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1001 Spikes finds comedy in careful, cruel level design

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As a fan of deviously designed platforming games, I’d say my tastes run somewhere from the mischievous to the gently malicious. Which is to say, I’ve beaten most of Super Meat Boy and love BattleBlock Theater, but I’ve never made it past the first five screens of I Wanna Be The Guy. I don’t mind dying repeatedly in a game—the growing feeling of mastery as trial and error set in is one of the joys of the hobby—but I refuse to punish myself if there’s some demanded threshold of skill that I’m just not capable of meeting.


So it’s been a real pleasure to sink my teeth into Nicalis’ 1001 Spikes, which both recently arrived on Steam, and seems perfectly pitched toward my particular level of play. Tough but fair, it’s one of those games that presents you with what seems like an extremely limited verb set—you’re confined to throwing daggers, moving left and right, and two different heights of jump—and then pushes you to deploy it in inventive ways.

Take Level 3-1, which lends the game its name. At first, the stretches of periodically thrusting skewers you’re presented with seem impassibly long—until you realize that there’s enough “float” in your character’s jump to hover over their rapid deployment, and the trick becomes finding clear expanses of ceiling that’ll let you jump high enough to wait out the death from below. It’s one of those moments that forces you to realize you’ve got more abilities at your disposal than you thought, and it’s a forced heightening of skill that feels great to achieve.

When playing through Spikes, dodging traps and leaping through unsafe ruins, it’s hard not to be reminded of another game that shamelessly cribs its theming from good old Indiana Jones: Derek Yu’s procedurally generated masterpiece Spelunky. As a devoted Spelunky fan, I’ve been a huge booster for the way that game’s randomized layouts create endless permutations of challenges to overcome. But playing through 1001 Spikes reminded me that intentional, crafted level design has its own special joys as well.

For all its strengths, Spelunky can never be a conversation between player and developer the way a game like 1001 Spikes can, when a last second, end-of-level spike trap can feel like a private joke between me and the level designers. Intentional comedy in video games usually happens when designers layer jokes and dialogue over action that, on its own, doesn’t offer much in the way of laughs. 1001 Spikes often feels intentionally funny, not as a collection of quotes but as a game.

That’s not to say Spelunky can’t be funny either, as anyone who’s ever had a pesky monkey pull a bomb from its pack and set off an accidental Rube Goldberg machine of explosions, firing arrows, and almost certain death can attest. Many of the levels in 1001 Spikes make me laugh out loud by design, though; either at the beginning, when I see the madness I’m be expected to master and traverse, or at the end, when one last falling block smashes me like the punchline I never saw coming.


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