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Review: Spelunky (XBLA)

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When people talk about Spelunky they far too often refer to it as some sort of ‘death-grind’, where all you do is spawn and die and that’s somehow that’s the single, solitary hook that keeps you playing like some sort of brutal exercise in platforming S&M.

For me, it wasn’t the notion of getting flat-lined just to try again that kept me coming back, it was something a little more subtle than that; namely the concepts of greed versus survival and risk versus reward.

Loot, greed, falling and death. A typical Spelunky-esque time.

On the face of it, the premise behind Spelunky is terrifyingly simple; in pixel-perfect platforming fashion you progress from the top of the screen to the bottom in randomly generated levels and then you find the exit and get the heck outta Dodge. If you were to follow this simple edict, Spelunky might last you somewhere between twenty or maybe thirty minutes of play in total; the game offers paltry resistance if you choose to simply to follow the primary objective and get to the end of every level without doing anything else.

Anything. Else.

See, as your climbing down a wall of rock, chuckling to yourself “This isn’t so hard” and other such naïve monologues, luck will have it that something is going to catch your eye. That something is usually shiny and quite pretty; it might just be a single gold bar and it may just be situated at the top of a ladder a small distance away.

“Yeah, that’s no problem, I’ll grab it on my way out”.

So, you make your little detour, grab your slab of shiny and off you go; back on your original course to the end of the level. Except that, on your way to the end of the level you spot a chest sat on it’s lonesome on a high ledge which while reachable, is not without peril since if you fall, a bed of spikes await underneath to embrace you in their loving, pointy iron arms.

Its here that Spelunky truly gets its hooks into you; not when you die and perhaps eager to try again, but when you’re most likely to perish on the account of your own greed. It slyly counts on the fact that years and years of platforming and collecting shiny trinkets, compounded with innate human greed have conditioned you to be an insatiable loot-hoovering fiend, whether you realise it or not.

Its risk versus reward then, if you want the shiny goodies, you’ve got to put the legwork in to get them and acknowledge the risk involved. Nine times out of ten, the greatest risk involved in any situation that Spelunky presents you with is patience and it punishes you heavily for not having a metric shit-ton of it.

I’ve literally lost count of the amount of times the game has lured me into a false sense of confidence, only to utterly destroy me and stamp on my soul. In one instance, I found myself rushing to the end of the level and didn’t see the seemingly harmless little bat which knocked me into a pit, resulting in me receiving a face full of spikes causing the loss of everything I had worked for. It’s not just your treasure that you lose either; in sticking with it’s rogue-like characteristics death in Spelunky is not just a setback – its permanent and you have to start the whole game again from the start each time you corpsify yourself.

If it wasn’t bad enough that dying in this game can occur so easily and carries such severe consequences than it gets even worse when you come to realise the fact that Spelunky has no shortage of ways to help you along to meet your maker. Every single one of the randomly-generated levels is filled with spike traps, arrow traps, treasure trigger traps, monsters unique to the theme of that level (spiders for the mines, mummies for the Egyptian tombs and so on), and finally an unkillable ghost which manifests itself at set intervals and proceeds to home in on you until you either exit the level or die instantly in it’s frigid clutches. So as well as traps and regular enemies, you also have a cruel sort of invisible time limit, only highlighted by the text “A chill runs up your spine!”, to finish each level in; naturally curtailing your treasure hunting ambitions somewhat.

I don’t think this is what The Prodigy had in mind when they wrote ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ somehow.

An additional thing to consider then, but one that is made all the fun by trying to grab as much treasure as you can in a mad scramble to the exit before the ghost reaches you.

Luckily, if you are intent on having your cake and eat it by collecting loot and finishing the level, there are a number of ways you can fight your likely fate. From the get-go your plucky little treasure hunter has a whip that he can use to kill most basic enemies and even, in true Super Mario Bros style, can jump on their heads and off them that way too. For some of the larger enemies, such whimsical offensive capability just isn’t going to cut it and this is where all of that shiny stuff comes in.

Randomly situated across a series of levels are a number of balding shopkeepers, who besides turning into raging, hopping psychopaths with a shotgun should you accidentally harm one, have a randomly generated set of wares for you to purchase with your hard earned haul. They peddle everything from bombs that allow you to blow away chunks of the level to access new places and precious ore, to rope that allows you climb to otherwise unreachable places all the way through to shotguns that allow you to blow your enemy to smithereens. In some shops, you can also purchase tools that make your transversal of the various levels that much easier; these range from humble climbing gloves that allow you to scale any surface to a jet pack which allow you to access literally any part of the map you can see that isn’t walled in.

It’s not just treasure and the potential gear that it can buy which can act as a distractor in Spelunky, there are Damsels in Distress to contend with also.

