Spelunky, developed by Derek Yu (Aquaria, I’m O.K.), was originally released as a freeware game for PC back in late 2008. Players took on the role of an unnamed spelunker who explores a series of caves, picking up treasure, fighting monsters, and rescuing damsels in distress along the way. This protagonist was seemingly inspired by Indiana Jones, as he’s equipped with a fedora hat and a whip. The game featured simple 16-bit pixelated graphics, basic music, and a barebones presentation. Now, Derek’s Mossmouth company has released a new version of the game exclusively for the Xbox Live Arcade. It features enhanced graphics and music, and adds local multiplayer support, with a full 2-4 player co-op mode available.
Very little has changed with the gameplay, and that’s definitely a good thing. There’s not much in the way of a story, with your character heading down into the caves in search of treasure, but that’s really not an issue. Spelunky is focused on one thing, and one thing only, addictive gameplay. To that end, the game features a mix of elements from different genres. On the surface, the game appears to be a simple dungeon crawler: explore the cave, grab the loot. However, Spelunky manages to work in elements from roguelikes, such as a complete lack of save points, randomly generated levels, and frequent death. It also features heavy platforming elements, which includes simple interactions with enemies that are fought actively. To help you get your head around all the mechanics, the XBLA version adds a fancy tutorial, with its own little story. There’s some nice new artwork on display here, and you’re quickly introduced all the important game mechanics.
Spelunky‘s gameplay flows like this: Your unnamed character enters the first floor of a randomly generated cave, and you need to navigate your way through it, in a similar manner to your typical side-scrolling platformer. Your character has access to three tools: his whip, his ropes, and his bombs. The whip is used by pressing the X button, and is your only defense against the many monsters which inhabit the caves. Ropes can be used to climb to out of reach areas, as well as to avoid traps. Bombs can be used as a tool to blow a large hole in any of the surrounding walls, or as a weapon to kill some of the stronger enemies in the game.
Death is harsh. If killed, you’ll be forced to go back to the beginning of the game each time, losing all your treasure and items as well. Each section of the game has four levels, and if you manage to get through the first four levels without dying, you may get the chance to unlock a shortcut. Unlocking a shortcut requires you to donate certain amounts of money and items. Once unlocked, you’ll be able to restart from the beginning of this section, instead of being kicked back to the start of the game. This is also the case for all subsequent sections, and since each section is more challenging than the last, this feature is something that you’ll need to rely on if you want to make it through the entire game.
While the number of levels is fairly low, the game doesn’t feel short, since Spelunky is tough. Cave layout, as well as enemy and trap placement, is completely random and often surprising. No two playthroughs of the game are the same, and this really adds to Spelunky‘s survival atmosphere. You can’t just blunder your way through the game, as the caves change drastically with each attempt, so you always need to be on your toes. Enemies can appear on screen quicky, and won’t hesitate to attack relentlessly. You need to carefully check before dropping down a level, if you fall too far, you might lose a heart (or 2). Your character has four precious hearts to start with, but can get more by rescuing damsels in distress. There’s one to be found in each level, and successfully carrying her to the exit will cause her to award you an extra heart. You’ll also find shop keepers in some levels, and you can use your gathered treasure to buy useful items from them. These range from more bombs, to a shotgun, to a compass that will indicate which direction you should head in to reach the current level’s exit. If you try to steal anything though, you’ll probably receive an abrupt death from the shopkeeper’s shotgun.
Playing through the game with a friend or two, you’d expect to have an easier time. Not so. While you can still use shortcuts you unlocked while playing alone, you won’t be able to unlock any news ones, which makes the game much harder. Fortunately, your hearts aren’t shared, and there’s a fair bit of fun to be had since you can work together in order to make it to the exit alive. The multiplayer elements include a new 2-4 player deathmatch mode a well. Deathmatch, as you’d expect, is all about battling, with players aiming to be the last one standing. There’s a variety of small arenas to choose from (with more becoming available as you progress through the single player mode), and you’ll need to make good use of timing and strategy if you want to win. You can try to trap your opponents with bombs, turn enemies against them, and use your whip to stun them temporarily. It’s all pretty light hearted, and makes for an amusing little addition to the game.
Spelunky features simple 2D graphics, but the character sprites and environmental artwork are of a high quality, and look quite nice. Animation is a little simple, but it does its job. Compared to the original version of the game, Spelunky for XBLA looks great, the visual improvement is huge. Sound wise, there’s not a lot to say. Background music is limited, and fairly simple. This means that’s it’s not distracting at all, but it’s also not particularly memorable. Some basic sound effects are used throughout the game for your character and the enemies, and they do their job well enough. Voice acting is absent.
At 1200 MS Points, the game is a little pricey for a downloadable title. Spelunky does do a good job of proving its worth though, as it manages to offer a solid challenge, while never feeling too unfair. You may experience a couple of cheap deaths (if too many enemies swarm you, you’re pretty much a goner), but it never gets to a frustrating level. Although you may die often, there’s always the feeling that you’re getting a little better with each attempt, always getting closer to making it to the end of the game. Combined with the game’s simple concept and smooth gameplay, it’ll keep you coming back for more.