The lure of an idol is irresistible. The golden gleam from the invaluable object beckons greedy explorers, whispering promises of untold riches in exchange for a bit of daring. More often than not, the desire for treasure is crushed by a rampaging boulder or descending spiked ceiling designed to protect the idol from would-be thieves. But there are rare instances when your risk-taking pays off--you avoid the obstacles and come away unscathed with the prize. That adventurous scene mirrors the rhythm of Spelunky. Again and again you come away defeated--eaten by piranhas, punctured by spikes, mauled by vampires--but those rare moments when you survive make you appreciate the difficult path you traveled as you bask in the glow of hard-earned success.
As you enter an underground mine to begin your adventure, you're greeted by a series of randomly generated levels populated by all manner of traps, enemies, and treasure. Initially, Spelunky is indistinguishable from a typical 2D platformer. Whip snakes, leap ravines, rescue damsels, and exit through the door to the next stage. Accidentally trigger that arrow trap or get overwhelmed by the slow-moving bats, however, and you find that punishment is severe. When you die, you restart from the beginning of the game. The cash you earned? The items you collected? All gone.
Progress comes not from tangible rewards but rather from the knowledge you gain. The first time you encounter an arrow trap, you fall blissfully past it, only to find a feathered shaft lodged in your abdomen. The next time, you aren't quite so ignorant. Drop a rock or dead caveman in front to trigger the barrage, and then walk peacefully past it once its ammunition is spent. You learn that spiders often hide in pots, that blue snakes can spit venom an impressive distance, and that you should never take the fluttering of bats lightly. With dangers all around, you keep your head on a swivel, aware of the spiders overhead, the caveman down below, and a wild-eyed mammoth just offscreen.
Knowledge isn't the only tool to help you survive. Items empower your explorer, giving you a larger margin of error to hide any mistakes you might make. Gold and gems litter the playing area, and with a little cunning, you can amass a sizable fortune. Take your wallet to a shopkeeper (located randomly in a stage, or sometimes not at all), and select what would help you most in your quest. Spectacles offer the passive ability to see previously hidden treasure, whereas a shotgun needs to be actively held but offers a surefire method to dispose of foes. Most items imbue you with their powers as long as you hold on to them, which aids immeasurably in your quest to survive.
All of this seems tightly structured, but Spelunky gives you plenty of flexibility to venture forth as you see fit. Arrive at the shopkeeper without a nickel to your name, and you could walk away empty-handed, like a model citizen would. Or you could rob the entrepreneur. Be careful, because he's as quick with a shotgun as he is to anger, but best him in a killing match, and you reap massive benefits. Or maybe the path to the door is populated by too many baddies to make it worth your while. Bomb the ground to forge your own way through the level; just make sure you don't wind up in an even worse position. Spelunky encompasses the trial-and-error aspects that can often hinder lesser games. But youï¿½re not forced to experiment; instead, the desire to test the waters comes naturally, so you never feel as if you're backed into a corner.
No matter which path you take, the most troubling obstacles you have to overcome are your own tendencies. A tribal assassin may be standing at the far end of the screen, readying his boomerang for anyone who has the gall to cross him. Getting into a safe position requires time and effort, but the exit is so close. Why not take a risk? So you ignore the caution that took you so far, cast away your patience, and sprint pell-mell toward freedom. Wham! A boomerang slams into your head, and you curse yourself for being impatient. Another time, you safely reach the door only to see mountains of treasure a little to your right. You could move safely onward, but a little bit of gold never hurt anyone. So you walk past the door, climb the nearby rock face, and get an arrow in your gut for your effort. Hubris struck you down, and you realize greed can spell your demise rather quickly.
More likely than not, when you stumble, it's because you pushed beyond your own abilities and came away scarred and sad. But there are times when the game's limitations lead to an untimely death. The controls, sharp as you could ask for most of the game, can fail in the most inopportune places. You might pick up the wrong item amid the clutter on the ground, or inadvertently grab on to a ledge when you wanted to fall straight down. These momentary hiccups can be disastrous. The visuals aren't always distinct enough to quickly communicate what you're carrying or if you're hanging from a ledge or standing on solid ground, and that hesitation is deadly in such dangerous environments.
At other times, Spelunky doesn't seem to play fair. Most of the time, debris is nothing to fear. You bomb some rocks and walk through the new path without thinking twice. But there are random times when a rock shoots out unexpectedly, taking away one of your precious life hearts before you can react. At other times, you carry an item to help vanquish foes. Tossing a pot or key is an invaluable way to kill enemies without getting too close, but there are unexpected side effects to contend with. The item may bounce off a nearby surface and strike you, hurting you in the process. Such setbacks feel cheap because the slightest difference in trajectory can make the difference between life and death, and there are enough dangers without the added difficulty of friendly fire thrown into the mix.
These problems are very real and can derail a run in a hurry, but they aren't ultimately so damning as to keep you away from this adventure. Rather, these blips become just another in the long list of dangers you have to be constantly vigilant of. What's so impressive is how you can use supposed obstacles to your advantage. For instance, the spiked totem poles in the jungle end your journey in a flash. But you could toss a passed-out caveman next to one of these and watch with malicious glee as he's impaled by this pointed tool of death. There are also many ways to make use of the damsel, hunk, or dog you can rescue in each level. As you carry them to safety, you can use them as a weapon or a decoy, or to set off traps, and you can even lay them on an altar to please a pagan god.
Spelunky isn't quite as punishing as it first appears. When you die, you do start back at the beginning without any valuables you earned. However, there are shortcuts to unlock as well. Each section is made up of four stages, and when you clear those, you meet a digger carving out a direct path to the new world. Pay his price, and you can warp there straightaway. But the cost is steep. His demands force you to play the game differently. For instance, when he requires a set number of bombs, you have to be prudent with your explosives. Whereas previously you might have carved a straight path to the exit, now you have to follow the natural route, baddies and all, and that tweak gives you new appreciation for Spelunky's flexibility.
For those who fear going through this dangerous land alone, there's a four-player cooperative mode (local only) that changes how you play. The action stays focused on one player on a single screen while the other players scramble to keep up. That aspect is unfortunate because a split-screen or online option where multiple explorers could venture down separate paths could have added a level of complexity unseen in single-player. However, there are some nice touches that make co-op worth experiencing. Once a player dies (and that should happen quickly), he or she turns into a ghost that can interact with the environment. Blow on enemies to push them away, or brush past a dynamite block to make it explode, and you can help your friends progress from the confines of the afterlife.
Though there is a simple charm to cooperative play, competitive action is too chaotic for its own good. Once again, up to four players take part in offline matches to prove who the best adventurer is. This too is limited to a single screen, and everyone rushes to and fro to bomb, shoot, or otherwise exterminate friends. The action moves so quickly with so much going on that it's hard to figure out what's happening, so this mode is good for temporary distraction rather than long-term enjoyment.
Neither cooperative nor competitive modes are where Spelunky excels because the core of this game is designed around the exploits of a lone survivor in a hostile world. Spelunky doesn't extend a helping hand when you're down. It doesn't have mercy. And that stubbornness is one of the main reasons it's so hard to pull away from the game. When you finally conquer something that has been hounding you for hours, you feel like the best darn explorer on the planet, and that feeling overshadows all the hardships you overcame down the troubled path you traveled.
Spelunky is featured on our list of the best PS4 multiplayer games.