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Spelunky Review

Review; Aug. 21, 2010; Channels: Video Games; By Jenner David Cauton
"Snakes... I hate snakes." - Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

As well as spiders, bats, and skeletons, oh my! You'll hate them even more when you play Spelunky, an indie game made for Windows created by Derek Yu. Spelunky is freeware but don't let that lull you into thinking that the game has any lack of depth - it's simply full of it. Spelunky is possibly the best indie game I have ever played, and it's free. You play a spelunker, named, interestingly, Spulenky (his real name isn't given). Your quest is to dive into the deepest depths of the caves, searching for treasure and to make it to the end alive.

Spelunky ScreenshotsClick image to view screenshots.

Speulnky comes complete with hiking gear, a helmet with an embedded light, a whip and a big red nose. I'm not kidding. That red dot there? That's his nose, not his mouth. The characters in Spelunky (the small ones at least) are all drawn in pixelated anime like chibi characters and so are the environments, so if those two things aren't your cup of tea, you might be disappointed. However, this means the game will most likely run on any given machine as well.

The goal of the game is to collect as much treasure as possible before you reach the end (inevitable or otherwise). The main draw of the game is that every level is randomly generated every time you play. No random generator is perfect and while certain pieces of the level do eventually become recognizable after a while, the game's simple 2D format and grid based structure gives the generator enough flexibility to keep you guessing. A lot of the game is randomized anyway, not just the levels. Even the quotes that show up when you first start the game are randomized.

Spelunky is a an old school platformer. You will run. You will jump. You will swing your whip at enemies. You will climb ledges. You will die. And you will die again. And again. And again. And again. Don't let the game's cuteness fool you, this game is as tough as nails. Not in the sense that the game overwhelms you with enemies (although there are mods to do that), but the in the sense that you have but a single life. That's right, just one life. The game is meant to be played in short bursts, (it's not very long) or in the worst case, very, very short bursts. Yu designed the game with a rougelike concept in mind. Rouge and it's many clones to follow was pretty much the DOS OS predecessor of many dungeon crawler games, only the entire game's graphics consisted of ASCII characters. In Rouge, just like Diablo, you play an adventurer with a town on the top and must descend into a randomly created multi-floored dungeon, but in Rouge you only have one life. You can save your game but the minute you die the game disables any more saving and automatically deletes any save file related to that particular character. Of course the game would chronicle your character's grave in a high score board listing his name, class, highest level attained and any other achievements. Diablo fans know what this is called: Hardcore mode.

Spelunky is a short game, but it's meant to be played over and over. There are no save points; you must play the game in one shot. There is an unlockable to beat the game in under 10 mintues, so use that as a guideline. You may only have one life in the game but you do start with 4 hit points. Not 400, not 40, just 4. The first time playing this game you will definitely remember the days of how hard your pixelated past was. It is very easy to get hit in this game or even die instantly as sometimes you will get hit for 2 or even 3 hit points at a time, or even get juggled by an enemy for consecutive hits. Did I mention only 4 hit points? I did? Ok, how about the fact that falling from heights can also hurt you, as well as spikes of any sort granting instant death? There are many ways to die in this game, but the majority of them are instant rather than gradual.

See that Tiki statue on the left next to the water? That's instant death. Slow reflexes after grabbing this golden idol in front of you? Instant death.

The only way to gain more hit points to rescue damsels in distress. If you manage to get them to safety (the level's exit) then your reward is a magical life restoring kiss for a single hit point. Just don't start the next level immediately careening towards the nearest snake thereafter. Too late.

There's more to the game than just running and jumping around, whipping things though. You start the game with 4 bombs and 4 ropes, both of which can be used to navigate around the caves to reach otherwise inaccessible places. They can also serve as a means to kill enemies; even the ropes too amazingly. Along the way you will find other tools such as mattocks, jet packs and climbing gloves, just to name a few. But you can't go off using these tools like water -supplies are limited or expensive, so you will be forced to make decisions. Do you use your rope to grab that shiny gem on the top? Or do you save it in case you fall down an otherwise inescapable pit? Do you use a bomb to release a large amount of treasure buried within the rocks, or use it to bomb yourself a shortcut to the level's exit to avoid a massive group of enemies? You can find items randomly in crates or chests or buy them from shopkeepers. Oh yes, the shopkeeper - he's quite a character. The shopkeeper can get expensive, but it is possible to steal from him. Just beware of his wrath. You've been warned.

