Spelunky Developed by Mossmouth PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 3, 4, and Vita Released in 2008 (remake followed in 2013)
My original intention was to only play indie games I had already finished once, but as an experiment I put in Spelunky to see how it would work out and if I could throw more “new” games on next year’s line-up. What I ended up finding was a well-designed and cute-looking platformer that regrettably has a shortage of fun.
For glory, gold, and girls
The story of spelunky isn’t exactly top priority, but effort has been put into making it at least interesting. You are an adventurous spelunker who has come to an underground complex where many before you have never returned from. A diary you find explains the basics of survival to you, but also mentions that the cave system seemingly rearranges itself at a whim and that, upon death, you reincarnate at the entrance.
This brave soul did not lie. While it sounds ludicrous you do indeed respawn endlessly and without consequence. After that story becomes a lot lighter and it isn’t exactly clear who you are or what you came for. As I said, it’s not a story-driven game and the only storytelling going forward is found in the journal where monster descriptions are recorded. Are you in it for treasure? Adventure? As the player you pretty much decide that for yourself.
Story score: 8/10
spikes, my great adversary
spelunky is a roguelike platformer in which you must navigate through each level to find the exit, all the while dodging enemies, traps, and spikes. While doing so you are encouraged to explore in order to find loot such as gems and gold, as well as helpless maidens that will restore a health point if you get them to the end of a stage.
You are not entirely helpless. By default you have a whip that lets you strike enemies right in front of you and you can pick up rocks and such to throw at foes. You also have a limited supply of bombs and ropes, with which you can blast through walls and reach higher ground respectively. With the gold you find you can buy a variety of items at stores, including more efficient weapons, passive upgrades, or more bombs and ropes.
if you die you will be back at the start of the mines, even if you managed to reach the end of that zone, and all your spoils will be gone. Over time you can unlock shortcuts, but it’s still useful to tackle the mines so that you won’t have to face the later levels without upgrades. I will admit that with the limited time I had with the game I haven’t gotten remarkably far, but the later levels I did visit managed to throw in enough new hazards to make progression feel worth it.
Overall Spelunky plays quite well, you have enough speed and agility to make the platforming fun and having to collect gold and maidens prevents you from just rushing it. It’s just a shame that there are so few items to find, after a while I had the feeling that I had pretty much seen it all already, as each run became a dash for the same tools I had in the last run. Compared to games like The Binding of Isaac and other roguelikes, Spelunky has a pitiful arsenal of tools, though they are all at least useful.
While the game has a charm of its own, I must say that the gameplay doesn’t have as much long-lasting appeal as other roguelike titles due to a lack of content and energy. The game becomes briefly exciting when something unexpected happens, but over time the same few surprises pop up again and again with the in-between time being some pretty mediocre, though functional, platforming.
Gameplay score: 7/10
Seeing the difference between Spelunky Classic and this HD remake is crazy. The game looks so much better and the art for each character and enemy is brilliant. There is a fun contrast between the cute art and brutal deaths as funny-looking characters can explode with a little gore effect or end up impaled. Especially the spikes look brutal as they are coated in bright blood and the character slowly sinks further into the trap.
The sound I am less impressed by. There are lots of different songs for the levels, but none of them are specifically noteworthy. There is no energy to them, it doesn’t convey the feeling of spelunking through caves with monster and death around every corner, it’s just a handful of generic, upbeat tunes. The only time the music becomes somewhat lively is when you have just messed up real bad, though I’ll refrain from spoiling the exact conditions.
Presentation score: 6/10
As is the nature of roguelike games, death will be frequent and you’ll have to try and try again before you eventually get anywhere near the end. Due to the lack of variety, however, this is not the kind of game where I’ll happily keep trying for hours on end. After just a few runs I found myself growing tired of seeing the same environments again and again, as well as using the same tools in basically every attempt.
As you play you’ll unlock a handful of new playable character, so you can at least mix it up a little bit, but there is no gameplay benefit to any of them. You also unlock shortcuts, which I mentioned before. You can use these to skip zones you have already finished a few times and while that does help you get past areas you are tired of seeing, it leaves you less prepared for the harder parts of the game as you are shorter on cash and resources.
I think it’s safe to say I won’t be replaying this game much after this review goes up.
Extras score: 3/10
I can appreciate Spelunky‘s cutesy art-style and promise of adventure, but find that it fails to deliver on the latter. The platforming becomes really predictable after a while though not less challenging, and tedium is the greatest weakness of the roguelike genre, which thrive on making repetition feel fun. This is by no means a bad game and it’s definitely fun for a while, but only the most dedicated platformer veterans will be able to reach the end before it stops being entertaining.