Spelunky hates you. That is the best way to summarize this quirky platformer for XBLA. However, it doesn’t hate you in the sense that you won’t have a good time while playing it. In fact, the game is finely crafted and superbly executed to the point where you start to love that it despite its attempts to extinguish you at every turn. Created by Derek Yu, and released as a freeware game on PC quite a while ago, Spelunky is a clever take on the genre that forces you to be responsible for all of your actions. Failure to do so results in death- many, many deaths.
Best summed up as Indiana Jones meets Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, Spelunky is never shy about its intentions. You start out with four hearts (your life) with no ability to save or continue. That is right, death means starting the entire game over from the beginning. Now, before you go running for the hills, let me explain. Each section of the game is themed. You always start in the mines with world 1-1, but it is never the same layout. Each time you restart, the path and items are randomly placed. Sometimes you might find yourself in complete darkness, or perhaps with a random shotgun to aid you.
Learning levels and memorization are not priority, instead you need to learn the rules and obey them. Death is never cheap. If you die, it is your fault, and the game will never make you feel otherwise. The rules are simple and obvious, but obeying them goes against all of our gaming mentality. Starting the entire game over immediately sparks the reaction to rush back to where you died, but believe me; this only results in quicker death. Of course, spend too much time in each level inching along will result in a ghost appearing that renders a one-hit kill. Like I have said before, this game forces you to play by its rules. Spelunky is the kind of game that you have to be patient and careful with; and that is most of its charm.
At its core, this is a pretty straightforward platformer. Traversing the areas feels very much like Super Meat Boy with its quick movement and fast acceleration. You can also speed up and switch directions mid-air, and the jumping is sublime. Your character also has a whip at all times and can carry bombs and ropes to help traverse the environment. Again, obeying the rules is a must. Toss a bomb in the wrong place and a chain of events that can kill you is always a possibility. Bombs also alter the environment, allowing you to reach treasures and other goodies. Of course, if you bomb one of the shopkeepers, he will brand you a terrorist and even chase you from level to level seeking revenge. Did I mention he sporadically jumps around and carries a shotgun? Yeah.
The big draw of Spelunky is how it changes play-to-play. You will discover tons of unique designs throughout the game, and perhaps never even see some. The most amazing thing to me is that the game is ridiculously short, yet most people will never even see level two. There is an Achievement for completing it in something like 8 minutes without shortcuts, which is insane, but apparently very doable. It is things like this that ramp up its replay value. Getting better and better with each death is inevitable, but again that won’t be for everyone.
I won’t lie, I have spent numerous hours playing Spelunky and have never made it past level two, from a quick glance at the leaderboards though, this isn’t uncommon. The game continues to punish me, and I just keep hitting that quick restart. That is either a sign of my masochism or great design. I can see speed runs and the like resulting from this game. One feature it really needed is YouTube uploads. I can imagine impressive feats of this game will be all over the Internet for some time.
Now, you may be wondering what would steer you to pick up this version over the already free-to-play PC iteration. For starters, Mossmouth has added in co-op play for up to four players locally. There is no online feature, and frankly I can’t say I am surprised. Nothing you do in co-op is saved, so creating shortcuts is pointless, and unless you are playing with dedicated friends, it also just usually results in chaos. There is also a deathmatch mode that honestly just feels chaotic to the point of being devoid of fun. I found no joy in playing this type of game competitively, but I can see how others might.
Visually, the game has also received an overhaul from the PC iteration to feature new animations and a fresh coat of paint. I love the cartoony style, and everything runs at a fantastic clip. The soundtrack is also deliciously retro with plenty of synthesized tunes that remind me of 8-bit days. Both of these features are also new to the XBLA version.
Fans of torture games such as Super Meat Boy and Trials will undoubtedly find a lot to love about Spelunky. It is brutally difficult, but never unfair. You will spend so much time replaying the first set of levels that, in theory, it sounds like it would get boring. But after hundreds of deaths I am still coming back for more. That speaks volumes about the game’s design. If you want a challenge and enjoy the harsh consequences for your actions, then Spelunky is your game. In the words of fan-favorite Dark Souls, prepare to die-a lot.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.