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I used to think I was pretty good at video games.
And then I played Spelunky.
With a charming 2D flair and more than a modest nod at retro gaming, Spelunky is a game of exploration and smooth platforming the likes of which has both been a major influence to other indie developers and has inspired a new generation of gamers. Players take control of one of several adventurers as they traverse elaborate and randomly-generated caves searching for treasure and combating a large array of enemies. Armed with bombs and ropes, gamers will be able to move through a fully destructible environment while strategically making their way toward the exit and the next level.
On the surface, it sounds easy, looking an awful lot like many of the other indie platformers on the XBLA marketplace. But it’s Spelunky’s interesting and unique game design that make it both innovative and maddeningly difficult.
Spelunky is a game about learning and exploration. Outside of basic controls and mechanics, there’s not much that the game teaches you from the start, instead relying on you to figure things out in a trial-and-error method. Journal entries about enemies, people, and places within the game are added, but typically after you’ve already discovered or been killed off by them. The game has a flawless design to it that allows for open player exploration and gameplay approach. It never holds your hand or provides a blatant way out, forcing you to look at the level much like you would a puzzle. Which is captivating and interesting, but frustrating. Why? Because when you die, you have no one to blame other than yourself.
When first starting out, you’ll be tempted to run your way through the level, jumping and throwing things as you charge toward the exit. Be warned, however; anything other than a cautious, cerebral approach to the game will get you nothing but killed. And death comes easy when you’ve only got four hearts of health that don’t get replaced very often and are not regenerated at the start of a new level. One wrong move, and you could be in serous trouble from fall damage, enemy attacks, and environmental hazards.
But then, the game prevents you from taking your sweet time as well. Each level is timed, and once players go outside of the time limit, they’ll be staring death (literally) in the face as a ghost approaches them and kills them on contact. So, you’re forced to find a comfortable middle ground within Spelunky that not only relies on a cautious approach, but an intense pace as well.
Multiple upgrades are available to you throughout the game, found in the randomly-generated stores throughout the levels. Through these, players can buy new weapons, more bombs, more ropes, special shoes, health, etc., all funded by treasure found within the cave. Collectibles such as rare items and rescuing damsels in distress can all have significant payoff at the end, should the level be completed successfully.
Spelunky can frustrate, but never in a way that might feel negative. Sure, death means starting over at world 1-1 again, but players won’t have to worry about grinding through early levels to get back to where they left off. You’ll never see the same level twice, thanks to the random generation of levels that will create a whole new layout with each playthrough. After completing a certain number of stages, you will be able to create a shortcut that will allow you to jump ahead to certain levels, but no save point will ever keep you locked in the same cave.
The controls in Spelunky are responsive and fluid, with a smooth feel that works with the character really well. Jumping is powered up by running in mid-air, weapons can be used to slow down and kill enemies, items and bombs can be thrown, and climbing is careful and well-realized. It’s a simple control scheme, but its execution is brilliant within the game’s overall personality.
Harking back to a simpler, 16-bit style graphic, the game maintains a quirky, adorable look with a darker tone to it. Well-placed sound design adds weight to character action, and the music is pretty neat and implemented with just the right bit of gusto to keep things interesting.
While some have compared Spelunky to being as difficult and frustrating as a title like Dark Souls, the game itself is a brilliantly-designed platformer with interesting gameplay mechanics and variations that keep you coming back for more. With its individualized approach and a feel not dissimilar to the earlier games of our history, Spelunky crafts a feel unique to itself in a crowded genre of cutesy platformers. So, gather up your ropes and head to the caves to claim your fortune, friends.
I hope you have a taste for humble pie, though. Because Spelunky’s going to shove it down your throat.