Debuting nearly three decades ago on the mostly forgotten Atari 8-Bit console, Spelunker was a platform game years ahead of its time. During the mid to late ‘80s, it went on to appear on several platforms including the NES, which would become the definitive version and serve as the basis for this current iteration, Spelunker HD.
Spelunker is perhaps best known for its punishing difficulty, and HD is no different. What makes the game so difficult is the reliance on pixel perfect jumps, rope grabbing acrobatics and remarkably easy – frequent – fall deaths. Like the Mario found in Donkey Kong, but even more restrictive, the protagonist is incapable of surviving any jump that seems perfectly reasonable and virtually every fall. What this essentially means is any platform game skills you’ve picked up along your gaming career need to be thrown out the window; they don’t apply here.
Frustration is the common emotion you’ll likely feel when first playing Spelunker HD. Death is practically unavoidable and will constantly leave you cursing out your screen. But despite the perceived cheapness of the game, and its restrictive gameplay, there is something strangely compelling about the entire experience. No matter how much you want to blame the game for your inadequacies as a cave explorer, every death – in single player at least – is your own fault. Spelunker is both tough and unforgiving, but it’s also extremely consistent. In many ways it’s a lot like Demon’s Souls, as it requires your careful observation, patience and perfect execution. And when you begin to land those perfect runs through a series of obstacles you’ll begin to see just how rewarding the game can be.
What separates HD from its 8-bit predecessor is a pair of surprisingly fun multiplayer modes and new graphics; rather than reinvent the title, HD is a carbon copy of the NES classic. While the new graphics are serviceable, with the occasional highlights including the new ghosts and various environmental effects, it’s hard to deny that the game itself is even more difficult reskinned. HD levels are predominantly darker in color than their 8-bit counterparts and several obstacles and creatures don’t share the same iconic recognition they used to. Fortunately Spelunker HD packs in the entire 8-bit version of the title, which is much easier to decode and feels more appropriate, allowing you to see the actual pixels when attempting said perfect jumps.
Of course perfection can also be ruined by fellow spelunkers. Supporting up to 4 players locally and 6 players online, Spelunker HD’s multiplayer is a refreshingly fun – and funny – alternative to the single player. The entire game can be played co-operatively and many games found online can quickly devolve into a hilarious cavalcade of fall deaths. Certainly there are some good spelunkers out there as well to pair up with, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had in participating in inept expeditions as well. In addition to the co-op, HD has five original courses for cave racing. Some of the courses feature separate paths for each player while others drop everyone on top of one another, which can create an interesting dynamic as players have to work together to various extents to progress, but are also left to screw one another over with bombs and flares. Both modes are a regular riot and are a great change of pace between the various stages of punishment found alone. The only notable knock against both game types is your screen real estate is always divided, affording you tiny views of your teammates or opponents, but stripping you of a larger – preferable – view of the action.
Getting back to that difficulty, the charm of Spelunker for many will likely be the single force that drives most players away. Twenty-seven years after release, there are a handful of design choices that make the game feel even more unfair than it is perceived: the biggest one being checkpointing. When you die the location at which you respawn often feels completely random. It’s likely tied to the last essential item you grabbed, but regardless of what the respawn basis is linked to there are times you’ll be whisked away to the entire opposite side of a stage, leaving you to renegotiate whatever obstacles you passed in the first place. Now that doesn’t mean the game shouldn’t retain some sort of authentic rule set, but it adds an extra, unnecessary level of difficulty that the modern day player won’t want any part of. Similarly, where concessions have been made, the save system bizarrely doesn’t allow you to save and continue playing. It’s good practice to save at the beginning of every new stage, as it’s impossible to tell how hard a given floor might be, but it’s ridiculous that you have to save and exit all the way to the menu. What’s even more preposterous is a game over kicks you out to the main menu, rather than prompt you to load a previous save data.
Spelunker HD is a game that very much stands on the principles of its near ancient predecessor; remarkably the twenty-seven year old design still stands up. Given the obvious attention that was put into rebuilding the game in HD it’s extremely disappointing that the 8-bit graphics are the superior choice. And it’s frustrating that there wasn’t a more concerned effort to make the game palatable for non old-school players. Nonetheless, if you enjoy fighting the urge to hurl your DualShock 3 at the nearest wall, and fancy a challenging but rewarding platformer, Spelunker HD is the way to go.