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Review: Spelunky


Spelunky is a game all about discovery; the first thing you discover is how to die… a lot. Next, you learn how to avoid whatever it was that killed you. Then, you figure out the mechanics of the game. Last, you finally manage to complete it and learn that it has hidden secrets for you to find. Once all that’s done, you discover you’ve somehow become addicted to a game that is frustratingly hard but strangely compelling.

Spelunky is a reboot of a four year old PC game, but don’t be fooled; this reboot has an impressive amount of new content. It’s been graced with a graphical overhaul, a new score, multiplayer modes, new characters, new enemies, new levels, new items and new traps. Get all that? For a game that relies on tight, controlled mechanics I was surprised to find that all this new content wasn’t the slightest bit detrimental. Pixel art has been replaced by awesome cell shading and the fancy new lighting effects complement the cartoony style very well. The music provides fantastic atmosphere and the new items, levels and characters actually enhance the experience.

But what exactly is Spelunky. It’s is a brutal 2D platformer that rewards you for taking your time and playing strategically. You goal is simply to make it from the start of each level to the exit and avoid getting killed in the process. Whilst it’s a fairly common concept it doesn’t take long before you realise what sets Spelunky apart from the rest. It’s brutally punishing, constantly changing yet strangely addictive.

Levels are structured similar to many “old school” 2D platformers with an assortment of platforms, ladders, traps, treasures, shops, enemies… you get where I’m going. Whilst the tactics you employ rarely change Spelunky never feels repetitive or dull. It has randomly generated levels, destructive environments and a wealth of secrets for you to discover. Levels are surprisingly well balanced considering the random generation and it’s obvious that they put a lot of effort into perfecting the engine. Where this works especially well is that it encourages you to learn how to play the game rather than just memorising pre-set levels.

In addition to structural layout there are a number of environmental effects the random generator throws at you. Some levels are flooded, some are pitch black and require you to carry a torch, all require a different set of tactics to complete. The downside of this is that some levels are easier than others. This is about the only time the game feels “cheap” as it introduces a luck element and good or bad “runs”.

Intelligent level design is especially important in Spelunky as you’re given just a single life to complete the game. There are no continues so death results in a loss of all progress, items and money. This may seem overly harsh however every death teaches you more about how to beat the game. By dying you learnt that the funny looking square blocks shoot arrows, that you shouldn’t jump onto those venus fly trap monsters or that picking up a gold idol triggers a big trap. There are hundreds of ways to die in Spelunky and many have to be experienced in order to be understood.

At least Spelunky doesn’t deal in one hit kills… well, not really. You start the game with three hearts meaning you can withstand three attacks before you die. However this can prove deceiving as a single hit can still prove disastrous. For example; you trigger an arrow trap which knocks you off a ledge into the path of a monster… that’s three hearts gone. Thanks for playing, back to the start. Additional hearts can be attained by rescuing damsels, hunks or dogs in distress (or paying for them at a kissing booth) however these opportunities aren’t common and often carry significant risk.

You may think that such a punishing game would prove frustrating for all except those with chronic OCD. This is where the genius of Spelunky lies. At first it’s frustratingly difficult and you’ll play the game in short stints. Then, as you get better, you live a little longer, you buy items to help you progress, you reach new areas and, basically, just get better at the game. The game mechanics are the same and you still have the basic skills you had earlier. The difference is you’ve learnt how to play the game. It’s hard to describe just how rewarding this is but the sense that you’ve “outsmarted” the game is a prevalent theme and will have you playing long after you’ve completed it.

At its heart Spelunky is about the precarious balance of risk versus reward. You may have learnt all there is to know about an area but your greed and compulsive tendencies will still be the most dangerous obstacle for you to overcome. Whilst a level may be fairly straightforward you’ll often find yourself risking damage to get an extra piece of treasure or rescue a canine in distress. Some risks are obvious like the golden idols which, when picked up, always trigger a trap. Others are harder to discern like your desire to rush through a seemingly safe area to get to where you died last game. No matter how small the obstacle may seem all can prove quickly fatal.

A clever way the game avoids monotony is by splitting the game into 5 areas. Each area has its own environmental hazards, traps and enemies requiring you to spend many lives before you master its strategy. To avoid extensive frustration each new area is preceded by a meeting with Tunnel Man. By completing an area three times you can deliver him items (some easy some hard) and enable an option to skip ahead and learn the later harder levels without having to replay the earlier ones. This ties in beautifully with the “learn by dying” feel of the game and is a clever way of providing convenience without sacrificing difficulty.

In addition to all this Spelunky offers a plethora of items for you to utilise during your journey. Almost everything can be picked up, thrown or dropped enabling you to test traps, create makeshift shields or even attack enemies. You’ll also occasionally find shops which sell a range of items including useful items like a jetpack or compass and less useful items like a knife or ropes. This adds a great variety to the way you play the game as most items stay with you until you die and provide you with a reason to collect treasure.

Once you finish the main game there are still a wealth of secrets for you to discover. There are hidden levels, secret rooms and an abundance of tricks you can learn. For example, during your adventure you’ll pass many altars. Initially you just view them as part of the scenery however try placing a dead enemy or golden idol on the altar and see what happens. Or, next time you visit a shop, try beating up the shopkeeper. He’s a tough nut to crack but, if you manage it, you’ll get a great reward! It’s this attention to detail that elevates Spelunky up from being “just another tough game” to a “serious slice of awesome”.

Alongside the single player game Spelunky offers two multiplayer modes, deathmatch and coop adventure. Both are only available locally and, unfortunately, neither manages to capture the innovative feel that makes the rest of the game so great.

Coop adventure is essentially the same as single player mode with a few small changes. Up to four players can play at once and, when a person dies, they become a ghost. This is a cool feature as ghosts can choose to either aid or hinder the other players. The problem with this mode is that the screen is always centred on player 1 meaning, if you’re not quick, you can get left behind.

Deathmatch puts all four players into a mine (arena) where the last person standing is the winner. There are loads of different mines (8 per area) however the gameplay tends to devolve fairly quickly to a game of avoid the bombs as this is the easiest way to score a quick kill.

It’s a shame that they didn’t explore Xbox Live coop adventure or a race mode as these would suit the game well. The multiplayer modes provided are a fun diversion but have none of the challenge or charm that makes Spelunky such an awesome game.

Once you’ve completed the single player adventure Spelunky has a few extras to keep you going. There are secret characters to unlock, multiplayer modes to play, leader boards to climb and achievements to get. The achievements are quite clever and seem designed to make you play the game differently to normal. It’s nice to see challenging achievements in a game rather than the usual complete task A a certain number of times or seek out X number of collectibles. It’s worth noting though, if you’re after a quick 200gs, this isn’t the game for you!

If you’re still unsure as to whether you’ll like the game you can try out the original on PC. It’s free download at Spelunky World, however I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice. The original is good but the sequel is considerably better and well worth the 1200 point investment.

Spelunky is a game based on simple platforming concepts. It encompasses an impressive level of complexity but manages to pull it all together to deliver a package that’s fun to play and challenging to beat. The innovative game mechanics ensure that it’s tough but fair and the variety in level design means you won’t get bored. I haven’t had this much fun with a platformer in a long time and Spelunky has easily made my top 10.

There are two things I love in life... video games and my family. I work full time as an IT manager to provide for my wife, three kids and a heavy gaming habit. I own almost every console since the Atari 7800 and am proud of my extensive collection of games. I'm more of a single or coop player but I do dabble in multiplayer on the odd occasion. If you want to have a game or just chat feel free to add me, PM me or email me.