*Review based on the 2012 Xbox 360 remake*
Spelunky is one of the more notable indy releases of recent years, as its a favorite among speedrunners and those who appreciate an immense challenge. The game certainly has a lot to offer such groups, and it can even boast a bit of originality. Though it’s difficult to say how much enjoyment other audiences would get out of it.
The setup of Spelunky is simple enough. You play as the Indiana Jones-like Spelunker (or one of various unlockable characters), and you navigate cavernous regions in search of treasure and damsels in distress. You fight enemies that include bats, snakes and spiders, as well as skeletons, mummies and yetis, to name a few. All the while you try to collect as much gold and other treasures as possible while finding the exits that lead to the next level in line.
It may sound simple enough, but actually playing through it is anything but. The Spelunker can jump on some enemies and take them out with a whip, and he has a replenishable supply of ropes and bombs. Ropes can be set up to climb to out of reach places, while bombs can destroy large chunks of rock that may be in the Spelunker’s way (all of the environments are entirely destructible). Additionally, you can buy other upgrades and weapons from shopkeepers found throughout the levels.
Here’s where things get really tricky. Every level is randomly generated, meaning you never quite know what’s coming next. The Spelunker only has so much health, and the only way to replenish it is to find a damsel hidden on a stage and carry her to the exit. But the real dangers are the one-hit kill booby traps, of which there are aplenty. The worst part is that every time you die, you have to start over from the very beginning! There are no continues, no extra lives, nothing.
The game is actually really short, so those who dedicate their time to the game can learn all the game’s traps and layouts, even with the randomly generated levels. Some speedrunners can beat the game in just a few short minutes, and my hat goes off to them.
The problem with Spelunky is that, unless you are among such dedicated people, you may find the game more frustrating than fun. Spelunky never eases players into things, instead it throws them into really difficult levels from the get-go. There’s no learning curve like in other difficult games such as Dark Souls or the newer Donkey Kong Country games (aside from some brief tutorials, but those merely show you the mechanics, and don’t give you time to prepare for what’s ahead). You’ll repeatedly die and have to start over, without knowing how the levels will play out the next time.
What makes it all worse is the way Spelunker controls. Now, the controls are far from broken, but the jumping feels too stiff, and running feels too slippery. Again, it could be a lot worse, but for a game that’s already quite difficult, the control quirks don’t exactly make things less frustrating.
The game features local multiplayer with co-op and death matches. Between the two, co-op will probably be the more fun option, provided you’re playing with someone who’s on equal footing with you in terms of Spelunky experience. The death matches are frankly just too chaotic, with most rounds lasting only a few brief seconds before a winner is declared (or isn’t, as it’s very much possible for all combatants to die).
I don’t want to sound like I’m simply writing off Spelunky. The game has many novel ideas working for it. The level design is actually really clever, and their randomness, along with the various weapons and items you can purchase, give the game a sense of variety and surprise despite its short length. There’s a good sense of creative freedom with how you want to reach every level’s exit (you can be more crafty, or simply blast your way through if you use your bombs wisely). The character designs are cute, with the Spelunker looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and Super Mario. The graphics have a nice balance between modern and retro, and the soundtrack is reminiscent of the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, albeit with an appropriately slower pace.
Spelunky is a good game, it just isn’t a good game for everyone. It caters to a very specific audience, and if you don’t have the patience for it, you might not even be able to appreciate its qualities.