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Spelunky Review: the toughest platformer ever made?

3 September 2013

Are you brave enough to hunt for treasure in caves where death shadows your every step, and any wrong move sees your bones join those of other careless adventurers? Are you strong enough to battle the undead, giant creatures and other fiends armed only with a whip and your wits? If the answer is yes, then you are ready to play Spelunky.

Spelunky is the new 2D side-scrolling platformer for PlayStation 3 and Vita from Mossmouth. Based on the 2008 PC title of the same name, the PS3 version has been given a makeover which updates the entire game.

The plot of Spelunky sees the player take on the role of a spelunker, an underground adventurer who sets out to explore a mysterious cave, which is filled with treasures to collect as well as traps and creatures which guard the loot. Luckily, you are well equipped with ropes to climb over pits and hazards, have bombs to blast enemies or open up new paths, and your trusty whip that can dispatch any monsters out for your blood. If you are careless, all the hazards you encounter can drain your health or even insta-kill you, but if you rescue damsels or purchase their kisses at a kissing booth you can rejuvenate yourself and continue your explorations.

Also there to help you are shops that let you spend your gathered treasure to resupply your bombs or rope, and also sell you lots of helpful items from parachutes and mining picks to jetpacks and shotguns.

 


Each level has four parts to conquer before the end zone, and if you have enough items or treasure to pay the Tunnel Man at the last part of the level you can unlock a continue feature, that enables you after you die to skip levels you have already completed. You can choose to adventure alone or enlist a friend to help and if you tire of exploration then you can take on up to four bots or friends in deathmatch arenas instead.

Nothing remarkable here you might be thinking, and that's true, but Spelunky is far from being a standard platforming experience. You see the game has a very clever extra feature that changes what could have been a very straightforward platformer adventure into something really very special.

The clever feature is that each of the levels you explore is randomly generated; meaning quite simply that any level you play will never be the same as those played previously. This instantly increases the game's replayability factor by a hundred percent as each time you explore a new level, the game's exit route changes, hazards move and treasure locations shift so the player can't complacently memorize a preordained route, but instead must be ever cautious. The generation of the random levels it should be noted seemed to be exceptionally well programmed; as I never once encountered a level that was impossible to complete.

All of Spelunky's levels, despite their random generation, do actually have a common theme which is that is they are all extremely hard. How hard? Well, the difficulty level of this game is truly hair-pulling, cursing out loud hard; that hard that early explorations can see you die in a matter of seconds – three being my record. A major contributor to this hardness comes from the fact that everything is out to get you, traps and some monsters kill you instantly regardless of how much health you have, enemies chase you and some creatures bounce you into other hazards setting up a chain of events that sees the game end before you have taken but a few steps. However, Spelunky tempers this hardness by making the rewards greater the further you delve, and I felt it become a matter of pride to try to live longer so I could delve further. As you learn how to defeat the games tricks and traps it's still really hard to play, but you get a sense of achievement that fuels your desire to keep going.

Not only are Spleunky's levels tough but they are also jam-packed chaotic fun where every inch of the screen is used; treasure lurks tantalizingly by monsters, chests and jars wait to be broken to reveal their contents, traps of all descriptions lurk ever ready to kill the unwary while shops, coffins, altars and idols offer help or hindrance. Each level has more than one way to reach the exit, but if you don't fancy taking the straightforward route Spelunky enables you to blast your own path using your bombs, or climb up to seemingly unreachable heights using the rope.

However, random fun-packed levels are no joy if their elements don't interact properly, but here Spelunky’s clever game mechanics make sure each one is a well-oiled (killing) machine. Monsters can be lured into traps, bombs can reveal hidden gems or destroy useful items, stones can be thrown to clear your way and damsels can be rescued or used as a weapon depending on how you feel. Spelunky's levels have so much going on that I don't want to list all their diverse elements here or explain how you can find hidden items or levels, as the fun of playing it is the discovery of these secrets.

But to give you a small example of the subtle depths the game has let’s look at the shops which can be approached in one of two ways. Firstly, you can buy the help you might need from them but what if you don't have enough money ? Well, Spelunky allows you to try to steal any item you fancy, but beware the wrath of the shopkeeper. Even if you get away, future shopkeepers on later levels will be gunning for you.

 


Spelunky’s hardness is hidden behind some excellent, cute, cartoonesque graphics which are well animated and bring the varied levels to life. From dark stone-like tunnels to lush jungles and chilling ice caves everything is well-defined and a pleasure to look at and explore. All the monsters and traps that populate these levels have a unique style and are smoothly animated. Yes, you are going to die lots of times but at least you look good while you’re being killed. The main musical theme of Spelunky isn't as you might have expected (the funeral march?) but instead you are treated to a stirring Indiana Jones style tune. Sadly, once you start playing the game the music changes and the sound effects aren’t great; it's not that the in-game sound and music is bad it's just that it's a little generic and easily forgettable as you explore.

Exploring (and dying) is a simple task with the easy to master controls, which involves simple button pushes allowing you to leap with ease, quickly wield your whip or rope and swiftly pick up usable items.

Spelunky is a game that is both fun and hard in equal measures and the random levels add so much replayability that it’s hard to criticise such an innovative feature that raises the game above other platformers; that’s despite the randomness sometimes stacking the odds so highly against the player that death comes frustratingly quickly.

Another minor let down (for a game that has so much going on it) was discovering that there were only thirteen trophies, and these were not very exciting, just mostly related to exploring and info gathering. More trophies could have surely been added especially around the multitude of ways to die. If these were present then falling victim repeatedly to the games insane level of difficulty might have been slightly more tolerable.

If you do get fed up with the main game then you can try Spelunky's hit and miss Deathmatch mode. While it’s good that deathmatch arenas are available where you can play against bots or your friends they do feel cramped and you can die so quickly (surely no surprise by now). Consequently, skill seems to play little part in the experience. To improve the deathmatch experience more diverse arenas would be great and perhaps some extra trophies too might raise this feature above feeling just like a bolt-on rather than an integral part of the game.

Overall Spelunky is an addictive platformer which, despite it being so easy to die, has great playability and clever game mechanics. If you are willing to break through its initial sheer desire to kill you quickly then you will discover a game that is filled with great charm and replayability.

-The Final Word-

Spelunky is a tough platformer that looks great and has depth and replayability with its clever use of randomized levels.
  • Random level generator massively increases playability.
  • Levels are packed with so much to see, do and collect.
  • Gorgeous cartoony graphics - dying never looked so good.
  • Only a few mundane trophies.
  • Deathmatch mode and arenas need more work.
8.0
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic and Gamerankings

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