Indiana Jones always seems to be preceded by an army of hapless tomb raiders who ended up as mouldering corpses, their mouths frozen in silent screams as a warning to those who might follow the same path. Spelunky, from designer Derek Yu and programmer Andy Hull, is the story of those skeletons. This pleasantly frustrating, retro-styled adventure asks players to explore a subterranean maze armed with a bullwhip, a pocket full of bombs, and a length of rope for climbing. The point is to delve deep into deadly mines and escape unscathed, laden with treasures. But before that happens, expect to leave more than a few fresh corpses among the ruins.
Spelunky is hard in a classical sense. There are snakes, spiders, and all manner of traps between our hero and the light at the end of the tunnel. But where Mario’s enemies reliably enter from stage right, following the same script since 1985, the pitfalls in Spelunky are far less predictable. Here, randomly generated jungles, caverns, and temples assure that no two runs are alike. Rather than memorize paths through this hell of spikes and serpents, players are forced to observe and improvise.
At the start, the fedora’d hero feels somewhat weak. His whip cracks lazily. It takes time (and more than a few nasty bites) to learn how to pick rabid bats out of the air with this deliberate weapon. Improvisation is rewarded and punished in equal measure. A hurled rock can crush a jumping spider, but it can also bounce back and painfully crack your noggin. There are many ways to lose precious hearts, and replenishing health isn’t easy. Every so often, you’ll find a damsel stranded among the ruins. These dames (or dudes or cross-eyed pugs if you fiddle with the options) need to be picked up and carried all the way to the exit. Only then will their kiss mend your wounds.
Though it might be tempting to methodically pick through every one of Spelunky’s chambers, time also happens to be of the essence. Take too long picking through all the loot and hidden secrets, and a fearsome ghost will creep onto the screen, bringing instant death when it touches the lingering treasure hunter.
To add insult to fatal injury, there are no save points in Spelunky. Death means starting again from square one, although there are caveats to that harsh reality. Paying off a tunnel digger with loot, supplies and weapons can eventually create shortcuts that allow you to start the game beyond the first level. But this gambit doesn’t always pay off. All the goodies scrounged during the early parts of the game go a long way toward ensuring your survival in the later, more difficult areas.
While some might find this kind of punishment inhumane, there’s something to be said for challenges that can’t be plowed through with bullish persistence. Spelunky is demanding of reflexes, but it also tests judgment. With death one misstep away, every decision, no matter how small, feels profound. The game’s fully destructible levels allow you to tunnel around especially harrowing obstacles (à la Lode Runner). With resources scarce, the means for digging must be saved and deployed at just the right moment. And though it feels like luck might play a part, no weapon or gadget, no matter how powerful, can save the fool who runs headlong into Spelunky’s unknown.
Spelunky started its life as a freeware game for the PC. But this all-new version of the game feels substantially different from the scruffy 2008 indie. Hand-drawn art replaces chunky pixels—but when shrunk down by a high-definition set, the squat characters still look sufficiently old-fashioned from the couch. Composer Eirik Suhrke’s brooding dirges burn into the brain, shifting gears just as they begin to overstay their welcome. In a game that is in a constant state of flux, this music provides a certain grounding as it becomes more familiar.
Up to four friends can embark together, somewhat collaboratively, on these perilous adventures. Bombs and whip cracks, though, are just as deadly to allies as they are to enemies. Bomberman-style death-matches offer a healthy outlet for these particular frustrations. Sadly, these multiplayer modes don’t work online. Spelunky, though nifty with a crowd, is perhaps best experienced in solitude—where the glory and, more often, the blame are yours alone.