I don’t have any children. I once had a goldfish, but sadly thanks to a horrible pole-vaulting accident Captain Ishmael is no longer with us. I bring up my ex-fish to state that I have no real experience watching something I love grow up and strive for grandeur. However, after discovering Spelunky in early 2009 and hearing that Derek Yu was determined to bring my favorite little cave diver to Xbox Live Arcade, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride. Like an overenthusiastic little league parent, I’ve cheered on from the sidelines dreaming of the day my little slugger may make it to the big leagues. Now that I’ve been able to spend a few days with the finished version of Spelunky on my Xbox, I say with as much pride as I can muster “You’ve done me proud, son”
For those of you not familiar with Spelunky, it can be hard to fully describe the experience. The game plays out as an old school action/platformer where the underlying goal is to get through a massive cave system while nabbing as much treasure as you can fit in your digital pants.
This would be a fairly simple affair if it weren’t for Spelunky hiding a roguelike mechanic up its sleeve. See, every time you delve into the mines, they will be completely randomized and once you die, it’s all over. You’ll never come across the same layout twice, and you’ll be constantly forced to rethink your strategy. If you’re unable to adapt to the new layout complete with different loot, varying levels of monsters and trap placement, you’re not only going to die but you’re going to die horribly.
Spelunky is a simple game on the surface. The controls are extremely easy to pick up, and after playing through the tutorial you’ll have a working knowledge of the basic mechanics in play. Mastering them will be something different altogether. Knowing just what angle you’ll be able to throw your bombs at or just how to make a difficult jump are just the beginning of the skill set you’re going to have to master to make your way through the cave system. One mistimed jump or one lapse in concentration and you’ll be forced to start over from scratch.
You have to be able to make the right decision, often before you fully know what your options even are. There are countless instances where a minor mistake can set off a chain reaction of events will result in your corpse being thrown across the entire map, and every single time it’s hilarious. It’s difficult to create a title this frustrating that will keep gamers coming back for just “one more go”, but Mossmouth has pulled it off to perfection.
In order to help you make your way through the gauntlet of traps and baddies, there’s a wide selection of items waiting to be either found or bought in shops that may randomly generate with each map. You can cash in your gems and gold for capes that slow your fall, boots that do double damage to enemies you land on, or even a freeze ray. New to the XBLA version is something I can only really refer to as slave labor. For a measly eight-grand, you’re able to buy the services of a rambunctious fellow who will attack enemies and grab loot for you. Sadly, they also seem to go out of their way to jump on the first set of spikes they can find reducing their value a bit.
If you don’t have enough gold to procure these life enhancing devices, you do have other options. You can attempt to steal it right from underneath the nose of the shopkeeper, but this will immediately put them on the offensive charging you with his trusty shotgun. If you somehow manage to get away from certain death at his hands, every other shopkeeper in the game will be out to finish the job. It may seem like a no brainer to avoid this option, but what happens when one of the items for sale is a shiny new shotgun or a powerful freeze ray? You’ll probably get away with it for now, but is it worth the risk down the road?
Even when you’re making the right moves, there are times where I’m convinced the game just hates you. I was in the middle of what seemed like a fantastic run when the game seemingly decided to humble me. At the start of a map in the second section, I was immediately informed that I had done something to anger a shop keeper. Knowing that not only did I have to get through a difficult map, but that I had an extremely fast and extremely angry old man armed with a shotgun waiting for me at the exit didn’t exactly bolster my confidence. What was my crime? When the level was generated, a toxic snail had spawned in the shop and attacked the shopkeeper for me.
This is not to say that Spelunky is impossible, the truth is far from it. While it’s in no way an easy game, Spelunky can be completed fairly quickly by an experienced player who’s willing to take the time to think through their actions. There was a massive speed running community for the PC release, and with the inclusion of leaderboards it should garner even more attention. It’s worth noting that as of right now, only one player has officially put up a score on the fastest time leaderboard, and sadly it’s not me. RustyF, I don’t know who you are but you better believe I’m gunning for you.
The most noticeable additions to the XBLA version of the game have to be the two multiplayer modes. Up to four players are able to take on the system in co-op or duke it out in death match. Don’t be fooled by co-op even with the help of your friends this game is going to take some lives. I gathered up three test subjects to put Spelunky to the test with me, and after three hours of playing we had only made it to the second of the four cave systems. It seems that when we weren’t accidentally stepping on each other’s toes we were going out of our way to sabotage one another. It may not have been conducive to reaching our goal, but laying an unconscious teammate on a sacrificial alter never seems to get old.
Deathmatch turns Spelunky into one of the most frantic multiplayer games available. Four players (or you and three bots) fight to death on a selection of maps based on different areas of the cave system, and usually center around a series of items hidden in crates near the center of the arena. The close quarters force constant movement and the inclusion of booby traps require lightning fast reflexes in order to survive. The closest thing I can really find to relate to this would possibly be a very small Bomberman map with fully leveled up players. This could very easily become my go to game for when company is over.
Unfortunately, Spelunky’s multiplayer will be limited to when I have company over. There isn’t any form of online multiplayer, which is an absolute shame considering the amount of fun there is to be had here. I really can’t think of any good reason for its exclusion.
The XBLA version decidedly adds on to the PC release. The new graphics are outright adorable and the music, while not extravagant, is a perfect fit for the title. The animations have been given special attention, and everything from the smooth jumping to the weight of your whip simply feels right. Fans of the original will be thrilled to find new items, monsters and secrets waiting for them to stumble across. None of the new additions I’ve come across have drastically changed the game from three years ago, but they add just enough variety to make this feel like a new title all over again.
To be perfectly frank, I’ve had a hard time pulling myself away from the game long enough to write this review. If it wasn’t for my non-gamer girlfriend demanding a turn, I’d probably still be trying to convince myself that I only need one more turn to beat my previous best. Spelunky isn’t a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but it manages to encapsulate everything that was great from the action platformers of yore. The patience it takes to truly master the skills you’ll need to survive will scare off some gamers initially, but the relaxed learning curve and phenomenal presentation should be able to win over even the most curious of fans. Pick Spelunky up when it releases on July 4th, and go ahead and warn your friends that you’ve already made holiday plans. Once they get a chance to try it out, they’ll understand.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided to us for review purposes.
While Spelunky may intimidate some with its difficulty, there is a phenomenal game capable of appealing to every demographic to be found. Spelunky manages to embody everything that has been great about gaming for the past 25 years, and it would be an absolute shame to miss out on it.