If you find one of these stranded ladies and take her to the end of the level with you and throw her into the exit, she pops a kiss on your cheek when you go through the exit yourself; restoring one ‘heart’ of health exactly. Thusly as a result, despite her impassioned pleas to take flight from her claustrophobic hell, she too invariably becomes part of your cold, risk/reward machinations – do you save her to restore lost health or do you leave her; figuring that the path to her salvation is just as likely to get you killed?

Things get even morally more cloudy when you realise the fact that the traps in each level don’t just react to your proximity, they react to everything. Imagine the sly, crooked smile on my visage as I picked up the Damsel and tossed her in front of an arrow trap; forcing her to take the arrow in my stead, all so I could avoid injury and by proxy, make her worth to me entirely superfluous.

It must be noted however that the result of such an act is as amusing as it is potentially annoying, since if the Damsel is injured, she begins to run off, crying for help now that her supposed liberator is perhaps even more dangerous than the denizens of the cavern that she was previously imprisoned with. Be careful though, the woman isn’t made of granite and so can only take a very finite amount of damage before she gives up the ghost.

This is just one of the ways that exemplifies the idea that Spelunky is so much more than it is or billed to be by many people; it’s the most cerebral and cunningly sophisticated platformer to come along in a long, long time.

You can share this experience too, with up to three additional players in local co-op. Here, things becomes hideously unmanageable as all players must remain on the screen at the same time because if they don’t, ten-second countdowns start to happen with the inevitable end result being death if they can’t return into view quick enough. As you can reasonably infer, co-op, like the rest of this gleefully sadistic game, aims to throw more chaotic elements together (this time in the form of players egos) into the melting pot, to see if anyone can survive.

Thankfully, death is not permanent in co-op, but by the same token, you don’t get let off the hook easy either. Should you expire for whatever reason, you reappear as a ghost; able to float through the level at will and able to use your phantasmal breath to move things about and knock things over in true poltergeist-like fashion. You can be returned to life though by another player discovering a randomly generated coffin on a level and smashing it open but then this this, like everything in Spelunky, is tied directly into the risk/reward dynamic that makes the game so horrendously cruel and yet so impossibly compelling. With your last chunk of life, do you brave all manner of dangers to free your friend and potentially extend your play, or do you leave them to their deathly slumber while you slink off with treasure in tow, looking for an easy Damsel to snatch on the way to the exit?

Sadly, its with the Spelunky’s co-operative mode that the game’s only real flaw rears it’s ugly head; you can only do your Spelunking co-operatively if you’re doing it locally as there is no online multiplayer – a surprisingly unfortunate omission if there ever was one.

Ghosts are forever the reminder of your greed exceeding your grasp. Plan your lootery accordingly.

With that said though, if Spelunky’s accommodation of co-operative play doesn’t grab you, or, if you’re just sick to the back of your teeth for being kicked into a spike pit by your friend, time and time again, you can take out some of your simmering rage on them in the game’s deathmatch mode.

If co-operative play in Spelunkly is a barely controllable mess, then deathmatch is just an unmitigated sprawl of perpetual chaos. In deathmatch, up to four players (with CPU controlled bots filling in the numbers if need be) are thrust into a closed in arena to do battle with each other, utilising bombs and whatever tools they have to send their foes to an early grave.

On some level, the mode plays out like a hyper-kinetic version of Bomberman locked to a sideways 2D plane. Indeed, echoing the sort of the frenetic energy that is so classically inherent in Hudson Soft’s seminal bomb slinging opus, the whole affair very often devolves into complete insanity and is the perfect way to wind down after a bruising of egos from the game’s co-operative mode.

Underneath it’s seemingly whimsically charming cartoony visuals and cheerfully retro soundtrack then, beats the heart of a cold, sadistic strategy game that shows itself to any player who dares to attempt to get anything more out of it other than achieving the bare minimum. It’s a game that punishes over-reaching ambition and reckless abandon with brutal and terrifying efficiency and yet, it also generously rewards players who can combine patience with the tremendous creative latitude that the game allows for solving the problems which are put in front of them. It’s not merely the dying that makes you come back to Spelunky, its the temperance of greed and ambition with patience and carefully weighted strategy that compels you to keep playing.

It is in this midst of this ever-lasting and ever-enjoyable struggle, that creator Derek Yu has given us the ultimate version one of the finest platforming experiences to date in Spelunky; a must for absolutely anyone with a passing interest in the platforming genre or games whose challenge, sophistication and nuance extends far beyond their face value.

Highly recommended.

Spelunky is available now to purchase on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points.  The original, relatively feature-lite version of the game can be downloaded on the PC for free – grab it here.

Written by bitsnark

July 17, 2012 at 10:24 am

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