Few games can keep me playing if I find myself dying too frequently and too easily. Yet, I hit restart for the 20th time. Dodging spikes and snakes, I methodically made my way down to the exit, conserving bombs and employing ropes in only precarious situations. I traveled safely through the first three stages, discovering a shop on occasion and replenishing my stock. I began the fourth level as a fully equipped spelunker, ready to finally reach the next world… only to meet my end at the hands of a spear-throwing statue. Furious that I died yet again from a trap I had fallen prey to a dozen times before, I should have thrown my controller in frustration.
Instead, I choose to travel through the mines for a 21st time, determined to reach my goal. This, in a nutshell, is Spelunky, a game that can make you hate it as much as you enjoy the relentless torture.
Originally an indie PC game now transformed into an Xbox Live Arcade title, Spelunky is not a long game. On the contrary, the whole game could be beaten in under an hour, if you are a good enough player that is. Spelunky is an exercise in repetition, one that will frustrate you with your countless deaths – and not to worry, you will fall to your doom often – but that simultaneously allows you to learn and inch your way further towards the finish line. Put into practice, the mechanics of the game are not without their faults, but it is hard to argue with just how addicting a game is when you continue to play even after dozens of failures.
Spelunky is a relatively simple game. As one of several characters, you will venture into the ancient mines and subsequent environments (including a jungle and temple) in search of riches beyond your wildest dreams. Each world contains four levels, and the goal in each 2D sidescrolling section is to find the exit and continue onto the next stage. Each of these levels, however, is filled to the brim with traps, enemies, and dead ends that will test your ingenuity, but rarely your patience.
You begin every life from the beginning of the mines – no matter how many levels you have completed, every death will throw you back to the initial entrance. Though that may sound repetitive, Spelunky keeps things fresh by randomizing a level on each exploration. On each playthrough of stage 1-1, for example, you will you will encounter something brand new, as the layout will completely shift from one life to the next. This constant shake-up leads to death after death, as you will need to be cautious of what lies ahead. Traps include a plethora of dangers and their subsequent variations, including spiders, venomous snakes, spikes and many more. At the onset of each life, you will begin with four health points, and each hazard along the way takes away one or more of these points until they are completely depleted. It’s a simple enough scheme to understand, but one that will rack up the tension with successive injuries.
Not only is the layout drastically altered on each visit, but levels will occasionally take on a type of status effect, adding another layer of complexity to the proceedings. Stages will at times be cast in darkness, and the game provides players with a torch to light the way. In other set-ups levels will be inundated with snakes, some hiding in the destructible objects found along the way. While not true of every instance, players will never be fully confident in what to expect until they dive in, insuring your many lives are not too dull.
Regardless of this uncertainty, one things players can be sure of is that they will always begin with four bombs and four ropes in their inventory. The walls and platforms your spelunker explores can be destroyed, sometimes revealing gold for you to collect and on occasion opening up a better path to the exit. Ropes can be thrown out to climb up or down depending on your need, though I found hitting my mark far more haphazard than the bombs. I wasted a number of ropes expecting my character to throw them out as he would a bomb, only to have to jump to my death and begin anew.
More collectibles and powerups are available along the way, which can be purchased from shops with enough collected gold. But even here, Spelunky does not go easy on its players – everything obtained throughout one life disappears as soon as the next venture begins. The one aspect in which the game does relinquish some of its difficulty is in its fast-travel system. If you are able to proceed to the next world and have enough of a certain item to donate to the Tunnel Man, an entrance to a world will be accessible from the mine’s entryway. This function does allow for players to make it far enough into the game without having to be punished incessantly with early level deaths that may occur because of the random nature of gameplay.
Spelunky’s intent to be a mystery from level to level, however, is both one of its strengths and its greatest weakness. The game is predicated on player self-improvement through learning how the pratfalls of each stage function and knowing how to overcome them on the next go around. Yet, with levels that change on each attempt, players may not always be able to apply their skills to a situation. Learning to use ropes properly does not mean you won’t come across a level where the only path forward is too far a jump to survive with a depleted inventory.
Even more frustrating are levels where the entrance or exit is booby-trapped, making it impossible to avoid injury or even death. It is undeniably engaging to be faced with a new obstacle course as you will be playing through the same stages so frequently, but more often than I would like, the randomization leads to poorly designed levels. Each instance of an unavoidable trap did give me pause. The game’s “learn and master” approach becomes invalid in cases like this, as player ability is thrown out the window.
Despite this hindrance, I still found myself hitting the restart button far more often than I would have expected to, edged on by the prospect of reaching just one more level. Maybe it is the somewhat cutesy art style, which humorously contrasts from the constant peril facing the character. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of inching my way further, narrowly avoiding traps that ensnared me before. Or perhaps it’s the determination that comes with just reaching that next exit before doom unexpectedly befalls me. Whatever combination of these aspects creates the desire, Spelunky impelled me to play on, treating each life as a learning experience. Though the game may sometimes cheat the lessons it tries to teach, I can’t help be drawn back by the allure of lost treasure, or at least to prove that my last death was not in vain.
Here’s the Rundown:
+Simple but effective design
+Randomization keeps players on their toes.
+You will be compelled to try just one. More. Time.
-Random levels can be too unfair – death becomes inevitable.
-Despite how skilled you become, it might not always matter.
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.
Spelunky was developed and published by Mossmouth for the Xbox 360. The game is available via XBLA for 1200 Microsoft Points. A copy was supplied to RipTen for review purposes.