet, the Ghost is closing in on him.
Rex has to improvise, and quick. He lures the Ghost down just far enough, barely dodges a spike ball, floats over the lava pit, makes his way around a Tiki Trap and finally exits the level. Whew!
(A fun side observation: Chatting with Rex about the run, both of us agreed that missing the Jetpack in World 3 may actually have saved him. In 5-2, Rex repeatedly used the Cape to float down onto the spikes. You can't do that with a Jetpack. We'll never know, but it seems plausible that Rex may not have survived 5-2 without the additional flexibility of landing on those spike platforms.)
Rex opens a crate and finds... a Compass. One level too late! It's like the game is openly taunting him.
King Yama! The secret boss of Spelunky.
Rex takes care of the enemies below, then slowly makes his way up the right side. He has to be careful to stay under the cover of bricks, otherwise he might get hit by the bones that fall from the ceiling.
Rex does it! He slams the Eggplant into Yama's face!
The game rewards him with a reprise of the secret Eggplant song.
Rex's work isn't over, though. First he needs to take care of Yama's left hand. At 1:21:12, he destroys the hand, and very narrowly escapes a falling skull right afterward. Nice reflexes!
The moment of truth.
Rex walks up to the now-powerless Yama, taunts him, then finally whips his Eggplant face. Splat!
Over one hour later, Rex has finally accomplished the impossible. Bravo!
Takeaway lessons: Beyond the run itself
Bananasaurus Rex's solo Eggplant run is certainly a thing of beauty, an achievement valuable in its own right. But, speaking both as a former games researcher and as a practicing developer, I'm convinced that the run offers some important lessons about game design and game culture more generally.
Lesson #1: The rise of livestreaming
Of all the coverage I read about Rex's Eggplant run, it's Polygon's Chris Plante who put it best: "[The community] took a notoriously hard game and transfigured it into a holy sacrament of difficulty."
That observation comes from an opinion piece about next-gen consoles and the growing interest in livestreaming. The "transfiguration" Chris describes is something that is happening to video games more generally. Livestreaming is changing how people discover new games and affecting what they decide to buy; it's incentivizing virtuosic performances; it's galvanizing communities around particular games.
Admittedly, the internet (e.g., YouTube, GameFAQs, Reddit) has already transformed video game culture in similar ways. But I would argue that livestreaming is a beast of a qualitatively different nature. It's more immediate, more direct, and the chat feature of platforms like Twitch drive real-time interaction between performer, commentator and spectator. Livestreamers, drawing from radio and television, are using regularly scheduled broadcasts to build viewership. And the streamers themselves — personalities like PewDiePie, Northernlion, and MANvsGAME — are often the central attraction.
Livestreaming is incentivizing virtuosic performances
I don't think it's a coincidence that the Eggplant run was only completed after the Windows release, over one year following Spelunky's XBLA debut. Yes, the Yama Eggplant kill was finally discovered once PC users could analyze the data files and experiment with cheat engine tools. But Rex's Eggplant run, drawing on exploits and glitches discovered live on Twitch, is equally indebted to a streaming community that has taken to the Windows port enthusiastically, in formidable numbers. Crucially, livestreams give players like Bananasaurus Rex and BaerTaffy a reason to keep exploring, and an audience to play for. In some cases, livestreaming offers a financial incentive, too.
Spelunky, as it turns out, happens to be an especially good fit for livestreams. One, the game requires both in-depth knowledge and deft execution. It's impressive to watch someone like Bananasaurus Rex jump and move, but it's also engrossing to hear him talk through what he's doing and why he's doing it. The Spelunky game system is highly complex, and as such, the game beckons the kind of commentary that livestreaming enables. And because Spelunky is so brutal on new players, streamers serve a key role, demonstrating why the game, difficult as it may be, is worth sticking with. It's as if livestreaming "completes" the game, allowing it to flourish into what it was always meant to be.
In another view, the "true Spelunky" is the livestreamed experience, both for broadcaster and spectator. Spelunky — as a concept, as an experience, as an entity — isn't just the game binary that you download onto your computer. It's also the Twitter banter about the game; it's the daily slog to get better at the game, slowly but surely, death after death; it's the communal effort to uncover new exploits and weird secrets; it's something that's equally "ours" as it is Mossmouth's. Spelunky, like any sport or game that matters — I mean really matters — is inseparable from the culture around it.
And you better believe that this livestream dynamic is going to affect how game designers think about their craft. What designer wouldn't want to watch a legion of fans enthusiastically exploring every nook and cranny of their game system? As I see it, a feat like the solo Eggplant run is like a love letter written to Spelunky: the highest possible honor a game can receive. Speaking as a practicing game developer, I'm already thinking about how to design games that play well to livestreaming communities. In my estimation, the Daily Challenge feature is an exciting portent of other design innovations to come.
Lesson #2: It's a secret for everybody
Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about a particular statement from a cheeky manifesto ("Manife$to") by L.A.-based game collective Arcane Kids. They assert, "The purpose of gameplay is to hide secrets." Overstated as that may be, there's a real, underappreciated truth to the claim.
