Spelunky is a platformer for masochists. Okay, I’ve said it! Wildly popular and very well designed, Spelunky is quite the rage at the moment. Unfortunately, I’m simply not a big enough glutton for punishment to enjoy this game to the full extent.
As a rogue-like platformer, Spelunky sets out to create unique levels and gameplay – each time you play, the game feels new and fresh. Each level is randomly generated – platforms, shops, enemies and damsel placements are different every time you play. In this sense, it keeps the game fresh. However, it also means that the game is hard, and I mean really hard. Without being able to memorize a level to ensure you hit the right jumps or get all the jewels, Spelunky can feel like an exercise in futility.
I’m not just saying this because I’m bad at platformers – the game is designed to be really difficult, to make you die over and over again. Oh, and when you die, you start over from the beginning again. Yup, no saves, no checkpoints, just keep dying and trying. You get a journal to keep track of how you’ve died, and to taunt you that you were “so close” or “must keep trying”. I’ve died from bats, spiders, snakes, spikes, falling down too far, blowing myself up – the list goes on and on.
However, the levels are grouped into various worlds such as mines, jungles, temple, etc. You begin in the mines, which is where most casual Spelunky players will end up forever. Yet, if you can get past four levels in the mines, you meet the shortcut guy. Give him enough stuff, and he will create a tunnel for you, letting you start at the beginning of the next world, instead of all the way at the beginning again. It definitely helps with providing hope and some sense of progress – just don’t expect to get your tunnel within the first hour or two of gameplay. That’s right, it took me 5 hours to beat the mines enough to get my shortcut. But then, I do suck at platformers.
I’m sure an expert at this game could complete it in minutes – each level is pretty short and you are kept from going slow and safe by a ghost that spawns and kills you. Yup – don’t spend too long gauging jumps and slowly working your way down to the level’s exit; after a couple minutes a monstrous, invincible ghost will appear to force you to move it or kill you instantly.
The game is beautifully built – levels are visually well done, random, and interesting every time. However, that variety and beautiful design does not extend to the soundtrack, which becomes monotonous, repetitive and grating very quickly. Once you make it to the next world you get new music, new enemies and new traps, but if it takes you as many hours to get there as it did me, you’ll be listening to the same sound loops for far too long.
I like the fact that you don’t have to explore every level in its entirety – with enough bombs you can just tunnel your way to the bottom of the level and get to the exit. Yes, the environment is fully destructible. However, this is not your best tactic; you will need cash to buy things, plus rescuing the damsel will give you a kiss that restores one bit of health – definitely worthwhile to hunt around before running straight for the exit.
Spelunky also offers a local multiplayer where you and up to three of your closest friends can battle it out to see who can kill each other best. This small feature is so frenetic, it’s impossible for anyone to show any real skill – it’s more just an excuse to watch everyone’s character die. With set level maps and ridiculous speed of death, it does not have the same allure as the single player game.
Unfortunately, I just found the game boring. Yes, my skills improved over time, and sure, I could see the OCD kicking in as I kept trying to complete the levels and get further along. However, I just didn’t find the game interesting or entertaining. I kept trying out of frustration, not because I was actually enjoying myself. At a certain point, it just became boring and in a strange way, repetitive. Sure, each level was different, but after getting killed in so many ways, I stopped actually caring about my character. It seems like an inevitability that I would die, so it didn’t actually matter anymore if I got to level two, or four, or the end of the game.
The game became an exercise in futility, enjoyable only for gaming masochists. Perhaps this would be better when playing on the PS Vita – the nature of handheld gaming allows for a few rounds of game play followed by an extended break – maybe playing for hours straight on my PS3 was part of the problem. That said, shouldn’t a game be such that you want to play for hours straight, not just on again off again?
I understand a difficult game, like Dark Souls, where you improve, find new techniques, and figure out how to tackle difficult enemies or bosses. Perhaps this is a platforming Dark Souls – rewarding for those willing to put in the time and energy. However, I would rather spend my time playing other indie games. That said, I’m very glad this game was made – it’s an important milestone in indie gaming, and has served as a fantastic inspiration for other games.
Spelunky is a well-designed game, ideal for a gamer who loves platformers and variety. However, it is a rogue-like platformer with randomised levels, and gamers looking for constant progress or easy rewards will not find them here.
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