Originally released for free on the PC way back in 2008, Spelunky received a shiny HD upgrade for it’s release on XBLA this week. With the hefty price tag of 1200 Microsoft points though, has Spelunky upgraded enough to deserve your money?
On the surface, Spelunky appears simple enough. It’s a typical 2D platformer, and has you exploring randomly generated mines, jungles, temples and caves while collecting treasure and avoiding enemies and deadly traps on your way to the exit and the next floor. Along the way you can obtain special items such as the cape, which slows your descent as you fall, or the spring boots, which allow you to jump higher and reach new areas. These items can either be found scattered through levels, picked up from defeated enemies, or bought from the shop using the treasure you’ve collected.
However, the game isn’t quite as easy as that. In fact, it’s not easy at all. When you die, you’re forced to start back from the beginning of the game. And it’s very easy to die if you’re not careful. Arrow traps blend into the wall, taking chunks out of your life if you fail to set them off before crossing their path. Spiders hang on the ceiling above, waiting to drop down on you if you walk below them. Spikes litter the floors, ready to impale you if you misjudge a jump or drop from a ledge without thinking. A deadly ghost will start to give chase if you waste too much time exploring one level. You might notice a recurring pattern here though; the game isn’t being unfair, it’s merely punishing you for your mistakes.
For that’s the biggest challenge to overcome in Spelunky; yourself. The game demands perfect play, show anything less and it swallows you up for it. You need to be precise in jumps, carefully manage your usage of bombs and ropes, know when not to risk going for that one tiny piece of treasure. Because if you misjudge that jump, you can be impaled on spikes. If you use bombs recklessly, you can’t take shortcuts and you can be forced along a dangerous path that can easily kill you in seconds. And that risk you took for one measly bit of gold can wind up with you being eaten by a man-eating plant.
Thankfully though, this is exactly what makes Spelunky so addictive. You never feel like you’ve hit a roadblock with the game because it’s just too hard, in fact it’s quite the opposite. You know you died because you made a mistake, but at the same time you know you can do better. Next time you won’t make that mistake again. So you hit that retry button and give it another go. You keep at it, and bit by bit your work your way further and further through the floors. Eventually you unlock the ability to open shortcuts, allowing you to skip entire sections of the game. However, you start with no items and no money just like you would if you were to start from level 1, so some of the later levels can be a real pain without any of items to back you up.
As well as the addictive single player, the XBLA version now features split screen co-op. This allows up to four players to play on the same screen simultaneously. Unlike the single player, death in this mode does not send you back to the beginning, but instead leaves you floating around as a ghost that’s able to interact with enemies and the environment in a minimal way. They will stay like this until the remaining players in the game manage to locate and destroy a coffin, bringing the dead back to life. If all players die though, it’s game over.
While some would argue this mode is trivial, but I’d argue it entirely depends on who you play with. If you’re playing with some non-serious mates then it can be a laugh trying to see who can screw each over the most by stealing the treasure and the damsel before everyone else can. If you and your friends are serious though, it can be excellent fun tackling the challenge of Spelunky together. It’s actually how I first played the game and what convinced me to buy it. My only gripe is that the co-op is local only, but it is an excellent addition that works far better than I’d ever have imagined it could.
No matter whether you play it alone or with a friend though, in the end, Spelunky is going to slap you in the face. That’s entirely the point though. The game punishes you for mistakes and forces you to play better. There is no hand holding in this game, you have to work at it to get anywhere, but when you finally get somewhere it feels amazing and you know you earned it. But rarely during all this face-slapping will you get frustrated, because the game is just so fun and different every time you play it, it’s almost impossible to get fed up. The game is a joy to play, constantly giving you new levels to explore and new challenges to overcome.
If you’re someone who enjoys pushing themselves, you’ll find everything to love in this game. If you’re not that kind of person however, you may never complete the game in 8 minutes with no shortcuts, but you’ll certainly have a lot of fun regardless. Get it, you’d be silly not to.