If there’s a game you’d expect to get a free-to-play sequel in 2015, Spelunker — the 8-bit cave-exploring classic from 1983 — is probably somewhere near the bottom of the list. But here we are: Square Enix has revived the 22-year-old franchise’s traditional platforming action on PS4 in Spelunker World, adding to it all the bells and whistles that make the FTP model such a popular one on mobile platforms. While the core gameplay feels pretty dated, and the multiplayer modes seem tacked on, there’s enough meat in the offerings here to recommend this as a nice bit of casual fun.
If the phrase “free-to-play” inspires a violent cringe, it’s probably due to associations with the model’s more annoying characteristics. Intrusive advertising, maddening microtransactions and low-budget presentations have soured many a gamer’s impressions of the genre. Spelunker World has all three of these, but don’t tune out quite yet — they’re a lot less obnoxious here than in other titles, and there’s plenty of game to play without spending a dime of your hard-earned cash.
At its heart, this version of Spelunker is a simple platformer very much in line with the original. Your sole task is to navigate level after level of labyrinthine caves, hunting for treasures while avoiding dangerous enemy creatures and obstacles. To help you navigate, you can collect and use a variety of items: bombs that blow away hidden walls, flares that scare off pesky bats and a ghost-obliterating gun that does what it says on the tin. At first, the controls feel a bit stiff and dated — unsurprising, since they imitate the 8-bit version so closely — but after a while, you’ll find yourself able to settle into a satisfying rhythm of vine-climbing, rock-bombing and ghost-shooting.
Naturally, the game fleshes out the experience with a number of features that fit in with the free-to-play format. Let’s get the most blatant out of the way: if you die, you can only continue by spending some of your “Moon Gems,” which, you guessed it, can be purchased with real money on PSN. It’s an annoyance, but the game is fairly generous when it comes to handing them out through normal play, which makes this a bit easier to overlook.
Beyond that, there’s collectible gear that can be unlocked with some effort through repeated cave trips (where certain stones you collect turn into random equipment parts at the end of the level) or more easily by spending Moon Gems on treats for your dog (who will go and grab the best equipment he can find). Again, this sort of thing might be a major irritation if it were more prominent, but it’s actually sort of downplayed here. There’s something addictive about chasing down rare equipment that will dissuade most players from dropping real cash on the easy way out, and the game provides multiplayer spelunking opportunities that — while kind of underwhelming in their application — make it more palatable to dive back into levels you’ve already beaten.
If there’s one thing here that really exemplifies the free-to-play genre’s most irritating qualities, though, it’s the cutesy presentation. These character models have a childish, toy-like appearance that comes off as cheap and chintzy — a real shame, as it’s sure to turn players away before they even get a chance to experience the game itself. Sadly, the music and sound design are likely to perpetuate this impression. For what it’s worth, this reviewer thought most of the selections were catchy, animated little numbers, but the decidedly spare instrumentation will likely be the final straw for players already put off by the tacky art style.
Let’s not mince words. Spelunker World is a strange idea for a game, and there are quite a few strikes against it right out of the gate. The franchise, which had its last entry 22 years ago, isn’t likely to inspire much name recognition outside of the most dedicated retro gamers (one wonders just how many people will assume this to be a ripoff of modern titles like Spelunky — oh, the irony). Those who are aware of its pedigree, on the other hand, will probably be turned away by the dreaded free-to-play model and its oversimplified, childlike presentation, both of which seem better suited to mobile devices than consoles.
Anyone who sticks around to see what the game actually has to offer, though, will find a fun little platformer that avoids many of the FTP model’s more stifling elements. The controls are a bit stiff and the multiplayer doesn’t flow as well as it should, but the game’s simple, lighthearted fun is a refreshing return to basics. There’s plenty of content here even if you don’t spend a penny of your own, with frequent updates promising more as the game continues to grow. Those in the right mindset will be able to ignore the game’s flaws and find themselves addicted to chasing down high scores and rare equipment.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Spelunker World has a few free-to-play irritations, stiff controls and iffy multiplayer, but a certain audience will find its old-school charm and addictive gear system enough reason to revisit the 22-year-old franchise.