Spelunky is a graphically polished version of a freeware platformer PC game that came out in 2009 that is reminsicient of something you might have seen back in the day on your dad’s Commodore 64. Can a game like this survive in a triple-A, Call of Duty world?
My Goal is to Not Die
The story in Spelunky is just that. You’re an Indiana Jones style explorer going through caves and jungles in an 80s style platformer, trying to gather as much loot as possible while not dying. The loot gathering becomes almost secondary to the “not dying” part; loot is used to buy gear within the game to keep you from dying as opposed to racking up a high score.
Seriously. No story, go through the levels, collect loot, don’t die.
The “Not Dying” Part is HARD
Was Super Meat Boy a breeze for you? Did you have no trouble unlocking all the tracks in Trials HD? Then this game might be right up your alley. I guarantee you, 95% of people who play this game are not going to be able to finish the game. Sure, it’s one of the newer XBLA games to sport having 400 achievement points up for grabs, but you sure aren’t going to see them. This game is not for the faint of heart; not only does it have an old school feel to the gameplay like something from your pre-8-bit days of PC gaming, but the difficulty is absurd from the word “go”.
Why so hard? First, you start with four health. There is no regenerating health here, Master Chief, no bubble shield to save your hide. You take a hit, you lose a point of health. There are few ways to get health back, but the amount of grief you have to go through to get a single point back is staggering when compared to how easy it is to lose health. Next, some enemies do more than one point worth of damage. Finally, spikes and being crushed are instant death.
So what, it’s easy to die? I’ll just start back at the checkpoint, right? Wrong, buck-o. The game is broken into four worlds: mine, jungle, ice cave and temple. Each world is broken into four levels (i.e. 1-1, 1-2, 1-3 and 1-4). If you die anywhere along the way, you lose all the treasure you’ve accumulated, including all the survival gear you’ve got. You start OVER. The only “checkpoints” to be found in the game come in the form of the “Tunnel Man”. Every four levels, the Tunnel Man greets you and asks you for a random piece of gear to help him build his tunnel. If you get to him three times (i.e. die and go back through the same section three times) and have all the things he needs to make his tunnel, you can skip the world to start on the next one. If you create the “mine” tunnel, you can skip the entire first world and start at the second one.
Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad…until you get to the end of the third world and find out that the piece of equipment the Tunnel Man needs to complete his tunnel will take a nearly Herculean feat to get to him. In Left 4 Dead, there’s an achievement involving carrying a garden gnome throughout the entire game, and this game seems to be borrowing from that idea a bit. As you can only carry one piece of gear at a time, whether it’s a shotgun, damsel in distress, boomerang, etc, you’re forced to carry a giant golden key from the very beginning of the game all the way through the 12 levels previously to create the shortcut into the final world. Oh, and you’ll be needing that shortcut, because the Temple world makes the three previous worlds feel like you’ve been playing on easy mode.
And Here’s The Best Part…
Procedurally generated levels. That’s right, going through 12 levels of Super Meat Boy or Trials Evolution isn’t that hard because you bang your head against that same level over and over again until you learn every nuance, every nook and cranny, until going through the level becomes an exercise in muscle memory. In Spelunky, every time you die, every map in the world changes, with no two worlds being the same twice, meaning that every game is a new adventure. That merchant who was right there at the beginning of the stage with the game-changing jetpack for sale? Yup, good luck finding another one any time in the near future.
B..b..but Wait It Gets Worse!
Much like the gut-punching difficulty of the Demon’s Souls series, most of the deaths will be your fault. The right trigger causes your little explorer to sprint at an unhealthy rate and glide smoothly over terrain. It gets very easy to get caught up in zipping around seemingly safe areas to suddenly go skidding into a pit or hit by a monster. There are also times when you can see the exit to the safety of the next level, but you want to keep looking around for more loot. The problem is that after three or so minutes, a ghost enters the playfield that can traverse through walls whose sole purpose is to slowly get to you for a one-hit kill. When he shows up, it’s time to drop everything you’re doing and get the hell out of dodge, which causes you to run around and make stupid and costly mistakes.
The problem with even the ghost showing up is that there is no guarantee when he will pop up. It’s not like there’s a timer in the upper right corner so you can see how much more time you have to explore, so you find yourself sprinting from the beginning of the level to find as much loot as possible before the ghost shows up. Oh, and still trying not to die.
Not Perfection, But Close
As far as a “game” goes, it’s high up there. The controls feel responsive and you never feel like you’re fighting with the controller to make your explorer do what you need him to do. However, for every 5-6 legitimate “Oh, I was screwing around and died” deaths, there’s a “I got stun-locked by an enemy and went from full health to death in nothing flat” which really makes you want to chuck a controller through a monitor. While its difficulty will be a beacon for gamers to stare at a shudder, you have to take off a point or two for being far too hard for the average gamer. In a world where checkpoints, regenerating health, and easy difficulty selections come standard in most games, this game will turn people off, period. While the casual gamer may play an hour or two and have fun dinking around the first level and then never boot the game up again, only the truly masochistic will delve far enough into the game to experience all it has to offer, which is to its own fault.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here
If you’re curious about Spelunky, get the demo. The demo is the tutorial as well as the entire first world of the game, and that will tell you everything you need to know about the game. You can hear the howls of pain coming from 360achievements.com as achievement hunters the world round are breaking themselves against this game. If you can take being brutalized by a game and keep dusting yourself off to put your fedora back on and try again, then you are going to find an amazingly tight little gameplay experience that will go down in the annals of Xbox Live records of being easily one of the hardest games on the market to date. Even as I’m sitting here typing this, I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, just one more try, I can do it this time…”