Spelunky is the latest in a long line of interesting, downloadable Xbox 360 platformers, with roots in Super Mario Bros. It’s also, by far, the most unforgiving, despite a cartoon facade of stumpy characters, colorful environs and bouncy sound effects.
The game’s unnamed protagonist–the Spelunker, if you like–is an unflappable, plump-nosed Indiana Jones type, who shows up at a desert temple with loot on the brain. Outside of a brief intro sequence, his only words come from journal entries that document with clinical straightforwardness the many causes of his own death (which is to say, he’s a prolific writer).
In Spelunky, the goal is to traverse downward through each level until you find the exit, which leads to a new level deeper underground. Some of the dangers in Spelunky–traps, hostile creatures and steep drops among them–will kill the Spelunker instantly, but even the ones that only deplete his health can set off deadly chain reactions. A boomerang-throwing jungle native might knock the Spelunker back into a spike trap. Or an arrow trap in the mines might send him plummeting into a pit of snakes. One mistake is often enough to end your game, and then it’s back to the beginning you go.
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But here’s the big twist: Each level is randomly-generated. This takes memorization out of the equation, and demands sharp decision-making instead. Do you dig into your limited bomb supply to blast a hole in the floor, or take the riskier path around? Do you grab the damsel in distress, who rewards you with a piece of health if you bring her to safety, or free the Spelunker’s hands to carry the rare treasure, which helps pay for items from shopkeepers?
With every death, you learn a bit more. The timing of your character’s trusty whip, the trajectory of his thrown objects, the distance he can safely fall, even the simple act of looking up and down to reveal more of the level–it all becomes comfortable.
Meanwhile, the randomness creates moments of spontaneous greatness. Maybe you’ll stomp on a hostile caveman, pick him up while he’s stunned and toss him through a few traps to disarm them all. Or perhaps you’ll break a long fall on the back of a frog, and find yourself staring at the exit.
You may repeat the same areas, but the game feels fresh every time. (The one exception is Spelunky‘s soundtrack, an excellent sort of jazz-suspense hybrid that’s full of odd measures and other musical goodies, but hard not to get sick of after you’ve heard each track few dozen times.)
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On occasion, Spelunky succumbs to its randomness. The generator sometimes creates unfair difficulty spikes, with no clear reward for the extra trouble. One challenge in particular brought hours of mind-numbing repetition: To unlock a shortcut to a new area, I had to find a shotgun and bring it to a friendly character a few levels later. You can buy one from a shopkeeper, but only if you’re lucky enough to find a store that sells it, and happen to have enough money on hand. Or, you can kill the shopkeeper and take his personal weapon if you can avoid getting shot to death in the process. To pull this off, you ideally want a randomly-generated store with good enough surroundings to hide in while the shopkeeper goes berserk and hopefully causes his own death by hitting a trap. Completing the challenge felt more like successfully rolling the dice than an act of skill.
Overall, though, the randomness is what makes Spelunky so enjoyable to conquer. The game only has four areas, each with four levels, but it takes hours to master the tricks and traps of each locale, and the game is filled with secrets that will keep you playing even longer. Beyond the main game, which can be played alone or with up to three other people locally, there’s a deathmatch where players try to blow each other up and lead their opponents into traps.
Like anything difficult, the reward for mastering the game’s caverns is a kind of satisfaction you don’t get when your hand’s being held. Spelunky is well worth its $15 asking price, but only if you’re as unperturbed by failure as the Spelunker himself.