spelrevlead 1 Spelunky mixes oodles of death with fun, challenge and adorable graphics (Review)

Spelunky isn’t a game for the faint of heart. In fact, it’s hard to regard it as a game designed for what one may call “normal human beings”. Much like the roguelike games its design philosophy is inspired by, Spelunky is meant for people who enjoy the thrill of building a house of cards… on a rickety table. With the window open on a windy day. Also, someone is shining a laser pointer on the cards, and there’s a lot of excitable cats in the room. In other words, Spelunky is for people who not only enjoy challenge, but who are able to enjoy that challenge with the full knowledge that at any given moment a poor decision or a bad but quite likely series of events is going to destroy all their progress before their very eyes. Now, take that sort of experience, mesh it with a game that picked up a 2012 IGF award for excellence in design, and then slap on not only some great graphics, but some novel online features and achievements. If you enjoyed Rogue Legacy but found it way too forgiving and not nearly adorable enough, this is a game that should immediately be purchased and added to your Steam favorites list.

If you haven’t heard of Spelunky before but find the above summary of it has caught your interest rather than scared you off as it would a sensible person, I’ve got some great news for you. Originally Spelunky was a free PC game by Derek Wu – a game filled with beautiful if old-school pixel art, showing off the amazing things the man can do with 16 by 16 pixels. This original version, along with the source code, is still available for download, and frankly it’s a load of fun in and of itself. Over time, Spelunky was ported to Xbox Live Arcade, won quite a fan-following online, and of course that aforementioned IGF award. It’s a game of dynamically generated dungeons, filled to the brim with lovely old-school art and stressful platformer challenge. Every stage of Spelunky is overflowing with environmental hazards like spike pits and dart traps, most of which you’ll accidentally throw yourself into while trying to avoid or kill the various deadly critters that are out for your blood. Dying means you lose all of your progress and are kicked back to the start of the at least the particular themed levels you’re exploring, if not the dungeon altogether. There are tools to discover, damsels to rescue, loot to pick up, and many, many things to get killed by. Pure, frustrating fun.

Now it’s being released on the PC again – and while it’s fundamentally the same game that was released years ago, a whole lot has changed – mostly in terms of major graphical enhancements, musical improvements, and a sizable list of added features. At the end of the day, it’s still Spelunky, but it’s a glamorously polished, updated version of Spelunky that does a fantastic job of justifying the shift from ‘totally free’ to ‘must buy to play’. While I happen to be a huge fan of pixel art, and happily died in the original Spelunky more times than I can remember, I can easily say that every single change made to the Steam version is positive one. The new graphics are lush and filled with character, from the earthy browns that dominate the initial foray into the cavern-themed levels, to the lush greens and of the native-filled jungles, to the wood-planked mid-level shops. Everything just fits, and while it’s no longer ‘boxy but good’ pixel art, it all feels like the best kind of graphical update that the game could have been received – utterly true to the original, while still feeling like a massive improvement overall.

The gameplay hasn’t been overhauled whatsoever, at least in terms of fundamentals: it’s still a game of struggling to get yourself to the next level, carefully plodding your way through tight caves, throwing out bombs to get at treasure or deal with particularly threatening situations, and ultimately getting knocked off a platform, then shot with an arrow that in turn sends you careening to your final moment at the bottom of a spike pit. There’s more than just a handful of monsters and hazards to worry about, of course. Randomization is only part of the recipe for any successful roguelike, after all – no one cares about dynamic content generation if all it means is a slightly different arrangement of dirt and stone each level. With Spelunky, you get far more than that: themed levels, such as oppressively dark ones that need to be navigated by torchlight. Or maybe you’ll run into the level with the giant beehive, which is inhabited – naturally – by hostile, giant bees, along with a queen who drops a health-restoring royal jelly if you can somehow manage to kill her. There are bloody sacrificial altars you can drop your larger enemies onto, there are giant frogs who attack you by spewing out smaller but still quite dangerous frogs, there are boulder traps and shopkeepers who will shoot you with a shotgun if you try to attack or rob them… there’s a lot here to experience, and just about all of it is deadly. 

