Review

Spelunky

Whipped

Spelunky randomly generates a perilous journey of fortune and glory.

By Gus Mastrapa • July 5, 2012

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.

Spelunky

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

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.

Spelunky
Developer: Mossmouth
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $15
Rating: T

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  • benexclaimed

    Played this for hours yesterday. Such a great game.

    • James Bunting

      You might give Towerclimb by Davioware a try. It’s a mere $5 and works on PC. It is sort of a reverse Spelunky with a very primal, mythical feel. Quite fun – as good as Spelunky in its way, perhaps better.

      And that is the last time I will shamelessly promote Towerclimb on Gameological.

  • zebbart

    I played the shit out of this game in 2008. For some reason I was listening to Beatitude by Pepe Deluxe nonstop at the time and it made the perfect alternate soundtrack. One of those songs happened to come up on my player earlier today and it made me so nostalgic for February 2009 when I was single and working 4 hours a day as a janitor and so had time to play games for hours a day.

  • Mike Mariano

    The Mac version of Spelunky led to weeks of unending misery for me.  Everything kills you.  Nothing heals you.  Jumps, attacks, rope placement all had to be pixel perfect.

    I was willing to put up with all of that, but I couldn’t stand the time limit.  It is impossible to do more than one thing in a level without having the music change and Death arrive.

    Spelunky never gave me time to improve as a player or to explore its space.  It is a game that just wants to kill me.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Whaaaat. I had a blast with Spelunky. Though I still haven’t beaten it. Every new game I started I felt like I did a little bit better than before. I figured out all the mechanics on my own and it was extremely satisfying. I’ve come very close to finishing it a few times (Shotgun/jetpack is way too awesome). 

      Also, I didn’t feel that the platforming aspect was that hard, you just have to take a bit of time and examine the route in front of you. I also never once hit the time limit that spawns a ghost I think? The levels are really short (< 2 minutes). I did get that time limit warning message (A chill runs down your spine…) and it always prompted me to run towards the exit. Never saw any ghosts though.

      Clearly you had a different experience than me (nearly the opposite, it sounds like), but I really loved the pc version. I'd get this if I had an xbox. 

      But yeah, it's a tricky game to recommend. A lot of people can't stand roguelike mechanics.

      Edit: I thought your picture was the spelunky guy for a second, but on closer inspection it appears to be one of the fat hockey players from the NES Ice Hockey.

      • dreadguacamole

          I don’t know. I kind of liked the gameplay, and I love roguelike mechanics, but the strict time limit completely turned me off this game as well. It’s just a mechanic I dislike immensely (and not just in this game).

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/TKMJ6RJLFJZC2F2RUIRLSL3B5Y Kevbo

       Spelunky gives you plenty of opportunity to improve as a player. And you can still get stuff with the time limit–you just can’t get everything. You have to choose, and make decisions. Do you use up your precious time to go for a hard-to-reach crate that might have something great with it? If you move quickly you can get most of the treasure, but that also increases your risk.

      I definitely got better with time, but the key to getting better at this game was not just being able to get more stuff, but getting better at judging when it was and wasn’t worth it to go for something.

  • lokimotive

    Pleasantly frustrating pretty much says it all. Some parts of this seem downright unfair. Though I haven’t played it in a few years (the PC game, of course), there were a lot of situations that you could find yourself in that seemed pretty much impossible. Since that was due to the randomly generated levels, though, it just seemed like par for the course. You would die, and there would be that excitement of plunging back into the abyss hoping that, perhaps, something less impossible to traverse would come up.

    I was eventually able to pretty consistently get to the third area (and, I believe, once or twice to the fourth when I just barreled through without stopping to think), which is saying a lot because I suck at video games. I got a trainer at some pointed and kind of ruined myself by just getting all the secret items, being invincible, and finishing off the game with little to no difficulty.

    Still, I hope this will come out for PC at some point. I still have the freeware on my hard drive, but I’d like to revisit it (and give the developers some dough).

  • bunnyvision

    This is my favorite game. Every piece is so expertly made and well thought out. It looks like there’s a ton of new features in this (a GIANT BEEHIVE in the jungle levels??) so maybe one day i will buy an xbox and then buy this

    one day…

  • awkward_ghost

    I so hope this comes to PSN eventually. I have the freeware PC version and I enjoy it, but I’ve always thought I’d prefer to play it on a console…

  • jarviscockblocker

    I seriously can’t decide if Spelunky or N+ is my favourite new PC platformer. Neither can knock off Commander Keen 4 from the top though.

    • Fixda Fernback

      Man, I would perhaps literally kill for some Commander Keen action to be rereleased on XBLA and PSN.