4 out of 5
There are a lot of descriptors I could toss at Spelunky. Any number of terms could aptly describe the experience of playing this delightfully nasty platformer from developers Derek Yu and Andy Hull, but the one that I think best sums it up is “meticulous.” Spelunky is a game that, on the surface, looks like a minor trifle. It’s a short little 2D platformer with a plucky hero, a small variety of gadgets and attacks, and only a handful of levels that are, of course, ridiculously challenging. But within minutes of digging into Spelunky’s gameplay, you’ll realize there’s far more at work here than meets the eye. Yu and Hull have packed Spelunky with so much weird hidden content that no two play experiences are ever quite alike. It’s frankly insane just how deep Spelunky’s rabbit hole goes.
Or I guess I should say “mine shaft,” since Spelunky begins with one of several cartoon adventurers plunging into the depths of a treasure-ridden cave. This cave is filled with nasty spiders, snakes, bats, and even the occasional shotgun-toting shopkeeper. It’s also rife with sweet, delicious loot, damsels in distress, and valuable idols that may prove a tad risky to acquire.
Did I say a tad risky? I meant overwhelmingly deadly. Spelunky is a game about constant death. It borrows from the roguelike genre in that death is permanent. Once you die, you go all the way back to the beginning, with none of your money, weapons, or items in tow. That’s the flip side to Spelunky’s length, which some have quoted as being as short as 10 minutes, if you’ve mastered the nuances of the games’ randomized level designs. Oh, did I mention every level is dynamically generated? Because it is.
Because of this, every single play-through of Spelunky feels like a new challenge. Every time you die, you get the sense that you’ve learned something about the game. This is not a game that deals in cheap, unreasonable death. If you die, it’s probably because you weren’t looking carefully enough at the path ahead, or simply mistimed an attack or jump. While the levels are procedurally generated, the core concepts of what you have to do to survive remain constant. They’re just shuffled up and dealt out randomly each go-around.
The mine is just the first of multiple different worlds in Spelunky, and each world comes with its own set of enemies and unique challenges. Good luck getting to those worlds, however, as you’ll be lucky to ever see them all. I died roughly 67 times before I ever reached the vine-covered confines of the jungle world… and then I died within six seconds of getting there. I’ve been back twice since, and died only slightly further in each time.
Spelunky is an abject fucker of a game. It’s a crass thing to say, but considering the number of expletives I shouted at my TV while playing it, I think it’s warranted. There are times when this game’s difficulty borders on straight-up abusive.
Yet it never quite crosses that line, thanks to the randomized levels, as well as the absurd breadth of things to discover peppered throughout the game. It’s hard to explain just how out-there Spelunky gets with this stuff, but to quickly illustrate, I’m still finding new weapons, gadgets, and strange hidden levels over a hundred plays in. You always have your trusty whip, and you’ll start the game with a limited number of ropes (for climbing to high ledges) and bombs (for busting up the environment), but there’s also a parachute to help you avoid dying from high falls, or a web shooting gun useful for slowing down enemies. If you linger in a level too long without doing anything, a mischievous ghost shows up out of nowhere to mess with you. And I still don’t know how I randomly ended up in the game’s graveyard level, or why I haven’t seen it since the one time I ended up there.
Those are just a few examples. As I said, I’m still discovering stuff as I continue to play. And continue to play I do, despite the game’s apparent disdain for me, the player. In truth, I’ve no one to blame but myself for my failures in Spelunky. Sure, sometimes the game generates a level with outright heinous enemy placements, but there’s always a way around the worst obstacles–albeit sometimes an impossible-seeming one. Yu and Hull have crafted a game with such specific, completely inviolable rules that you can’t call the game cheap in any way. Well, maybe that one time where I literally died two seconds after beginning the first level, but that was an aberration. In every other case, I knew why I died, and it was because I failed to follow the rules carefully enough. This is as mechanically sound a platformer as there’s ever been.
Which isn’t to say it’s a perfect game. As a single-player experience, it’s top flight, but the multiplayer drags. Multiplayer is solely local, and comes in co-op and deathmatch forms. Playing the game cooperatively is hectic in a way that is not conducive to making a great deal of progress, unless you’re playing with experts, and the deathmatch is just bizarre. While there’s a nice variety of maps, the gameplay is just too frantic to ever cohere into a playable experience. I’ve talked to some who quite enjoyed the unyielding chaos of the deathmatch mode, but I couldn’t find much to like about it.
But that doesn’t matter, because all I’m doing is playing the single-player mode, which is a wholly addicting experience all on its own. All I want to do is go back and keep trying for better scores and greater progress. In this regard, Spelunky is less a game than an obsession. If it does get its hooks in you, it will get those hooks deep, sending you into a downward spiral of torrential swearing and tear-choked misery the likes of which you may never completely recover from. And I mean that as a compliment.