Developer: Derek Yu, Andy Hall > Publisher: Microsoft > Systems: XBLA, PC > Rating: T
Spelunky is the latest king of masocore—a new genre of video games designed to tick you off. The throne was previously held by games such as Super Meat Boy, N+, and I Wanna Be the Guy. Games like Spelunky are designed to not only test your skill, but also your tenacity.
In Spelunky, the rules are devilishly simple. You play as an unnamed miner searching for loot and glory in a series of underground caves. Armed with only your trusty whip, four bombs, and four ropes, you are tasked with descending deeper into the cave’s abyss and finding the exit to the next of the game’s 16 levels. To fully beat Spelunky, the entire cavern must be traversed in one go. Considering that your hero has only four hearts and that many enemies will kill you in one hit, this is no easy task.
The game is sectioned into four worlds: the mines, the jungle, the ice caves, and a ruins area that you probably won’t ever see because the ice caves will make you cry. As you journey deeper, you will discover a series of exotic enemies, booby traps, and random occurrences all hell-bent on ending your life. You will also uncover precious artifacts, maids in peril, and dozens of inventive items that will aid you on your quest. All this information can, and will, seem overwhelming. Luckily, a journal item will provide instant facts and information on any enemies or items you come across. Info in the journal stays forever, and it’s satisfying to see your item database grow as you continue to explore.
Death in Spelunky has harsh consequences. Once you lose all four hearts, you are sent right back to the top of the first world. Upon beating a chapter, a not-so-generous tunnel digger will offer to build you a permanent checkpoint to the later worlds, so long as you have the money and/or items he needs to build it. The ability to finally skip the first, second, and third worlds is imperative, as it allows you to master each section’s many tricks until you opt to tackle the whole world at once. It is only by beating the whole game in one go that impressive scores (and most of those sweet, sweet achievement points) become possible.
The controls are tight, and the vast majority of the time you will have no one to blame for a game over except yourself. My only grievance with the controls is the run mechanic: I never used it. The miner runs like he’s on rocket skates, accelerating too slowly before suddenly dashing forward with a burst of speed. Ninety-nine percent of the game is best done without running, so it was frustrating when I did need to get my tail in high gear, I'd flounder because I hadn’t trained with the system enough.
The maps in Spelunky are randomly generated, so your chances of success will often be less in your control than you might like. A lucky item spawn or level design can make the level you’re on a total breeze. Likewise, an unlucky map generation can make success nearly—and sometimes entirely—impossible. My advice is to take the bad luck in stride and enjoy the god-like high when you find a shotgun and are able to take Rambo-like vengeance on all that have wronged you in the past.
Spelunky is actually a remake of a free 2009 PC title. This XBLA update includes improved art and music, as well as a host of new unlockables and map configurations. Also new is a co-op mode, as well as a Bomberman style versus mode. The multiplayer may be good for a night with buddies, but it is the core adventure mode that is the draw here.
What ultimately makes Spelunky right at home amongst its pitiless counterparts is that while your items and progress disappear upon death, your knowledge does not. The first time you purposely throw a small rock to set off an arrow trap that then kills three spiders beneath you, you will feel like a genius and all of your struggles will seem worth it. It’s these small victories within Spelunky that will keep you coming back for more—even after your thumbs are blistered and you’ve run out of offensive things to call your television.
Spelunky is a ten-minute game that will take you dozens of hours to beat. It's an experience unlike any mainstream game you’ve ever played. Check it out.
Hint: Dig deep and get that first tunnel built. The second world seems easier than the first.
by Mattie Culkin