The levels themselves also have a random chance of having a particular element to them, followed by Spelunky speaking some dialogue according to the situation. "I can't see a thing!" means you're in a dark level and have to have to carry around a torch. "I hear rushing water..." means the level bottom is filled with water and dangerous piranhas. And the infamous "Snakes... I hate snakes" means a snake pit is located somewhere (which always has a lot of treasure and a hidden mattock buried in the bottom, so it's not always a bad thing).

You'll learn to use and eventually trust in your whip to save your skin, but sometimes it just isn't enough. Items that are wearable, such as the gloves or cape, are permanent upgrades for Spelunky that will last him until the end of the game or death, instant or otherwise. Items that aren't wearable are usually weapons Spelunky holds in his hands, such as rocks, pots, pistols or even unconscious out enemies which had better be thrown at something before they rouse. Otherwise some serious consequences can occur, such as instant death. If all else fails you can always jump on enemies, Mario-style. In fact it's quite often more useful than whipping. Just keep in mind not all enemies can be hurt by jumping. Some might even cause you instant death. Did I mention instant death? The pistol and shotgun can often cause you to be on the other side of instant death (see, there was a point to all that) and therefore might seem overpowering, but keep in mind you can only hold one of these hand-equipped items at a time which includes keys, idols and even damsels. However, don't expect any weapon to kill the cave ghost, which will appear in every level after the first level if you take too long to complete said level. There is no way to avoid or kill him and he will hone right towards you. If you hear the music start to slow down, head for the exit immediately. Touching the ghost will result in... well... you get the idea.

Despite the huge difficulty curve, it's the game's sudden death nature that keeps the game's otherwise simple gameplay so addicting. Most players tend to find out the the majority of their deaths are caused from their own mistakes rather than the game simply being difficult. With enough practice you will eventually learn all of the levels' quirks and enemy behaviors. The randomization keeps the game fresh. There's huge depth and secrets for you to find out such as the use of certain items which can be found in the game's wiki. The game keeps track of your highest attained amount of money, kills, deaths and wins. If there's any kind of real complaint, it is that I would of preferred a longer game if it meant I could have extra lives (or an easier way of getting more hit points) and better treasure stat tracking. As it is, it only seems to track your kills specifically and only keeping track of your highest attained amount of money gained (it's not cumulative).

If this still hasn't piqued your interest, the game also comes with an easy to use level editor. Of course level editors are usually praised for games that are begging for extra levels. Since the game itself pretty much has that covered, the editor almost seems useless. Still, it's a welcome addition for people to make set pieces or challenges.

There are currently many mods for the current PC version of the game, most of which can be found here. The wiki for the game also has a handful of other mods, but you can also find some user-made levels.

The game was previously in a constant development status but it seems to be completed now, mostly because the an XBLA version is in the works. The most obvious improvements are graphics, but the XBLA version will also include new soundtracks, leaderboards, achievements and most importantly some much needed new game modes.

Spelunky is a pick up and play experience but thankfully, one that's hard to put down.

Presentation - 7

The game's atmosphere is generally light hearted and funny, but do keep in mind that there is blood.

Graphics -7

Sprites is the theme here and it does well in this department.

Story - N/A

Often enough indie arcade games don't really have any story, however this one at least gives random phrases to give you some motivation (for all your instant deaths), but not enough to warrant any kind of final score.

Sound - 7

The game contains 8-bit sound effects and music. While I personally don't find it bothersome, it can get monotonous. Luckily you can turn them off.

Gameplay - 9

Old school platforming at it's best. Jumping, running and instant death.

Current Stability - 9

The game went through two patches since I last seen it. I didn't really see what was wrong or missing either.

Lasting Appeal - 9

If old school platforming is your love, this will game will shower you in it. You will always have that "just one more round" feeling. The game can get frustrating but never boring.


Review Score

Not Rated by ESRB

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