Spelunky is a terrible game. Spelunky hates you. It wants you to lose. It wants you to cry, throw your controller across the room and delete it from your game collection. It’s laughing at you. It knows you are terrible, and it is going to take advantage of that. It’s also really fun.
What is Spelunky? It’s a randomly generated roguelike-inspired platformer originally created by Derek Yu and made available as a free download for the PC in 2008. Since then it has been remade in high-definition and ported to numerous platforms including the Xbox 360, PS3 & PS Vita. This review will cover the PS3 & Vita versions which were ported by Blitworks.
Spelunky is filled with numerous items to discover, enemies and traps to be killed by and distressed girls and pugs to be saved. Each playthrough begins at the top of a massive cave system and the player’s only job is to make it to the bottom – alive. That is going to be really hard with only four starting health points.
Each cave system comes in a set of four levels, four rock caves, four jungle caves, four ice caves – etc. These levels can be slowly stepped through with great trepidation, or you can run to the end of a level within 30 seconds if you have your bearings right and your wits about you. The latter style almost always ends in death though – and back to the beginning you go. There are also a number of cute spelunking characters to choose from depending on whether you feel like Indiana Jones, a ninja or a robot on any given day.
Making it past a cave system (from rock to jungle for instance) and paying the tunnel man (in bombs, ropes or cash) on the way through will unlock a tunnel. These tunnels/warp zones and allow you to start your game from other levels instead of the very beginning which goes a long way towards keeping the game fresh.
Eventually you’ll learn that a bomb or rope in the hand is worth two in the cave
For all it’s punishment and violence, Spelunky is a great experience for those who can handle a death or 500. It’s for the Dark Souls crowd, the Nethack crowd. Not for the faint of heart. This game will never, ever hold your hand. It will throw obstacle after obstacle at you until your nature changes.
Mistakes quickly cascade into catastrophe – and frequently. A simple jump missed by one block, responded to by an opportunistic Tiki Man with a boomerang is all it takes, maybe his friends are there to make it even easier for you – to die.
Random events keep your traversal experience fresh. Sometimes the lights are out, requiring the player to light torches along their path. Avoiding bats and spiders which can easily get the drop on your from the darkness above is a real hassle in these areas. Other times graveyards full of the restless dead will fling endless zombies at you.
For a platformer the game also features a great deal of personal choice. The shop which resupplies the player if they have found enough treasure to buy what they want shows up frequently and also can be attacked and robbed. This is often at great cost as the shopkeeper follows you through subsequent levels with his shotgun trying to get his revenge. Golden idols can be stolen which trigger massive rolling stone traps which obliterate the level around you – even turning the shopkeeper against you for your act of stupidity.
There are a few main ways of interacting with the world in Spelunky other than running for your life. Your whip is your trusty weapon with you at all times, with extremely limited range and low damage. Bombs are limited but can be used to open up new paths and destroy stronger baddies. Ropes can be used to climb up to areas your character cannot jump to. Finally, most items in the game can be thrown to inflict damage on enemies and trigger traps, something you will be doing very often with the vases and pebbles strewn about Spelunky’s caves.
In a way, Spelunky plays you. Spelunky is a game which takes a fresh, stupid player, then moulds them into a risk averse monster by way of constant murder. When you begin you’ll be fond of the run button, thinking that it will allow you to get to the exit of a stage before the ghost appears (and he always appears) by high-tailing it around.
Then you’ll eventually realise how many deaths you ran head first into. How that button put you in situations you weren’t ready for. You realise that looking ahead isn’t the same thing as scouting and that your numerous enemies have far better reaction times than you can ever hope to obtain. So you become wary.
Beginning each game with a paltry amount of health, bombs and ropes – Spelunky is a game which requires you to embrace austerity. In the beginning you will spend those bombs to explore and mine. You’ll use the ropes to reach things you don’t need. Eventually you’ll learn that a bomb or rope in the hand is worth two in the cave. When you really need a bomb or a rope, not having one is a soul crushing moment. How could you be so stupid, nobody needs surplus treasure in the afterlife.
Accompanying the punishing gameplay are some really catchy tunes that make spelunking a real joy at times. The graphics are crisp although text can be a little small on the Vita in the menus, on the PS3 the whole package looks beautiful on a HD television. I’ve been told that the framerate on the Vita takes a hit when you reach a certain fog level in the ice caves, although I have not experienced this myself.
While the price may seem a little steep, it’s worth considering that if you like this game there is probably much more fun to be had than in the latest 8 hour action game retailing at full price. In particular the cross-buy option available for Sony platforms allows you to take your game on the go, and Spelunky is perfectly suited to short bursts of play. Saves are also synchronized automatically between the two versions via the cloud making it very easy to take your progress on the go and back to the PS3.
If you are the kind of masochist who enjoys the hardest and most punishing of games I would recommend Spelunky to you in an instant. The feeling of achievement when you conquer a cave system is unmatched by games which constantly hold your hand and throw health at you every step of the way.