Spelunky is a game about self-improvement. It’s a sublime platformer with systems so clear, so polished, that you can see yourself reflected in your struggle to master them.
You will fail early and fail often while playing Spelunky, but if you get good enough, react fast enough, and play smart enough, you will win. Die, and you lose everything.
It’s a frustrating loop that rarely feels unfair, because everything in Spelunky operates under strict rules that can be learned, mastered, and manipulated to your benefit. Success in Spelunky inspires the same savage joy that comes from playing Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, the joy of facing your own weaknesses and overcoming them.
Back to the mines
Reviewing Spelunky as though it’s a new title would be to ignore the fact that this game has been available in one form or another since 2008, when creator Derek Yu released it for free as a downloadable PC game. Yu went on to build an enhanced version that came out on Xbox Live Arcade last year and earned numerous game industry accolades, including the 2012 International Game Festival’s “Excellence In Design” award.
This enhanced version came back to PC in 2013, and this week it hits the PlayStation Network as a $15 downloadable game. It’s a cross-buy game to boot, meaning you buy it once and unlock it for play on your PlayStation 3, your PlayStation Vita, or even both simultaneously over Wi-Fi via local deathmatch or co-op multiplayer.
The ability to play local co-op with a handheld device is revelatory because it affords Vita players their own personal camera, allowing them to venture off the main player’s screen and still remain effective. It’s a huge improvement over the Xbox 360 version, which forces all players to stay on the same screen. Playing Spelunky by yourself is just as fun and frustrating on Playstation 3 as it ever was on Xbox 360, but that’s no surprise; what is surprising about this latest version of Spelunky is how well it works as a mobile game. The vibrant, cartoonish imagery looks great on the Vita’s OLED screen, and Spelunky’s concise adventures and lack of tedious narrative make it equally well-suited to whiling away long plane trips and quick bus rides.
When I say there’s no narrative worth worrying about, I mean it; Mossmouth’s only attempt at storytelling is a randomly-generated three-line soliloquy on spelunking that appears every time you start the game. Spelunky challenges you to tell your own story by choosing an avatar from a cast of cartoonish spelunkers and guiding he, she, or it on a descent through a series of two-dimensional caves, collecting treasure and rescuing damsels on the way down.
Every level feels fresh, assembled in a near-random fashion by the dark code that powers Spelunky—code that, incidentally, Yu made available for non-commercial use on the Spelunky website.
Like your starting complement of bombs, ropes, and health points, Spelunky’s levels come in sets of four. Survive four levels of the mines and you’ll reach an underground jungle full of savage new enemies and traps to surmount. Survive four levels of that and you’ll face another pair of new environments, four levels apiece, before facing the final boss.
Spelunky’s levels are always surpassable, but they’re rarely simple; the code often places deadly traps in near-unbeatable combinations or locks valuable treasure away behind layers of stone. Sometimes these randomly-generated levels are further modified with “Level Feelings” that render them pitch black, overrun with snakes, or haunted by the undead. To survive and thrive in these conditions you have to master the game: learn exactly how high and far your character can jump, how to effectively use the bombs, ropes and special items you’ll find scattered throughout the caves, and memorize the patterns of every enemy and trap you encounter. It’s a bit like a classic Super Mario Bros. game, if Mario rolled into the Mushroom Kingdom packing a whip, bombs and a grappling hook.
Rise to the challenge
Like Mario, Spelunky’s cast of plucky adventurers never gain experience points or permanent upgrades. They never level up; you do. Spelunky only gets easier because you as a player develop the skill and expertise to make it so, using the experience earned every time you die. It’s tempting to succor new players by claiming that Spelunky is fair and balanced enough to avoid frustrating you, but it’s not true—you will be frustrated. You will die countless times to learn the patterns and peccadilloes of the traps and monsters that wait for you in the depths.
Stick with it, and you’ll find the satisfaction of accomplishing something momentous in Spelunky—reaching a new area, unlocking a shortcut or a new character, beating the final boss—is commiserate with the time and effort required. Even better, as you dig deeper you’ll discover new depths, figuratively and literally, to Spelunky’s design.
Here’s an example: I’ve been playing Spelunky irregularly since it was released in 2008, racking up almost a hundred hours played across both the PC and the Xbox 360 versions. I can brain vipers with a well-aimed stone from across the screen, dodge giant rolling boulders with aplomb, and find the secret entrance to the Black Market. Yet while playing the Vita version of Spelunky for review this weekend I discovered, to my complete surprise, that you can run through spike traps.
Now, that’s hardly a game-changing revelation for an experienced Spelunky player; heck, the mandatory tutorial level practically forces you to run through a set of spikes, so it’s not inconceivable that you might learn in the very first level that these thickets of blades, which bring instant death to anyone foolish enough to land on them, are completely safe to walk through.
Yet somehow, I never did. In almost a hundred hours of play I never bothered to question my (totally logical) approach to circumventing floor spikes, which was to stay as far away from them as possible. I played it safe in Spelunky, wasting a lot of time gingerly leaping about like a fool that could have been better spent enriching myself with the gold and precious gems scattered throughout every level.
Believe it or not, I learned something about myself from this experience. My real life is sorely lacking in the gold and precious gems department, but other than that it pretty handily mirrors my experience playing Spelunky: I’m cautious, presumptuous, and I waste time playing it safe when I should be chasing my dreams. This game helped me better understand my own weaknesses, and that alone makes it well worth the $15 asking price.
Spelunky is a difficult game to criticize because it never purports to be anything more than what it is: a roguelike 2D platformer with randomly-generated levels and a panoply of enemies, traps and items that react with each other in predictable ways. It is all of these things and more, a challenge engine that never pulls punches and never wastes your time with cruft like cutscenes or quicktime events.
In short, it’s a brilliant game that respects your time and your capacity for self-improvement. Everyone should play it.