Claustrophobes Need Not Apply: Spelunky Review
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360
Before I get into the meat of this review for Spelunky, by developer Mossmouth, I need to make two points. First, at the stage of writing, I hadn’t actually completed the game. Second, if you have any form of anger management issues, then Spelunky isn’t a game for you. If you’ve come to the conclusion from considering these two points that Spelunky is an incredibly challenging game, then you’d be correct. Now, I chose the word challenging over other descriptions such as ‘difficult’ or ‘frustrating’ because, whilst you’ll find yourself swearing a lot when playing the game, Spelunky is neither of the latter two.
As controls and mechanics go, you’ll find Spelunkyis up there with some of the more accessible games available. Never did I have any problems with forgetting button placements or being unable to work out what to do next. In terms of frustration, the only swearing you’ll be doing is at yourself, as it’s very rare for the blame of player deaths to be placed anywhere other than at the feet of the player.
Spelunky puts you in the role of (what else?!) a spelunker, exploring various underground areas with the objective of gathering as much treasure as possible and making your way through a variety of locations. Within the confines of the game, this has you navigating from the top of the screen to the bottom, avoiding various enemies and traps in your quest to reach the next level. The challenge comes from the fragility of your character. You start each playthrough with four lives, and every instance of pain causes you to lose one life. Once you’ve lost all four, you start back at the beginning of whichever area you have the most recent shortcut open to.
Shortcuts are unlocked by reaching the end of each area (each of which consists of four levels), and providing the Tunnel Man with a variety of items to help him open up the shortcut. You have to reach the Tunnel Man three separate times at the end of each area and provide him with a different item each time, such as bombs, ropes, money and shotguns, and this allows him to open a shortcut to the first level of the next area. It sounds simple, but even reaching the end of an area once is tricky enough.
It sounds as though Spelunky would get repetitive quickly, considering how often you’ll need to replay each level. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, as the game is based around a random level generator, which means that you’ll never see the same level twice. Quickest routes, enemy placements, and exit locations are switched up each time round, meaning that the game is less an exercise of pattern recognition than of patience, timing and a small slice of luck. The engine for the random level generation seems to be well designed, with most levels proving to be fairly easily traversable. The ability to destroy scenery and create new paths by using bombs is an inspired idea, as this reduces any potential navigation problems by allowing you to find your own way. There were only a couple of instances in which this didn’t work, one such example being an occasion where the exit was blocked by a sizeable distance of piranha-infested water, which was impossible to cross without losing all of your lives.
Spelunky’s fiendishness is hidden behind an almost adorable cartoonish visage, one which wouldn’t look out of place in a Nintendo title. Visuals are clean and crisp, and never once did I have difficulty picking out my character, nor did I have any problems with working out where enemies were. The various areas, such as mines, jungles and ice caves, all look unique, and each has its own variety of enemies for you to outwit or simply destroy. To help you on your quest, your spelunker can choose from an assortment of equipment to escape each area,, including boomerangs, compasses, web guns and even jetpacks. Each of these can be bought from shops randomly dotted around the levels. Some shopkeepers also sell a selection of bombs and ropes, and even kisses from damsels which replenish your life counter by one each time. Those merchants sure know how to charge, though.
It is the sheer number of items that can be bought, and the helpfulness of said items, that drive the player onwards in Spelunky. The entire game exists on a basis of risk vs. reward, in that whilst the main objective is surviving until you reach the end of each level, this task is made a lot easier by purchasing items from the shopkeepers. To do this, however, you need to find treasures that are scattered throughout each location. This puts you at the mercy of the various creatures and traps, which means oftentimes it would make more sense to simply head for the exit and be done with it. A lot of thought seems to have gone into balancing this equation, as neither rushing for the exit nor buying everything in sight will guarantee success any more than the other. You can go for speed and reflexes, or you can sit back, take your time and rack up as much cash as possible. Chances are Spelunky will still chew you up and spit you out.
Despite this constant barrage of deaths and restarts, Spelunky is one of those games that you almost literally cannot stop playing. There were times when I would promise myself that ‘this run will be my last’ and then I’d look at the clock again and two hours would have flown by. This is mainly down to the fact that Spelunky never feels cheap or rigged in killing off your character so liberally, and oftentimes a death can be attributed to a stupid mistake on your part or simply the fact that you were rushing.
For such a tough game, Spelunky is never unfair, and that says a lot about how well the game has been designed, particularly when difficult sections in other games are often products of spamming enemies or cheap tactics (see Mario Kart’s rubber-banding). You will convince yourself that you will overcome your stupidity this time around, and while you’re seeking to atone for your previous mistake, you’ll commit another of equal stupidity, and back to the start you go. It’s a cycle of self-flagellation that’s extremely difficult to break out of.
To conclude, then, Spelunky is a game that wouldn’t seem out of place twenty years ago, but in a good way. It’s challenging, unforgiving, addictive and delightful, and it reminds me of the days when saving your game was unheard of, and it was perfectly natural to restart from the beginning each time you wanted to play. For those of you decrying the lack of difficulty in today’s gaming scene, you owe it to yourself to check out Spelunky, and for everyone else, if you have a dash of patience, and not too much underlying self-loathing, then you’ll definitely find something here to enjoy as well.
Score 4.75 out of 5
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