Spelunky is a quirky adventure platformer released as freeware on Windows in 2009 and brought to Xbox Live in July 2012. Players take control of a miniature spelunker and venture through a series of randomly generated cave systems. Along the way, players use bombs to reveal treasure and kill enemies, ropes to get to higher places and rescues damsels, or dames, in distress for more health. It’s a frustrating experience to say the least but stepping up to the challenge is rewarding nonetheless.
Spelunky reminded me a lot of Indiana Jones the first time I played. The default spelunker looks like a miniature Indy, right down to the fedora and whip. Although Indiana Jones has a sweeping story full of Nazis and religious artifacts, Spelunky is a little bit lighter on story. In fact, the spelunker basically goes into the cave, discovers that a spelunker before him left a diary, which serves as a tutorial, and you’re off. There is no back story, just you, the cave, a handful of tools and dozens of ways to die. So, to say that Spelunky is short on story is an understatement but it really isn’t about the story at all. It’s about getting past the traps, the enemies, and the random ghosts that haunt the caves and finding the way out and on to the next one. Once you pass a certain number of caves, a Nick Fury-looking character, who calls himself the Tunnel Man, will build you shortcuts allowing you to bypass previous caves. The only annoying bit about this is that Tunnel Man requires tools to build the shortcuts, which start out simple and get increasingly more difficult as you progress. Sometimes it’s a little difficult to make sure you have a certain amount of ropes or bombs or whatever to give to Tunnel Man at the end of a grueling series of caves. That is Spelunky in a nutshell.
As far as gameplay goes, Spelunky plays like Super Mario and Pitfall had a baby. The controls are basic and utilize as few buttons as possible. Mastering the platforming is one of the many challenges the game lays out before you. A poorly timed leap could land you on spikes or in the mouth of a man eating trap. Miss the vine you were going for and you could fall all the way to the bottom of the cave or into an endless pit. Death comes early and easily to spelunkers, so get ready to play carefully. Spelunky maintains the hardcore aspect of older games, giving the player four lives before death. The only way to regenerate the lives is to rescue the damsels in distress, who need to be carried to the exit. This can create a frustrating mix of good and bad. It’s good to get health at the end of a tough level but it’s bad to miss out on a shotgun or a golden idol because you were carrying a damsel. In the end, the gameplay is easy to learn but tough to get the hang of. This leads to some very frustrating deaths, as the damsels are in some inopportune and sometimes inaccessible places. Death in Spelunky is a lot like Dark Souls; die and you get sent back to the beginning without any of the loot you recovered in your previous playthrough. It’s controller smashingly frustrating at times, but it adds a layer of strategy as you make your way through the caves. To combat the enemies and traps throughout the game, you’re given bombs, ropes and the default weapon of a whip. The whip has an incredibly short range and can at times be frustrating, especially if enemies are coming at you from and angle, as the end of the whip, when pointed straight, leads to a kill. Anywhere outside of that hit box and you’ll miss entirely. You can upgrade from the whip to a shotgun, web or freeze gun or a mattock, all of which can be found throughout the game or bought in stores. Bombs are effective in clearing out traps, gaining access to blocked off places or acting like a miner and blowing up dirt for treasure. It’s all very rudimentary but can be very useful if done properly.
The graphics of Spelunky are throwback but crisp, as if Instagram was introduced into video games. If you’re looking for gorgeous visuals, look somewhere else, as the blocky textures and the same looking levels are prevalent throughout. I’m not going to knock the visuals of Spelunky, because they are, how do I put it, quaint, but this game has nothing to, say, Uncharted. And that’s fine. The graphics fit the overall feel of the game and compliment everything that Spelunky is trying to be. There’s nothing wrong with nodding to your predecessors and taking a hint from them. The game has a very humorous feel to it, as plenty of the creatures made me laugh at the way they acted, sounded and looked. The game seems to know that it’s funny and plays out on that, as the damsels make hilarious sounds to alert you as to where they are, the characters themselves look like the cast of the Little Rascals and the enemies are a motley crew of crude childhood drawings. All of this adds to the visual appeal of the game, something that stands apart from other Xbox Live counterparts.
Spelunky is a good, albeit frustrating game and worth the 1200 points you’ll put down for it. The gameplay is frustrating but rewarding, the levels are ever-changing, challenging but worth exploring and the visuals are the bow on top that holds it all together. With a unique style that borders on challenging and soul crushing, Spelunky is a game that deserves your money, even if it’s going to frustrate the ever loving hell out of you.