It’s been a long wait, but Spelunky has finally come to Xbox Live Arcade. Spelunky is an indie platformer with randomly assembled levels much like a classic rouge-likes. This XBLA version is a majorly updated port of the free PC version of the game. It includes new level sections, music, art, and the addition of a multiplayer mode. Spelunky definitely has the pieces to be a phenomenal platformer.
The basic gameplay of Spelunky is very simple. You run, jump, and fight your way through a series of levels until you reach the final boss. The main challenge in Spelunky is that you can only save your progress by creating shortcuts. These require multiple run-throughs of levels while carrying specific items to the end, though the use of these shortcuts nulls any leaderboard times or scores you might get. The game is also really really hard. While Spelunky is often frustrating it never cheats. I always knew why I died and what I should have done to survive. The game also controls quite well, which is vital in a challenging game like this, and you can move precisely through small gaps. You need to force yourself to move slow in Spelunky. That can be hard because you run so fast and want to clear obstacles quickly, but moving quickly spells almost certain doom. The other difference between Spelunky and other platformers is that the levels are random. They are assembled from a number of sections, which can repeat fairly often, and then populated with enemies and treasure. While parts of a level may seem familiar, you will never know exactly what to expect, which is good because you will be dying and restarting a lot. This is probably the most unique part of the game and the thing that gives it an edge over other similar platformers.
There are five worlds with four levels each. In each level you need to move from the entrance to the exit below you. Your character begins with four hearts, four ropes, and four bombs. The movement is mostly vertical, though the stages are fairly wide. In each stage, you find treasure and equipment. Treasure can be used to buy items from storekeepers, like machetes, parachutes, cameras, as well as health and other bonuses. While you can be tempted to simply avoid enemies and rush for the exit, slowing down can be of great benefit as you build up an arsenal of tools to use later on the more difficult levels.
As I mentioned before, the game is quite difficult, and this makes the lack of forward progress incredibly frustrating. You can play for hours and have nothing to show for it, thanks to a poorly timed jump or a cleverly hidden arrow trap. Even in games like Super Meat Boy, you are constantly rewarded by completing a short stage. This may be a deal breaker feature for some, but if you are willing to deal with frustration, you will be richly rewarded when you finally do succeed.
While the singleplayer is the main draw of Spelunky, the multiplayer is still quite entertaining. The co-op mode is a combination of frustration and fun. With three or more players, the game becomes far too chaotic, though messing with your friends is a reward all its own. With two people playing you can actually be quite successful because both need to die before the game is over. It’s unfortunate that you can’t save progress that you make in co-op mode. This could have helped those with less tolerance make it through the game. There’s also a deathmatch mode. I liked this mode more than the co-op because it embraces the chaos that multiplayer causes.
One of the things I really like about Spelunky is the way it looks. While the PC version used low resolution pixel art, the XBLA release has very well drawn and animated assets that look like cartoonized versions of pulp adventure films, the sort that inspired Indiana Jones. Each of the areas has a distinct look with new traps, blocks, and enemies. The awesome look of the game helps relieve some of the frustration of visiting the same levels over and over, and discovering a new tile set is part of the reward of finally completing a world. The music also deserves praise. It mixes between jaunty tunes that embrace the cartoony pulp of the art style and some truly ominous sounds.
I had a lot of fun with Spelunky, even when I died inches from the exit or couldn’t make it past the first level. The challenge was enjoyable, and I noticed significant improvement over time. As the game became more manageable I started making real progress. The part that wasn’t so fun was when I succeeded, but was not rewarded for it. Dying near the end is one thing, but making it through a world and not having the item you need to pay the Tunnel Man is infuriating, especially because he does not tell you what item he needs ahead of time.
Spelunky is a great game. There are no technical issues to hold it back, the controls are solid, the art is awesome, the multiplayer is fun, and the challenge is superb. The game can be really rough when you can’t make progress for hours on end, but overall I think people will find Spelunky to be a great experience. It really is a shame this game wasn’t included in the Summer of Arcade, as it is extremely high quality. This is a game everyone should play, especially those who enjoy difficult platformers.