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Spelunker (スペランカー) is a video game originally created by Tim Martin of MicroGraphicImage for Atari 8-bit home computers in 1983, that was later ported to other consoles and home computers by American software developer Broderbund and Japanese video game developer Irem.
When the arcade remake was ported to the MSX and Famicom by Irem, the Famicom version became more popular than other versions and caused its specific version of the Spelunker hero to be one of the most characteristic icons of Japanese video game culture due to himself being extremely weak in the game. He is considered by many people in Japan as “the weakest video game character ever”, as well as the mascot of used game bins. Of course, his popularity in Japan is also based on Japanese “kuso” culture loving the awfulness of poorly-designed video games.
Origins of Source Material
Spelunker was originally created in 1983 by MicroGraphicImage employee Tim Martin for the Atari 8-bit computers such as the Atari 400 and the Atari 800 XL. This gameplay footage below shows a demonstration of it on the Atari 800 XL:
Despite Spelunker being a groundbreaking achievement, MicroGraphicImage turned publication of Spelunker over to American software company Broderbund, who republished it to the Atari 8-bit home computers, as well as porting it to the Commodore 64 in North America and Europe. While MicroGraphicImage never went bankrupt, they ceased operations in 1984. In Japan, the Japanese video game company Irem (best known for video games like Moon Patrol, Kung-Fu Master and especially R-TYPE) remade Spelunker for the arcades in 1985:
When the arcade remake became moderately successful, Irem loosely ported it to the MSX and the NES (as seen below) later the same year the arcade remake was released. Due to the NES being more popular than nearly every other home console and computer at the time, and due to the NES version being a poorly-done conversion of the arcade remake, the NES version became the most popular version of Spelunker. In Japan, the NES version perceived to have sold fairly well, but was also met with a significant backlash. Most gamers in North America and Europe thought it was just another mediocre video game, but in Japan, gamers were surprised about how many weaknesses the Spelunker hero had in the NES version, making him both infamous and laughable.
Hero in the NES version
One of the most (if not the most) memorable parts of the NES version is the hero’s perfect inability to avoid any mistake, whether perceived or not. There are 8 examples:
Fall farther than his jump height
Be thrust higher than the height of his jump by uneven surfaces
Touch any enemy (a given)
Touch any environmental hazard (e.g. drops of water, bat feces, fire/poisonous gas, etc.)
Not stand far enough away from the bomb/dynamite.
Touch a spiky rock
Fall into a gap (sometimes)
Run out of oxygen
Making matters worse is the way the NES version deals with deaths. While still playing the death jingle, the NES version tends to return the hero in his last, known, safe place called “checkpointing”, but without warning and full control, making it easier for the player to quickly cause a lot of deaths, especially if they are novice players.
Ropes are another one of the trickiest obstacles in Spelunker. In both the NES and MSX versions, when clinging to a rope, the player must press the control pad+ or move the joystick (depending on what controller they are using) toward their wanted direction before seriously pressing the jump button. This makes the hero slide along the rope before jumping, and can cause him to fall to death. Another contributing factor to the difficulty of Spelunker is that the overall level design does not seem to actually take the hero’s shortcomings into consideration. There are many situations in the game that require pinpoint precision or else, naturally, the hero dies.
Other examples of the hero’s popularity are two well-known Japanese slangs. One is “Spelunker Taishitsu” (スペランカー体質 / Superankā taishitsu / lit. Spelunker’s Constitution), abbreviated as “Spe Taishitsu” (スペ体質 :Supe taishitsu), which literally means “frequently get injured easily”. It’s usually used for professional sports players (e.g. Michael Owen from Manchester United, England). The other slang is “Sper” (スペる(Superu)), a verb that literally means “get injured in a trifling matter”.
Reception in Japan
Because of the NES version’s insane difficulty, many players in Japan were dismayed by it and either sold or traded it in used game shops. Over the years, the NES version of Spelunker was nicknamed as the “mascot of used game bins”, because even today, it’s very easy to find dozens of official copies of it in used game shops throughout Japan. This discrimination caused many Japanese gamers of its era to look back pseudo-fondly on the time when it utterly hurt their childhood memories after they either bought it or received it as a gift.
Therefore, it not only became common in Japanese Internet culture, but also in reality. The NES version of the hero can be seen appearing in Flash animations (such as the popular Michael series by NSF and the Natraps X series), fan art on the popular 2ch forum, music recitals, cosplay and of course, countless videos found on YouTube and especially Nico Nico Douga.
While the NES version of Spelunker sold fairly well during its release, Irem created a Japan-exclusive sequel Spelunker II: Yūsha e no Chōsen, but it was unsuccessful. Since 1999, Irem has been posting four-frame comic strip series titled Spelunker Sensei (スペランカー先生 / SUperankā Sensei / lit. “Teacher Spelunker”). In this series, he is drawn as a physical education teacher being afraid of any difference in level. And of course, he dies easily in many times. This comic series was released in a special book in 2009. and it still continues today. His anthology comic by many mangakas was also released in 2010.
Due to the popularity of the NES version of Spelunker increasing, while Irem created the comic strips, Irem created and released a remake of the NES version titled “Spelunker HD” (known in Japan as Minna de Spelunker (みんなでスペランカー)), which features a 3D mode and an 8-bit mode. While it became successful, the popularity grew. Japanese video game developer From Software added a 3D version of the game’s fragile hero as one of the pre-designed templates for the customizable hero in their upcoming action-RPG, 3D Dot Game Heroes.
Video examples of the meme
Meme crossovers / Mash-ups
This section shows this meme crossing over one or more memes.
- Marisa stole the precious thing (盗んでいきましたシリーズ)
- DEAD ZONE (part of a series of MADs titled RED_ZONE)
- Passion Yara (パッション屋良)
- U.N Owen was Spelunker? (based on the meme titled U.N Owen was her?)
- Cirno’s Perfect Math Class (チルノのパーフェクト算数教室)
- Spelunkkireta (based on the meme Fukkireta)
- M.U.G.E.N – A few versions of the Spelunker hero were created. From original reproductions…
…to arrangements. The Kunio-kun version known as “Vegalunker” (ベガランカー) in second video below is seen at 4:03.
- Giant Bomb entry about Spelunker : Click here
- Strategy Wiki entry about Spelunker : Click here
- Videos on YouTube under スペランカー (Spelunker) : Click here
- Videos on YouTube under “Spelunker game” : Click here
- Japanese Wikipedia entry about Spelunker : Click here
- “Spelunker” on Nico Nico Douga : Click here
- Same sorted by recent date : Click here
- Same sorted by views : Click here
- Nico Nico Pedia entry about Spelunker : Click here
- Uncyclopedia entry about Spelunker : Click here
- niconicoMUGEN Wiki entry about the M.U.G.E.N counterparts : Click here
- niconicoMUGEN Wiki entry about the Kunio-kun-style Spelunker, Vegalunker (ベガランカー) : Click here