Spelunky Review

As Spelunky makes its way to the PC, the rewards and dangers are just as alluring as they were one year ago.

Any god worth its deific salt knows how to punish transgressors. Expect spiders to rain down upon the head of anyone who dares to destroy the sacred altar of Kali. And if you're so cavalier that two holy places are shattered by your hand, a punishment worthy of such disrespect is yours to bear. Moving isn't so easy with a ball and chain tied to your leg, is it? Blasphemers are not long for this world, but when death finally smothers the brazen explorer, it's not the end. In Spelunky, dying is the beginning of a story that twists your torment into a hilarious lesson in self-preservation. One year after its Xbox 360 debut, Spelunky arrives on the PC, and proves how satisfying the life of a doomed explorer can be.

Don't expect every jewel to be as easy to nab.
Don't expect every jewel to be as easy to nab.

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. You 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 a dead caveman to trigger the barrage, and then walk peacefully past the arrow trap 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.

Trying to perform a key run in a pitch-black level should test even veteran explorers.
Trying to perform a key run in a pitch-black level should test even veteran explorers.

Your death count spirals ever higher. One dozen, one hundred, one thousand, and every one of those spent lives has made you better. No longer do you drop from a ledge without ensuring there aren't spikes waiting for you below, and you've learned to avoid dawdling lest a ghost chase you to the grave. And yet, even the most vigilant explorer will find a brutal end. The random elements conspire to make your adventure troublesome. With three rescued damsels and a compass, you may feel secure as you venture forth in the ice caves. But only one misstep as you flee from a pursing alien is enough to cut your run short. Still, you press on. There's so much thrill in succeeding that you can't help starting again, and you know that if you're careful, you can survive your quest. Except that's one big if.

New on the PC is a daily challenge that shows just how meager your skills are. Every person competes in the same set of levels--no randomness here--in an attempt to nab as many jewels as possible. With everyone starting from the same point, these competitions give you a good way to measure how you rank among the thriving community. Only one attempt is possible each day, so make sure you're giving your best effort. Fumbling your way to an inglorious end makes the 24-hour wait until a new challenge opens interminable. Your good name has been sullied, after all. Even though the daily challenge is a fine addition, making this a pure score attack does limit its potential. Forcing people to carry the key as far as possible or build their hearts to the heavens could have infused this with some welcome variety.

Two more tweaks have eliminated the two frustrations that existed on the Xbox 360. First, no longer do stray objects hurt you. In the previous version, you could lose a heart when a rock or arrow bounced toward you, which is maddening when health is at such a premium. Changing that aspect means that every death is entirely your fault, so you have no one to blame for failure but yourself. The second change is also much appreciated. Helpers can still be hired or found within the labyrinthine stages who are happy to do your dirty work. Before, you could expect these friends to cause havoc by attacking shopkeepers. The added chaos made taking someone along with you a masochistic decision. Now, your buddies behave properly, and even though they aren't smart, having a bodyguard nearby makes it slightly easier to brave the many dangers.

Meet king yeti and his bouncing minions.
Meet king yeti and his bouncing minions.

Spelunky also contains both cooperative and competitive endeavors that serve as forgettable novelties rather than enticing alternatives to the single-player quest. In cooperative play, you travel through the same caves and jungles as you would alone, only with up to three friends by your side. Trying to work in harmony is certainly an interesting experience that should lead to one or two arguments, but forcing everyone to be on the same screen leads to many annoying deaths, and not having a way to play online limits the audience. Competitive play has the same issues. Trying to kill other people is certainly different from hunting spiders, but it's too chaotic to be fulfilling long term. Just stick with the single-player game.

Returning to this downloadable adventure one year after the original debuted only solidifies how expertly designed it is. Spelunky makes excellent use of its random nature to keep you hooked as you strive to dive ever deeper into the mysterious depths. And if restarting from the beginning seems too much punishment for you to bear, there are shortcuts to open if your skills are honed enough. Completing the tunnel man's tasks teaches you the myriad ways to experience this adventure, so the shortcuts serve as a teaching tool in addition to delivering a tangible reward. The best lesson you can learn is to be humble. As Spelunky proves, hubris spells the doom of many a greedy explorer.

The Good

  • Excellent risk-reward dynamic
  • Great variety of enemies, traps, and items
  • Unlocking shortcuts forces you to play differently
  • Lots of flexibility in how to progress

The Bad

  • Multiplayer is offline only

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