Review: Spelunky

There hasn’t been a game as frustratingly charming as Spelunky in quite a while. This high definition remake of the free internet sensation developed by Derek Yu is incredibly deep in almost every sense of the word. Just be ready to die a lot if you choose to play Spelunky. It’s not for the faint of heart nor for those who are looking for a cake walk and give up at the first sign of frustration, but if you do stick with it, you’ll be in for an immensely rewarding experience.

Much like its similarly named cousin, the often misunderstood and brutally difficult classic NES game  Spelunker,Spelunky is all about treasure, fame and glory. Armed with nothing more than a whip, a handful of bombs, a short supply of climbing rope and four lives (read: attempts) it’s up to you and your little explorer guy to make it to the fabled golden city of Eldorado. Things obviously aren’t as easy as they sound and unlike say, Indiana Jones, you don’t have a little book that gives you all the answers about traps. And even if you did have one, it wouldn’t do you any good. See, Spelunky‘s levels are randomly generated, even though their progression of themes change every four stages. Each of these environments provides more variables to deal with the further you make into a playthrough, like slippery  glaciers and long drops in the ice cavern, for instance. That variety, multiplied by the sheer unpredictability of a level’s layout provides much of Spelunky‘s challenge and charm.

That charm will immediately hit you as soon as you boot Spelunky up. The new graphics, completely reworked for this version of the game are absolutely gorgeous. 2D and eye bleeding colorful, with cute bats fluttering about, you’d think Spelunky is a children’s game at first glance –  it’s anything but. Giant pellets of blood fly out whenever you take or inflict damage and the game isn’t shy about tossing your poor character around like a sock doll. It’s also worth mentioning how well the tunes fit in your the action, one in particular is bound to be stuck in your head after a long stretch of playing the game. Presentation-wise, Spelunky more than makes up for the long wait. Challenge-wise, it’ll bring you to tears. Tears of joy and of profound angst.

You’ll face much more than simple exploration, as enemies and traps riddle every one of these random levels. You can count on tropes like spiders and bats to stand in your way, which can be easily dispatched by your whip, but there are more than enough obstacles that require more careful thinking. The combination of traps and enemies is often so deadly that one wrong move can kill your explorer and have you start all over from the beginning. Some of the stronger threats might be even immune to the weapons you hold, while others can be lured into falling into traps on their own. Thinking and patient play are usually the best way to play and learn how to deal with Spelunky, and the quicker you are to pick up on its quirks, the faster you will make your way through it. Even though the level layouts change with every game you begin, there are things that never change, like the fact that an exit is always in a deeper section of the level or the ways to increase the amount of lives you can have in every section if you look hard enough.

Not every one you meet in your travels is out to utterly destroy your dreams in Spelunky, although they absolutely will if you give them a chance. Shopkeepers are randomly found and offer you a few items for a lot of money. Try to be wise and steal from them and pay the ultimate price or get rich… if you manage to beat them. The nature ofSpelunky is of balance. If you shift it, you are asked to live with the consequences. You won’t normally notice a threshold being crossed and will be too late to do anything about it, while in others, you might come out on top and feel like a champ. Usually, it’s the latter and that’s what will make Spelunky so appealing to some while indigestible to others. It’s a game that rewards you for dedication but won’t ever pull any punches, regardless of how well you are doing. In fact, its merciless nature is probably its only predictable feature, making it a good comparison to Dark Souls, a game that demands skill and precision at all times, drawing you in and spitting you out if you give it a chance to do so.

Sometimes, though, you can get lucky and succeed. A trap might happen to propel a particularly tough enemy into spikes, building a grotesque bridge between you and the exit. Moments of trusting your instincts and ‘going for it’ are the best points in Spelunky. If you make it. If you don’t, those will be the points when you wish you could reach out and strangle someone. And if those happen (and they probably will, a lot), you’ll turn off the game, sulk in a corner in frustration and move on to something else. A few hours later, a thought will pop up in your head and you will want to try again. That’s when you’ll know Spelunky has its hooks on you.

Those hooks are bound to stay in deep, even more the further you manage to go in every attempt. I can’t count how many times I got ‘that’ close to a new, unexplored section of Spelunky before dying and had to start over from the beginning. I’d be lying if I told you I did restart with a smile on my face every time, but as I did so, the better I got at the game and keep getting the more I play it. Spelunky fits into the old school arcade mentality of games of crushing you into bits and then having you rebuild yourself, with more knowledge of its secrets, before repeating the process over again, in a cycle. Managing to keep in that loop is the secret to Spelunky, a few among others and a lot of patience.

While it’s easy to find blemishes to a game like this, mostly in its punishing difficult and unfriendliness, it’s even more of a breeze to laud it for exactly the same reasons. We could argue all day about how videogames nowadays are too easy and hold your hand through every step. It’s a valid argument if you are looking to waste time and not get anywhere whatsoever. Or you could just spend those moments learning Spelunky through death, tears, experience and if you are good enough, find plenty of rewards. Those are positively the best kinds of lessons.

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