Platforms: PS3 (reviewed) | PS Vita (cross-play)
Developers: Derek Yu
Spelunky. A lovely, cutesy title for a game, that. When I first heard it, it conjured up images of a fun-filled frolic in some long-forgotten mine in search of unknown riches and treasure. It would be an adventure that could be enjoyed by all the family, due to its charm and accessibility. This feeling rings true even upon loading the game, as you’re greeted by the loveable protagonist, this is a game that is going to leave you all warm and fuzzy inside. This feeling lasts for about 20 seconds of playtime, until you realize the true reason for the game’s name. It is a made-up word, one that you might scream in anger to save your blushes from your family and friends when you die for the umpteenth time. SPELUNKY!
The difficulty of the game is born from its simplistic, retro design and gameplay. You control an unnamed spelunker who traverses a variety of levels in search of untold treasure. Each level is a 2D area, of which you will start at the top, with the exit to the level down at the bottom. Sounds a pretty simple premise, and it is. Along your way to the exit you’ll encounter a variety of monsters hell bent on stopping you from your treasure-hunting glory. In true old-school platforming fashion the majority of these monsters can be dealt with by a swift jump on their noggins. Alternatively our hero is also armed with a whip which can damage and dispatch nearby enemies.
As if roaming monsters weren’t enough for you to contend with, each area will also have various traps vying for your health. Anything from good old fashioned spikes, to lava and acid threaten to upset your expedition. Add to this the fact that your character starts off with just 4 hearts of health, with few chances to increase your health, and many opportunities to lose them, and a likelihood of death and a game over looms large. Yep, that’s right, with no hearts left you have to start the game again from scratch – there are no continues.
To make matters worse in terms of difficulty, but much, much better in terms of appeal comes one of the game’s main features. And that is that all levels have completely random layouts. This means that you won’t ever be learning the best way to beat a particular section or tackle a certain level because you know you’ll never be seeing it again. Its an interesting dynamic that for the most part works extremely well. It encourages you as the player to learn the game, not the level. It’s a game that through it’s own design rewards practice and persistence of solid play. A cheap trick or shortcut might work on one level, but such tactics cannot be guaranteed on the next. As such the most successful way to do well in the game is to learn it’s intricacies through lots of practice and trial and error of the basics rather than the specifics.
So yes, this game is beginning to sound as hard as a ZX Spectrum classic without the 30 minute loading times – but do not despair you treasure-hunting padawans, as always there is help at hand. What has not been mentioned yet are other tricks that our spelunking friend has up his Indiana Jones-style jacket sleeve. Firstly there are the ropes which he can use to either ascend otherwise non-traversable heights, or they can be dropped from a ledge to allow a safe descent without taking fall damage. But more importantly, our friend has bombs – because apparently that’s the safest way to mine these days. As is implied with these items, our hero uses them to blow apart any obstacles in his path or create shortcuts to other areas, or use them as a tool for killing the many enemies he may come across, when a whip or jump may not suffice. You start out with only a limited amount of bombs and rope, which don’t replenish after each area, so you need to use them sparingly, unless you can find more in item boxes within the areas you are exploring. Your only other option would be to find some other way of procuring them…
Which leads me nicely onto the subject of treasure – and therefore money – a fairly important topic in a treasure-hunting game, I’m sure you’ll agree. Treasure itself is scattered throughout the areas you are visiting, varying from gold to jewels to ancient relics. Any treasure collected will add to your money total in the top left of your screen. Whilst at its very core, the amount of money you collect is essentially your score, it can also be used at various points throughout the game to aid in your progression. On some levels – in keeping with their random nature, you will encounter shops from which you can buy a whole host of items to help you on your way. As well as additional ropes and bombs, these could also include brand new weapons and items with various effects and varying levels of usefulness. The shopkeeper could sell you anything from a machete, to a shotgun or a jetpack! The shops will only have 4 or 5 products for sale, and as with most of this game, the products on offer in each level are random, so it’s a case of acquiring as much money as possible to ensure you can afford the best of what’s on offer.
As well as handy items though, there are also a couple of other game mechanics that if done correctly will also make your lives a lot easier. Firstly in each level there is a Damsel to rescue – she can be located by her constant, mildly annoying “Help!” yelp every few seconds. If you manage to take the Damsel to the exit, you will be rewarded with an additional heart for the next level, particularly useful given that your health carries over to the next area rather than being refilled – did I not mention that earlier?
