Friday, 26 October 2012

REVIEW - SPELUNKY - My Love Affair continues

Spelunky is a lot like being in a relationship with the love of your life, they look gorgeous and are great fun to be with, they constantly surprise you, and the relationship is more rewarding when you invest more time in it. It can be frustrating at times, even drive you away for a short period, but you always come back because you love them.

Tired metaphors aside, my releationship with Spelunky has been going on for 4 months now, so it's high time I shared my thoughts and feelings on the game. Released in June this year, I am clearly late to the review party, but forgive me, I've just been too busy enjoying the adventure. Not since Super Mario World on the SNES have I been so entranced with a platforming world, and not since Rick Dangerous have I been killed by so many damn spikes (and snakes, and bats, and arrows.. take your pick). Over 400 deaths later and I am finally ready to review this lovable bastard.

Spelunky is the work of one man, or genius (twisted mastermind is perhaps more fitting), Derek Yu. Released on PC back in 2008 as a freeware title, it was received with much praise and applause and for many was the catalyst for the surge in interest and popularity of indie gaming which has led to indie titles now receiving as much press and attention as full blown triple A titles. It was a hugely playable and insanely addictive game and notoriously difficult, and people loved it.

Now 4 years later we have the new and improved Spelunky, and he has had some serious cosmetic surgery and looks fantastic, the graphics are bright, colourful, and full of charm. Every sprite, from the Indiana Jones wannabe himself to the smallest of foes have been lovingly recreated as HD cartoon versions of their pixel art originals. I personally loved the original look as I am a sucker for anything that looks remotely 8-bit, but this XBLA incarnation is just so wonderfully lovely to gaze upon that I can't help but prefer it. The worlds Spelunky inhabits are just as eye catching, from dark caves to lush forests, every stage is a visual treat. There are so many little details that you may not notice at first, the small creatures that live around the level and the backdrops of spiderwebs, boarded up cave entrances, and waterfalls, but together they really bring the world to life.

The best part of this, and the key to Spelunky's success, is that the worlds are randomly generated. Yep, this means every time you play you are treated to a completely different set of levels, you will never get the same one twice. It speaks volumes for the programming talents of Mr Yu that every generation of level is perfectly designed.
The next important factor about Spelunky is that once you die, that's it.. game over. Yep, no saves, no checkpoints, just ho ho back to the start you go! This brutal old school gameplay mechanic has led to many reviewers calling the game a 'Roguelike', which I don't really agree with to be honest. Sure, the restarting everytime you die is similar, but Spelunky is no RPG, nor does it try to be. There is no levelling up, potions, armour, or spells to cast, however there are many many items and secrets along the way to assist you in your nightmarish quest. These items are what give Spelunky a layer of depth not usually seen in 2D platformers, they can be found hidden in chests, or purchased from the shops that you ocassionally come across (but for the love of god don't anger the shopkeeper), and include flying capes, spiked boots, freeze guns, pick axes, shotguns or the regular bombs and ropes that you start with. The limited number of resources you begin with mean you have to be thoughtful about their usage, it is often very tempting, upon seeing a stash of treasure behind a wall, to bomb your way in but this may leave you shorthanded later on and leave you in a sticky situation, unable to blow your way to the exit door.

Indeed, it is this risk / reward mechanism that keeps you coming back for more. Sure, the aim of the game is to traverse the 4 worlds, each comprising of 4 levels, and beat the boss and escape, but the loot is where the replayability and addictiveness takes over. There is treasure everywhere, enough to give Scrooge McDuck a powerful erection. From small nuggets of gold and multicoloured gems, to golden idols and glowing Scarab beetles everything has a value, and accumulating a vast amount of wealth not only allows for purchasing more gear, but gives Spelunky a real arcade score chaser appeal. The amount of treasure you gather in a game appears on the online leaderboards meaning you can either play to amass treasure, or try to reach the end, both of which require a different approach to playing the game. Should you play cautiously and try to comb every stage for as much loot as possible, or rush to the exit as quickly as possible? Along the way you will find rare treasures worth vast sums of gold, but nabbing these items results in some shocking surpises.
Also on each stage is a damsel in distress (or mansel, or dogsel) who sits around uselessly calling for help. If you carry them (yes, carry) to an exit they will reward you with a kiss (or sloppy canine smooch), which gives you an extra life. You would expect at least a handjob, but I guess Spelunky is a busy man and doesn't have the time.
I could write pages about the multitude of secrets and strange occurances that happen regularly in Spelunky, but this would ruin the surprise, it is finding them that brings the player the most joy. Needless to say, there is a heck of a lot more to the game than initially meets the eye.

Of course all the secrets and treasures in the world mean nothing if the all important gameplay isn't there, but I am happy to report that Spelunky is an utter joy to play. The controls are tight, and the jumping is just right, not too twitchy or floaty like many other platformer games around today.
If.. sorry, WHEN you die you rarely feel cheated by the game's controls. Cheated by the insane amount of traps and critters baying for your blood, sure, but never to the extent that you feel the game is simply too hard to continue playing. You always want to inch that little bit further into the game, the excitement upon seeing a new area, even if you only remain alive in it for a few seconds, is such a thrill that you immediately set about trying to get back to that point and see more. Spelunky is hard yes, you could even say it is bastard hard, teeth grindingly difficult, or a god damn nightmare. It will certainly leave unexperienced gamers weeping in the corner, but it is all about practice. Each time you play you learn the enemy behaviours, and what the game will allow you to get away with. It helps that the character's death sequences are amusing as you will be seeing them A LOT. Impaled on spikes, devoured by man-eating plants, frozen by wooly mammoths, stung by killer bees, or bitten by snakes, the list of ways Spelunky can meet his demise are numerous. Each time it happens, you will sigh, maybe smile a little, then press X to start again.

Spelunky can be joined by 3 other adventurers for local multiplayer which can be great fun, but is let down slightly by the fact the camera only focuses on player 1, which can be frustrating for everyone. There are also single screen deathmatch levels where you must kill each other using whatever means available. It is a fun addition, but grows tiresome quickly and you will want to get back into the main quest pretty soon. Being that 4 players can play there are 4 different characters to choose from, from the hero himself to a turban clad Indian, a big game hunter with handlebar moustache, and a small girl with pigtails. There are loads of unlockable characters to be found in the single player adventure, and it is always a joy to uncover a new one. They don't have any different abilities from one another, but it's a nice visual change to be playing as a Mexican Spelunky with sombrero.

To be honest though, Spelunky is a single player game through and through, the mutiplayer is just the bonus cherry on top of the delicious icing on the world's most addictively tasty cake. Spelunky is a fantastic game and a wonderful reminder that the 2D platformer is as relevant and enjoyable today as it was back in its 8-bit and 16-bit glory years. Sure, there will be swearing and tears along the way, but you can never stay mad at Spelunky for long and will soon be back in gaming bliss enjoying the most addictive and downright fun game, not just of 2012, but of all time.

The Good:

  • Fantastic new visuals brimming with charm
  • Hugely enjoyable 2D platforming
  • Randomly generated levels mean the game never gets old
  • Deep gameplay with secrets galore
  • Very challenging

The Bad:

  • Multiplayer could have used a split screen option
  • Will be too hard for many gamers to persist with (Wimps!)