Platformers are just for kids growing up with Mario titles? Think again and suffer in Mossmouth’s HD update of Derek Yu’s classic PC roguelike Spelunky (still available as a free download on the website).
(USA 2012/2013, developer/publisher: Mossmouth, platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita)
Unnamed explorer goes spelunking in dark caverns and other undiscovered regions to finally escape (alive) with its hidden treasures.
Writing one’s own story
The story is rather simple and despite a few encounters with some characters who either sell to or want something from the titular spelunker, there isn’t much of a development either (although it helps to imagine the main character to be a comic version of Indiana Jones, as the hat and whip are no coincidence). Still, by slowly progressing from level to level and discovering new enemies, traps, treasures or items, the inclusion of a diary makes the lack of a plot less important. The motivation simply comes from unlocking more and more from the mysteries found in the various levels, and it’s also quite fun to read the humorous descriptions of each object or nasty the protagonist finds.
Unlimited treasures with a limited toolset
As is the case with most roguelike games, the levels are randomly generated, and death is permanent, making each restart a slightly different game, even if the gameplay remains the same: collect as many treasures as possible and reach the exit before a ghost starts chasing you. This is done by either picking up gems which lie around or by destroying boulders with bombs which have some glittering gold inside them. But it’s often not so easy to collect everything, because the amount of bombs and ropes one can use to climb higher places is limited and can only be increased by opening crates or buying them in a shop. One can also get other useful tools there, like special boots to jump higher or climb walls. In addition, there are a couple of weapons to buy and other more or less useful items, but these come with a price, so one has to be careful how to spend the money. One has to be very careful with the shop owner as well. If he gets agitated, he starts shooting and chasing the player for the rest of the game.
Where to go and what to do
If this all sounds to get boring pretty quick, this is far from the truth. The core gameplay of platforming with a bit of whipping enemies might not change, but there are always new techniques to discover which make each play worthwhile. A first playthrough is a long way off, considering how difficult the traps and enemy design make it, and it’s mostly a trial and error way of playing the game. However, there are always some risk-reward parts which keep the player going. For example, in each level one can rescue a damsel in distress by carrying her to the exit, which rewards the protagonist with an extra heart corresponding to his life energy. Getting an idol safely to the exit also gives him more money at the end, but this should be avoided, as a big boulder (one can evade) which rolls through the whole level and usually hits the shop keeper is never a good idea.
Collecting a key in each stage to open a chest with a stone fragment or providing a miner with tools and money also reward the player, although it’s never explained what they do. According to an FAQ, they open portals so that one can jump directly into specific levels. All this shows that the game is well thought through, but it also shows that not everything works great. The problem with the boulder and the shop keeper has already been mentioned, and the ghost chasing the player has been hinted at. This is certainly a gameplay element which could have been left out, considering that it’s a game about exploration and careful planning. Being killed by this enemy is just an unfair punishment of being a bit slow. There are also some instances in which being hit by an enemy can lead to being bounced back and suffering an instantaneous, spiky death. Having only explanations of their usage after purchasing the items in a shop is another weird design decision.
How to survive all this
It can’t be stressed enough how punishing the difficulty curve is. Sure, this is a roguelike in which there are many ways to die and only one life to lose. The former can usually be avoided by being extremely careful and learning specific techniques, while the latter can be amended by collecting as many hearts as possible. But with a simple misstep, drop on a spike or from too high above, it’s game over and starting from level one again. The only feeling of accomplishment comes from mastering each stage step by step, which can take hours. It would have been nice to at least have the option of keeping some tools and not starting from scratch, although this would be against the roguelike template, obviously.
Fun with many
More fun can be had with the multiplayer modes. Coop lets up to four players try to conquer the levels, making progression much easier, especially since dying turns them into ghosts who can still blow away enemies and help the remaining players. But what makes the title a must-have and surpasses the main game in terms of pure entertainment is the deathmatch mode: It’s totally chaotic with some deviously designed levels which can be completed in near seconds with one explorer standing. Reminiscent of the multiplayer fun mayhem of Bomberman, having four players battle it out with whips and bombs is an addictive one-more-go experience which makes the frustrating main game almost forgettable.
Eye and sound candy
Despite the high difficulty curve, the overall presentation is quite joyful with cute character sprites and a soundtrack which is not intrusive as in other platformers. The score is actually a nice mix of atmospheric, relaxing tunes and sound effects which give each stage its own unique feeling. There is simply nothing at fault here, with smooth animations, colorful backgrounds, rarely a slowdown, and intuitive controls which make jumping, whipping, and bombing one’s way through the levels a joy.
A gem of a game for those who persevere
Spelunky is as easy to love as it is to hate. The steep learning curve, harsh difficulty spikes due to the title’s roots in the roguelike genre are what can make or break this game for many players. The pleasing graphics, joyful soundtrack and effects are misleading for those who think this is a kid’s game. It’s all about learning from mistakes after dying again and again and again. If you want a more accessible game with a clear way of progression and a rewarding RPG system, you’re probably better off choosing Rogue Legacy.
But the simplicity of the controls, the various secrets and techniques to discover are what makes patient players come back for more again and again and again. And if one is still stuck in the same stage after hours or days of play, the extremely fun deathmatch multiplayer or coop mode compensate for all the angry shouting and smashing of keyboards and gamepads.
Buy the Xbox 360 game on
the Xbox Marketplace
Buy the PS3 game on
Buy the PS Vita game on
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