Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita (reviewed), PlayStation 4
If you’re unfamiliar, Spelunky is a platformer that focuses heavily on exploration and adventure and was originally released as a freeware game on PC in 2008. After much success and praise, it has been rebuilt from the ground up for XBLA (and later multiple other platforms). As you begin your journey in Spelunky your goal is simple, use your platforming and exploration skills to dispose of enemies and reach the end of the level in one piece. To do so, you’ll start out with four hearts, four bombs, four ropes, a whip and your sweet jumping skills. Hearts represent your life, so hit zero hearts and you die. Bombs and ropes are used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas or perhaps escape from sketchy situations (which you will no doubt encounter). Your whip allows you to kill or stun certain enemies you come face to face with. You can also damage most of your foes by jumping on them or throwing various items (pots, rocks, etc.) found around the level.
During your journey there will also be ways to make your run a little easier. There is an abundance of treasure to be found and collected along the way. Treasure hunting adds a completely new dynamic to the game because it offers you a way to purchase helpful items, but may also put you in harm’s way while trying to do so. Once you stock up on treasure you’ll be able to visit shops that are scattered throughout the levels. These can be a blessing and allow you to buy great items, but beware the shopkeeper in your travels because one wrong move and he will make your life in Spelunky a living hell.
Outside of shops you’ll find crates scattered about and they can offer a means to replenish your bombs and ropes, as well as contain other helpful items from time to time. There are also characters you can find on most levels called damsels, which you can rescue. If you manage to get the damsel to the exit of the level you find them on, you’ll be rewarded with a kiss and an extra heart, which is perhaps the most valuable commodity in the game. So be on the lookout for damsels early and often.
While Spelunky may seem like a simple game in premise, it was definitely designed with the hardcore in mind. Hazards in Spelunky are everywhere and death waits for you around every corner. Whether it is a rogue spider coming out of nowhere, some demented jungle madman with a boomerang, or just a mistimed jump that finds you impaled on a bed of spikes, everything wants you dead. This turns a simple, unassuming platformer into one of the most difficult gauntlets of dread I’ve seen in a while. For some people this may be a turnoff, but this challenge is what has drawn me deeper and deeper into the game.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that you’ll have to make through (at least)16 levels, which get progressively more difficult and you’ll have just one life to complete the game. No saves. No continues. On top of that, each level is procedurally generated, so every playthrough will be different from the last. This means there’s no memorizing where a spike pit or enemy is located and playing around it. Instead new obstacles and death traps lay in wait ready to end you once again. There is also the possibility that you will end up on a “themed” level. These include (but aren’t limited to) levels in complete darkness where you must carry a torch to light the way or a level filled with almost nothing but spiders and these can end an otherwise good run quite quickly.
I can see comparisons being drawn to a game like Super Meat Boy when talking about the difficulty of Spelunky. Both games are unforgiving and make you pay for every little mistake you make. Similarly to Super Meat Boy, when you die in Spelunky it is almost always because you make a stupid decision and not because of bad game design. However, in Spelunky you aren’t trying to complete a series of singular levels with unlimited lives. Instead, you’ll have to traverse numerous levels in a single life. Dying is permanent and when you lose your life you start from the beginning. So needless to say, most runs are going to end with a frustrating death.
With the frustratingly addictive gameplay aside, there is actually a good deal of stuff to do in Spelunky. There are numerous characters to find and unlock, secret locations to discover, and a rather hefty journal to complete. Throughout the course of your play you’ll also be able to open up shortcuts that will take you to later levels of the game. While these can be helpful to learn enemy patterns and practice, starting from the beginning is usually going to end in more successful runs. If you’re a masochist, there is also a pretty insane achievement list to complete as well.
If you get sick of spelunking alone, you can have up to three friends jump into the action with you in either co-op or deathmatch. Co-op plays like a normal run of Spelunky, but with help from your friends and deathmatch is where you can battle your buds to see who the most hardcore spelunker of all is. While these options can be fun, you’re going to have to be sitting on the same couch as your friend because the game offers no online multiplayer. This seems like a hugely missed opportunity and definitely the biggest setback for the game.
Spelunky is a game about patience. Every aspect of the game revolves around taking your time and being precise, if you want to succeed. Checking every corner and crevice, timing each jump perfectly and deciding what’s worth going after or better left behind, are all things you’ll need to contemplate during a Spelunky run. The diabolical thing about the game though, is it almost forces you to throw all of that out the window if you truly want to be the best. This is what Spelunky is all about. As the cliché goes, it’s easy to pick up and play but hard to master. Run, jump, die. Simple, tight, superb. Spelunky is a modern day masterpiece.