Spelunky is enthralling. In this 2D platformer, the player controls an avid adventurer who has descended into a cave in search of treasure. Each short level begins with the player at the top, from which they must then make their way down to the exit and onto the next level. On the way down, the player may collect gold, rubies and other treasure to increase their score which may be used for purchasing items at shops, but ultimately ends up being a bragging right. Enemies such as bats and snakes will populate the path to the exit and can be dispatched with the players whip, one of their limited bombs, or avoided altogether using a rope. This is the main premise of Spelunky and makes up the majority of the gameplay. The game could even be considered short, with its completion possible in mere minutes, this feat is even encouraged (there exists an achievement for beating the game within 8 minutes). There is however, a catch.
This game is difficult. Dubbed a roguelike-like by the games own creator, Derek Yu, it features randomisation and permanent death. The level randomisation is implemented in a most satisfactory way, with each level being comprised of multiple moderate sized sections designed by Derek, and their placement being randomised. Furthermore, within each of these sections, the randomisation is taken a step further by additional rock chunks, enemy placement and treasure placement. The result is that levels feel hand-crafted, yet are always different and always possible. As for the permadeath, the player is given one life each run. Starting off with four health points, if the player loses them or meets an ill fate (falling on spikes or being crushed), it’s game over and back to level 1-1. It may sound cruel, but this is where Spelunky draws much of its charm from.
These things make Spelunky a good game, but what makes Spelunky a fantastic game are as follows. The controls are extremely refined. Originally a free Game Maker game released in 2009, this more recent version released on XBLA and PC features controls that clearly had some thought put into them. The game features a lot of running, jumping and throwing, which at times can be the fine line between success and death. Although not apparent at first, after spending a few hours with the game, these controls feel extremely natural, to the point where you can pick up a rock and kill multiple enemies with it or even whip an arrow from the air before it gets a chance to pierce you. To give a comparison for those of you who have played Super Meat Boy, my personal opinion is that the controls featured in Spelunky are on par, if not better than SMB (because of the additional abilities rather than just run and jump), and SMB’s controls were tight.
Another shining aspect of the game is how dynamic the world feels. The player can blow up rock to create shortcuts or access treasure, steal from shops if running low on money, and enemies can interact not only with the player, but also with other enemies and items in the environment. The last point sometimes leading to puzzling and hilarious scenarios as the player travels down a level to find dead bodies everywhere, leaving them to ponder as to how it all happened. This brings up another subtlety in the game that deserves recognition. If played for long enough, Spelunky starts to reveal its inner workings and that feeling of naturality extends itself beyond the controls and into the players very thought process. The game can very easily become a flowing chain of decisions and planning: “Is getting that damsel worth using a rope?”, “Should I take on these enemies or go around?”, “Do I trust my ability to maneuver myself through that area?” and one of the biggest decisions, “Do I steal the items, or buy them?”. It’s not a moral choice – it’s a decision between a moderate chance at a decent score and a small chance at a high score.
Outside of the quest for that completion of four themed stages (each consisting of four levels) and the subsequent pursuit of a high score, it’s hard not to admire Spelunky’s crisp character sprites and environments. They have a certain charm and when coupled with the soundtrack by Eirik Suhrke, add a sense of wonder to the game. This wonder is also reflected in the game itself, as it has many secrets. Saying too much would spoil the fun, but it’s worth noting that seeing everything in Spelunky would take many, many hours of gameplay.
Besides the main single player game, there exists the option to play local co-op with up to four people (online play missing because of the development time it would have required from such a small team). This mode is fun but somewhat restrictive as the screen is not split and instead a player is delegated the role of flag bearer, essentially the camera follows them (It should be noted that the soon to be released PS Vita version does away with the flag system and allows for independent movement). As a non-flag bearing player, this can be frustrating as it somewhat limits your options, but if some players die, they remain in the game as helpful ghosts and can be revived in later levels by players still living. Even with this annoyance, the game is still quite fun and possible to beat in co-op mode.
If co-op is not your thing, there also exists a Bomberman inspired deathmatch mode in which players battle in arenas the size of a single screen. These matches typically last a couple of minutes at most, with settings available for things such as whether to play with computer controlled characters, and the ability to adjust the number of bombs and ropes each character starts with.
Spelunky has been available on XBLA for some time, but has only just recently been released on the PC through Steam and GOG, available for $15. The PC version contains a Daily Challenge mode not found in the XBLA version, which gives the player a single chance at a level seed (the thing the game uses to build levels randomly) that is the same for everyone. This allows players to compete daily, and is a nice addition. The PC version also contains characters that were DLC in the XBLA version. The PSN and PS Vita versions do not yet have a release date, but can be expected sometime in the future.
Overall, Spelunky is charming, surprising and wondrous. It won’t be for everyone, but for those persistent enough to keep trying after a few deaths, it will offer a great challenge and many, many hours of gameplay. It inspires a sense of adventure, and can raise one’s heart rate. Simply put, Spelunky is masterfully crafted.