One of the most endearing (and enduring) qualities of Spelunky is its many secrets. The game is brimming with bonus levels, obscure items, rare music, Easter eggs, references to older video games and more. These kinds of details are more than just dressing; they give the game its personality. Secrets, when done right, are one of the most powerful ways of humanizing a game. They provide a form of texturing, a lasting trace of the creator's hand. Secrets, at least the truly memorable ones, transform a well-designed game into something far weirder, something magical.
Secrets transform a well-designed game into something magical
What's doubly impressive about the Yama Eggplant kill, though, is the mythical status it ended up earning. Hidden for over a year, the Eggplant became something more than a mere secret; it became a thing of legend. Spelunky streamer BaerTaffy, reflecting on the Eggplant, explains: "I think the group of us rallying around this one big secret ending is one of the best things that can happen for a gaming community." A mammoth secret like the Yama Eggplant kill, and the subsequent effort to capitalize on that secret (perhaps in unexpected ways), speaks to the raw excitement of discovery and ingenuity.
In a livestream world, secrets like the Eggplant are especially resonant. All it takes is for one player to find and pursue a suitably provocative secret. The rest of us, even if we're just casual fans, get front-row seats to the ensuing adventure. The whole community profits from these colorful, well-placed Easter eggs.
Lesson #3: Beating Derek Yu and Andy Hull at their own game
The video games that interest me most are the ones that foreground their human creators — the ones where you're not just playing a game system, but where you're actively aware that you're playing with or against the particular minds who created the game.
The Eggplant secret — appropriately mysterious and open-ended — ended up functioning as one such spotlight on the presence of the game's creators. The Yama Eggplant kill became a kind of dare to the entire Spelunky fan base. It was a dare that required cunning, skill and the collective wisdom of a whole community. It was a dare that ended up inspiring an even crazier dare, one created by the players themselves. And it required outsmarting the developers at their own game.
To reiterate, a solo Eggplant run isn't supposed to be possible solo. The feat combines a number of exploits and ingenious workarounds, including a deep knowledge of the buggy Ball and Chain item. What's so satisfying about Rex's solo Eggplant run is that it uses the game system against itself. That's why the run is so momentous. Rex didn't just beat the game; he beat Derek Yu and Andy Hull, the game's creators. And when Rex pulled off the impossible, we all won. Collectively, we had subverted the designers' intentions. The run feels like karmic payback for all our deaths, all our many failures. The run is symbolic.
The Yama Eggplant kill became a kind of dare to the entire Spelunky fan base
For the first time, it felt like Spelunky — the concept, the entity — had been well and thoroughly slayed. I asked BaerTaffy about the run, and he agreed: "It feels as though we can finally say, 'Yes, Spelunky, we've conquered all of your challenges. We have defeated you.'" Or, as Rock Paper Shotgun's Graham Smith put it: "The eggplant video feels like a full stop on something." To be clear, I don't mean to imply that the game isn't still worth playing. Rather, it's that the Spelunky community seems to have finally achieved the kind of deep mastery that the game always deserved. As the game's own character, Yang, says: "The journey is its own reward and mastery is the greatest treasure of them all!"
Epilogue: Where does Spelunky go from here?
If Spelunky, as I claim, has truly been conquered, will livestreamers keep playing the game? Where does the community go from here?
I think it's clear that interest will inevitably wane and streamers will move on to new games. Nevertheless, I also believe that Spelunky is a timeless classic. People will be playing (and streaming) the game for years. Moreover, it's always fun to watch new players try the game... and fail horribly. Spelunky has an innate comedy to it, which will serve the game well as it ages.
I should also note that the Spelunky community is still uncovering wild new exploits. Just this past month, YouTuber HecticXXX9001 discovered an ingenious trick that drains Olmec's lava pit. (Things get weird, though — see this BaerTaffy video.) And Bananasaurus Rex himself is still at it. In perhaps the biggest Spelunky news since his own Eggplant run, Rex was able to kill the Ghost, without cheating. That's nuts. Every time I think Spelunky has been fully explored, somebody proves me wrong.
Where does the community go from here?
In regards to competitive play, I can imagine the game heading in at least two directions. Personally, I'd love to see some kind of Spelunky speed run "league" à la Binding of Isaac League Racing. Such a league could use the Daily Challenge to pit competitors against one another. I could also see streamers competing against one another by some measure of "streak scoring," like the one in Michael Brough's roguelike 868-HACK. The idea, as suggested to me by my colleague Jonathan Whiting, is that you simply count how many days in a row you were able to beat Hell on the Daily Challenge.
As for myself, I'll be watching livestreamers like Bananasaurus Rex and BaerTaffy to see what else they can accomplish. I'll also keep playing, from time to time. And when I do, I'll wear a subtle smile on my face, equipped with the knowledge that we, the Spelunky fan community, have already won.
Douglas Wilson is co-owner of Die Gute Fabrik, a small game studio based in Copenhagen and New York City. Doug has developed a number of physical and installation games including Johann Sebastian Joust, which received the Innovation Award at the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards. He is currently producing two commercial games projects, Sportsfriends and Mutazione.
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