Of course, not EVERYthing in the game is trying to kill you in Spelunky. In fact there’s even some boons you can pick up along the way, beyond your trusty whip and starting supply of rope and bombs. Gold and treasure, for one thing – and while at first it’s easy to suspect that the money you gain has no use aside from acting as a reasonable approximation of your score, in fact you’ll run into opportunities to spend your gold on randomly generated shops. Maybe you’ll want to pick up some additional bombs to carve through the caverns with, or ropes to help you climb down a cliffside rather than simply jumping down and risking damage or even death. There are powerups to both purchase and find, like climbing gloves or shotguns or machetes, some of which can be carried passively, while others require a bit of prioritizing – you can only carry one item or object in your hands at any time, and you can’t carry extra items in your inventory. There are damsels you can pick up as well, and who will restore some of your health if you carry them to the end of the level – and if the word ‘damsel’ is tempting you to alt-tab to your tumblr to complain, don’t worry. You can change the gender or even species of your ‘damsels’ in the options. Choosing the adorable puppy option seems like a cute and safe possibility, but I remind you that this is the sort of game where an adorable puppy can end up impaled and room-temperature on some spikes, among other grisly fates. Consider yourself warned.

Some additional amount of mercy is offered by the game, beyond the power-ups you can acquire during a play session. For one thing, repeatedly making it to the end of a given level set presents the opportunity to assist a digger who’s trying to build some shortcuts to the lower levels of the game. Once you assist him enough times (he’ll want items or funds to aid his shortcut-building), you’ll be able to access his pathways at the start of any attempt. Perfect if you just want to get a bit of a head start on your session, though making use of a shortcut comes at the cost of removing your score from the online leaderboards. Another welcome feature is the journal – a logbook you can browse to see which creatures or items you’ve discovered, along with a bit of flavor text and a log of how many times you’ve either killed them or been killed by them, at least where the monsters are concerned. It’s a very nice touch, and meshes well with the post-death screen giving you the parting words of your character and a live-cam framed shot of your corpse – often as it’s being repeatedly pummeled by enemies who are by that point desecrating your corpse rather than simply trying to kill you. Capping all this off is the ability to unlock additional characters to play as – all of whom seem functionally identical, but still manage to be visually unique from each other.

With all these features in mind, it’s worth noting the other novel features Spelunky offers in its Steam iteration. For one thing, there’s four-player but local-only co-op. I didn’t get to try this out, for two reasons. For one thing, ‘local co-op’ for anything but party games strikes me as the most bizarre kind of technological throwback imaginable (what, am I playing on an Apple IIe here? Impossible, my monitor displays more colors than green), and if I have one lament about Spelunky it would be the lack of online co-op play. The second reason I haven’t tried out the local co-op is because it would probably lead to a fist-fight. Really, this is a frustrating enough game without having your soon-to-be-ex-friends killing you, either accidentally or on purpose, and you know there’s always one jackass just waiting for the worst possible time to cause trouble. Spare our friendships, Mossmouth – consider adding online co-op to this game! Speaking friend abuse, there’s also a local four-player ‘deathmatch’ mode… but this is an odd addition to Spelunky. It plays like a super-rapid version of Super Smash Brothers Melee, with four characters in a single, tight room doing their best to kill their opponents. Bots can play the role of the other players, but really, the whole thing is too frantic and too quick to be very enjoyable for all but the most hyperactive of gamers.

While the multiplayer options leave something to be desired (perhaps patient people with roommates will get more mileage there), the daily challenge is a very welcome addition. Functioning as the closest thing to multiplayer competition that Spelunky can offer, this is a randomized set of levels that changes each day. All players of Spelunky on Steam get to attempt the same level… once. And only once. If you die while attempting this, well, that’s it for the day. Wait until tomorrow to try again. Functionally identical to the regular levels of Spelunky, it gives you a chance to compare your score to other players online, confident in the knowledge that everyone had one and only one attempt at the exact same level. Now, I say this, but the fact of the matter is this is a PC game… and where PC games are concerned, there are cheaters. I have no idea what kind of online security Mossmouth has in store to make sure that the top of the leaderboard is occupied by ‘legitimate’ winners, but even if that’s not an option, at the very least you can compare your performance with your friends’. With the possibility of cheating friends put aside, this is a nice addition, and it will make for some good stories to swap.

Spelunky is being released on August 8th on Steam, and the hours I’ve already poured into it have sold me on this version. Graphically, it’s far more polished and detailed than the original Spelunky – that alone would justify its purchase price. While the ‘multiplayer’ options are mostly but not entirely a swing and a miss, the added content and the sheer fun of the gameplay more than make up for it. Pick up Spelunky if you’re a fan of actiony roguelike games, supremely challenging platformers, or if you’re simply a gaming masochist who finds themselves griping about how too damn easy games are nowadays.