Spelunky is a game where death is permanent. Let me say that again — once you die, you start back at the beginning of the game. Death can come in all shapes and sizes — instant spike pit deaths, arrow traps, bat bites, piranha chomps, and Indiana Jones boulder splats.
Back in 2008, PC gamers could experience all this joy for free, but in 2012, Xbox Live has landed an HD remake with full multiplayer support, among many other extras. But are these upgrades worth the pricey $15 asking fee?
Everything in Spelunky is out to get you. Even seemingly innocent plants, and well hidden stones can jump out at a moment’s notice, ready to force you to restart from the beginning.
Using your trusty whip, bombs, and ropes, you’ll be able to combat all of these advesaries: you just have to learn how to use them.
For instance, bombs can be used to blow open walls and avoid enemies, as well as trigger traps, eliminate certain environmental hazards, or 1-hit kill certain enemies. Even harmless rocks just laying on the ground can be picked up and used to trigger traps or hazards meant for you.
In addition to your basic gear, you can also find (or buy) weapons and items, such as a jetpack or spring shoes that allow for higher jumps.
To add insult to injury, if you take too long to beat a level, a ghost will appear with the ability to kill you instantly upon contact. Make no mistake: this game is hard!
Despite that however, it isn’t hard for the sake of being hard. At first it may seem like Spelunky is arbitrarily difficult, and there’s no hope in sight. But like Demon’s Souls, perseverance and learning from your mistakes is key.
For instance, I personally came up with a few solutions to a problem I was having in the game with a specific trap. My wife thought up another completely unique solution. A colleague of mine had a few new ideas that neither of us had thought of.
That’s the beauty of Spelunky — it keeps you guessing, and keeps you on your toes. It’s a testament to extremely well done design, and something I hope more games offer in the future.
In addition to adaptive learning, Spelunky features a ton of secret characters, areas, and easter eggs. For instance, gravestones marked “ASH” (from Evil Dead) will contain a shotgun. There’s a gun from the Halo series usable in-game. I could go on and on in this fashion, but I’d rather not spoil the fun.
To alleviate some pain, you can also unlock optional shortcuts to the game’s various areas by accomplishing tasks for the illusive “Tunnel Man”. Of course, in order to unlock the game’s darkest secrets, you have to complete a “fresh run” from the very start, with no shortcuts allowed (after death, the “Continue” option allows you to restart the entire game, while “Quick Restart” can put you back at your shortcut).
Strangely enough, multiplayer (which, again, is new on the XBLA version), is my favorite aspect of the game. It’s a ton of fun romping around, collaborating strategies, and stomping on enemies with up to three other players. If a coop partner dies, you can rescue one on the subsequent level.
As a result of the ability to essentially revive in a game normally about permadeath, you cannot earn shortcuts, or most of the game’s unlockable characters in coop — although, you can utilize shortcuts already unlocked through single player.
In addition to the coop campaign, there’s also a four player versus mode. While the versus portion may seem like a completely throwaway addition, I think it’s probably the best party game since Bomberman. Simply put, everyone is put into a one screen large tank, and tasked with killing each other through any means necessary.
Whether your foes die due to spike traps, enemies, bombs, or items is entirely up to you. Each match lasts from 10 seconds to about a minute — different variations can be set, such as the number of wins, starting gear, and so on.
There are an extremely large amount of levels, and within those levels, variations occur, allowing for hundreds of possible combinations.
If you select the random option, you could be playing a while before you see an exact copy of an arena. This is pretty much the closest we’re going to get to a remake of Mega Man 7‘s fighting game.
All in all, if you hate challenging games, stay away from Spelunky. If you hate charming retro graphics, or the idea of perma-death, don’t get Spelunky.
It’s not for everyone, but anyone who walks into the depths of the game’s caves with an open mind will come out extremely satisfied (either that, or you’ll suffer constant horrible deaths and never make it out — but I wouldn’t have it any other way).
This review is based on a digital copy of Spelunky for the Xbox Live Arcade.