Taken at face value, Spelunky can sound like a waste of money. This XBLA remake of a 2008 PC title has only a handful of worlds, each of which contains four short levels of around 1 or 2 minutes of gameplay. So how on earth have I managed to spend 15 gleeful hours playing it then?
Well, Spelunky is hard. Irascibly, obstinately and doggedly so. This is a 2D caving platformer with a Dark Souls style penchant for environmental death traps, aggressive enemies and fatal falls, much like its inspiration, Spelunker. You will die frequently, but never in quite the same way: Maybe from falling into a giant-bee infested hive, getting flattened by a rolling boulder or shot-gunned to smithereens by a shopkeeper.
There aren’t any save points either. A straight play through of Spelunky would be terribly short, but the game’s tendency to leave you, quite literally at times, between a rock and a hard place makes such a thing a rarity. All of which begs the question – What’s the incentive to carry on playing it then?
Aside from just being difficult, it is also mightily addictive. Developer Derek Yu has moulded the fundamental Tetris blocks of level composition and left a fiendish set of algorithms to randomly slot them into place, making every playthrough a slightly different experience.
These elements of design are heavily influenced by the roguelike genre; a sub-genre of RPG’s characterised by level randomisation and a lack of save points. Spelunky’s greatest draw is in balancing the inherent difficulty of such a design with incentives to keep playing. Its randomised building blocks form an intricate, finely tuned set of mechanics, which blend a nice balance of punishment and reward into each slightly different stage.
It’s a game that trains you upon each death as well. Not quite in the Dark Souls style of enemy and environmental placement memorisation (because of the randomisation), but in perfecting its reflex based mechanics – Learning how to avoid the boulder, safely navigate the bee-hive and avoid aggravating that fatally volatile shopkeeper. And mastering one of Spelunky’s numerous hazards is a surprisingly satisfying reward in and of itself.
A number of items aid you in your descent through some gorgeously themed underground locals, as gold encrusted mines of dirt blend into dark jungles and yeti filled ice caverns. You begin with an inventory of four bombs and four ropes: One for destroying a path downward through the soft earth and the other for reaching upwards towards difficult ledges. A plethora of other power-ups can be purchased, stolen or found, including boomerangs, flying capes and wall climbing grappling gloves.
Acquisition of these aids is never essential to advancing – the mathematically dictated level construction always leaves a singular path open to the unequipped explorer – but they assist progression immeasurably. And Spelunky’s loot based economy (gems and gold bullion are prevalent throughout) is balanced such that you often need to strategise your method of progression: Use the floating cape to gently navigate a descent around the dangers, or simply purchase more bombs to force a clear path through the nasties.
Underneath its mask of bubblish cartoon graphics and chirpy beep bop music, Spelunky has a black comedic heart. Death is greeted by the squelch of impalement and distressed damsels can be sacrificed upon an altar for extra items. It’s a fitting and humorously quirky design that complements Spelunky’s dark humour.
It’s in a local four player co-op mode that this becomes all the more evident. Like Rayman Origins or New Super Mario Bros Wii, Spelunky provides a fabulous sandpit of slapstick chaos in which multiplayer madness can ensue. It’s easy for a room full of friends to descend into maddening outbursts of backstabbing accusations when a teammate blows up the entire party with a badly timed bomb.
Likewise a competitive multiplayer component all too often evokes profanity at the ridiculous amount of danger and death present. Rounds are often over in a matter of seconds as fights take place in small arenas peppered with traps and power-up items. It’s bombastic fun, if a little too chaotic to provide anything more than an entertaining distraction.
The sheer punishment of Spelunky’s gameplay in both its single and multiplayer elements can feel a little too much at times. Level randomisation is sometimes unnecessarily callous and your Indiana Jones style adventurer’s whip doesn’t so much accurately crack at enemies as it does imprecisely flop in their direction, lending to a few more unfair deaths. But these are minor niggles in the grand scheme of the spelunkers adventure.
Spelunky is a game that you can finish, but one that you will never complete, and that’s why I have played it for 15 hours: The finely tuned mechanics, addictive algorithmic based level design and provocatively challenging, magnificently creative difficulty represent tough videogame design at its finest. Spelunky isn’t a game for the casual, or faint of heart, but if you can’t stand the heat…