Another godsend throughout your game will be the shortcut man. You will play 4 levels in a given zone – the first being the traditional mine zone. At the end of each zone, assuming you made it that far, you will be greeted by the shortcut man, who will make a shortcut for you so you can start the new zone without going through the previous ones. However to unlock this, you will need to reach this stage on at least 3 separate occasions and have the required resources to assist in his shortcut building. It would seem even shortcuts are not straightforward in the world of Spelunky. However what they do allow you to do is fastrack to zones you are struggling on without the hassle of having to trawl through previous zones. Although as you get later in the game, a shortcut straight to nearer the end of the game with minimal hearts, and items can leave you a little vulnerable, so you need to think about whether it is the right option.
And that notion of thinking is essentially what sums this game up. It is a game that encourages you to think in a whole manner of ways. It forces you to scan your imminent for danger, come up with strategies for enemies of traps. Should I use that bomb or rope to get some treasure, or should I save them for a later level? Do I run the risk of trying to rescue that damsel just for one extra heart or do I play it safe? Do I buy the machete now, or wait for the jetpack that may never come? It’s a fabulous system because in reality there is no real right or wrong answer. Every game is random, and therefore (almost) all choices have their merits. You can tackle the game your way, what has worked for you as you’ve tried and died so many times before.
And just to reiterate, you will die in this game. Oh yes. In terms of difficulty, this game eats Dark Souls for breakfast. At least in that game, you’re prepared for death and you can use the landscape or game design to your advantage. Imagine if the levels and enemies in Dark Souls were random every time – imagine how much harder it would be to master initially. But conversely, imagine how much better it would force you to be at the game to succeed. And that’s what Spelunky is, in it’s own charming way – a game that forces you to beat it in the right way. Luckily for you the game also comes with a huge helping of humour as well to help ease your many deaths. Upon your health reaching zero there is a humourous mini anecdote by your hero as to how he died, which just makes you love him (or her incidentally) and the game just that little bit more.
The game itself is also stashed full of secrets and things to discover for the adventurer that can meet their requirements. There are hidden zones, hidden one off levels, special treasures and enemies to discover. It means that just because you made it to the traditional end of all the levels that there isn’t something to keep you going – even if you aren’t normally a trophy collector.
The is also a multiplayer option in the game, which for the main can see you and up to three friends traverse the dangers of each level together, helping each other get to the exit. On consoles, this means you are limited to all players being on one screen, controlled by player one’s movements. Not a particularly bad thing, as the level is big enough to accommodate this. However by using the Vita you can play the game with your own screen, so do not need to share with others and can wander off as you please, adding to the freedom.
I said at the start of this review that Spelunky was aptly titled because it alluded to fabricated words you might shout at the TV screen in frustration as you die over and over. To that end I want to propose my own made up word – which is actually an acronym – which I think sums up this game perfectly. The word if ‘jomty’, which stands for “Just one more time, yeah?” Either uttered by a friend or family member (in most instances my fiancée when we were playing multiplayer) or even under your breath to yourself after your latest death. Spelunky’s combination of charm, randomness, high difficulty but high sense of achievement, intuitive controls and pick up and play nature make it so addictive. To the point where before you know it you’ve died 20 times in a row, and you don’t even care because you want to carry on. It’s not without its minor niggles, the random nature of the levels can make success an impossibility if you’re out of bombs or other items, and also the run feature can make your hero control like a drunken Luigi when you’re yearning for the reliability of Mario. However even these issue could be argued as part of what makes the game the challenge it is, and it certainly is that. Fortunately though, this is one challenge you will want to take again and again and is a great example of how to do a difficult game that instead of being off-putting, ends up being pure addictive bliss.
Just one more time, yeah?
- Random level generator adds endless content and challenge
- Diverse levels, monsters, items and challenges
- Humour and charm offset a steep difficulty curve
- That addictive “one more time” mentality in abundance
- Randomness can be frustrating at times
- Minor control frustrations
The Short Version: Spelunky is a fantastic modern example of how to make a difficult game all about fun. Within the first 10 minutes, I had been impaled by spikes, been accused of being a terrorist, and chased by an immortal ghost 20 times my size. All of them resulted in death, and all of them resulted in me retrying. With its diverse levels and obstacles, its lovable humour, charm, and above all its simplicity, Spelunky is the perfect title for those seeking a fresh, fun challenge.