Sunday, 24 February 2013

REVIEW - Spelunker HD (PS3)

The original cave explorer is back... in HD!

The original Spelunker is a classic 1984 Atari 400 game, but is more commonly known for the NES port that came out a year later. I have always had a soft spot for the home console version despite it being absolutely infuriating to play. It was this love for the Nintendo port, as well as the arcade version released that same year, that made Spelunker HD a game I have always had on my 'to play' list since its release in 2011. Much to my chagrin it never came out on either XBLA or PC, denying me the opportunity to discover whether it lived up to its predecessor. The low Metacritic score and amount of reviews bitching and moaning about its difficulty and miserable gameplay was a concern, but I wanted to see for myself. Only having recently purchased a PS3, I decided it was now or never and took the plunge, and boy am I glad I did.

  Spelunker HD allows to you unleash the Indiana Jones within you

My 20 year relationship with Spelunker has been of the love-hate variety. On the one hand, its 2D cave exploration platforming exploits are exactly the kind of thing I enjoy the most. But on the other hand the game really hates you, going out of its way to kick your ass then put the boot in while you are down. Not only does it possess the standard brutal difficulty of the NES era platformers, it also has some of the most irritating and bizarre mechanics ever seen. Your little Spelunker will die if he falls even a few centimetres. If you walk off a platform, regardless that the floor is a shorter distance away from your feet than your entire character sprite, you die. It doesn't even have the common decency to let you hit the floor first, you just die in mid air, as though the game can't be bothered to waste time showing why you died. Dismounting one of the many ladders or ropes too far from the ground is also instant death. Trust me when I say it is an absolute nightmare. The thing is, I have always enjoyed Spelunker enough to keep returning, despite these cheap deaths. There is something enticing about descending into the depths of a cave system searching for hidden treasure, avoiding boulders and monsters. So I was glad to finally have a chance to discover how Spelunker would survive the HD makeover.

Who ya gonna call?

Well, the first thing that strikes you is how uninspiring the new look HD graphics are; They lack the charm of games like Spelunky, Fez, Dust or La-Mulana, but they do the job and start to grow on you after a while, even though Spelunker himself looks dangerously close to an Xbox or Wii avatar. A very cool addition is the ability to play the entire game using a classic visual style that replicates the garish colour palate and pixellated goodness of the NES original, complete with chiptune soundtrack. It is a wonderful addition to be able to play the game this way, though I stuck to the updated visuals for my first playthrough. The music is also insanely catchy, original or remixed version, and will stick in your head for days to come.

 The NES visuals are awesome and get the nostalgia glands flowing

Much like the absolutely awesome Spelunky, Spelunker HD dumps your little explorer in a cavernous environment filled with danger. The caves you explore are completely different from those seen in the original games, so seasoned experts of those games will have a whole new world to explore. The game doesn't scroll constantly, nor is it a single 'flick' screen affair. Instead, it scrolls a certain amount in one direction before the screen stops for a second and moves to reveal the next chunk of the stage. It is a strange choice and can lead to unnecessary deaths due to not being able to see what is ahead of you, but this is how it was in the original and so is authentic to the Spelunker experience. 

The game features ten areas, each containing ten stages, in which the usual assortment of cave dwelling critters are out to get you. Bats, snakes, spiders and fish are all out to make your life a misery, as well as some unusual choices such as hopping lizard things and swooping birds (I didn't realise eagles lived in caves). On top of this, you also have to contend with a ghost who will appear every now and then, signified by the music changing to a spooky melody, floating towards you from a random side of the screen. To temporarily banish him you must use your hand fan (yes, really) to blow him away. It looks more like the Ghostbusters' proton pack so let's pretend it's one of those as that's far cooler. The ghost can come in different sizes, taking longer to evaporate in massive form, and can also split into multiple smaller ghosts. Needless to say he is a pain in the ass. If you have played Spelunky then you will be familiar with the concept (and if you haven't then I demand you stop reading this and go do so immediately), but Spelunker on NES did it first.

 The ice area is an absolute bastard. Slippery floors and ropes are NOT fun

Keeping you on your toes is your limited supply of oxygen which depletes at a steady rate, and can only be topped up by collecting energy items that look like ice lollys. These are in fairly plentiful supply, so as long as you don't hang around too long or get lost you should be OK. Bombs and flares can also be collected, the former for blasting away rocks that block your path, or secret walls, and the latter for firing into the air to scare away shitting bats and swooping birds. Keys are the most important pick-up as each coloured key unlocks the corresponding door, and finding them all is mandatory. The end of level checkpoint, a golden statue, is locked behind multiple doors and so you will have to explore every inch of each stage to locate the required keys. Thankfully the stages, while large, aren't too confusing, and if you do get a little lost, there is always the mini-map at the bottom right of the screen to assist you. 

   Later levels really turn up the heat

So you make your way through the caves, collecting keys, avoiding enemies, geysers, cave ins, rolling boulders, cascading water, flames and more, trying to locate the statue. You also have to be careful not to blow yourself up with your own bombs or get burnt by your flares as they fall from the air, so a hasty retreat is required each time you use them. It is immensely satisfying to reach the end of an area, and exciting to see where you will find yourself next and what is waiting for you when you get there. Spelunker constantly throws surprises at you throughout its entirety, and you really get the feeling that you are descending into the unknown. I don't want to spoil anything but let's just say that there are bigger, and stranger, things than bats and spiders lurking in the furthest depths of the caves. 

Timing your jumps perfectly is everything in Spelunker HD

Your worst enemy in Spelunker HD is actually yourself, more precisely your jump. Yes, the irritating cheap deaths of the original remain here and sure, I died many times after walking off an edge or jumping from too great a height, but it is much easier on you than the 80's classic. The game feels more forgiving and much fairer than before, and most (but not all) deaths feel like your own fault. There is a handy rope assist option that prevents you from falling off ropes by accidentally holding left or right while climbing (believe me, in the original this happened a lot), so I recommend you turn this on before starting. 

You can save and quit out of the game at any point, allowing you to continue later, which is essential for a game of this size. Even if you run out of lives and get the game over screen, you can still reload your last save and retry from that stage. This is an absolute lifesaver, as having to restart from the beginning after reaching level 30 or higher would be unbearable. It's also pretty generous with the lives, dishing them out at checkpoints and as pick-ups throughout the levels. You will still need to be skilled at platform games to get very far though as, while not as hard as Spelunky, it's a challenging game that will weed out the platforming novices from the hardcore.

Finding the keys is essential for finishing the level, thankfully your mini-map can assist you in your search

Spelunker HD is an incredibly enjoyable game, and you will soon become addicted. Once you get used to the limitations set by the game and don't jump off ladders and platforms willy-nilly, as comes naturally after years of playing more forgiving platformers, you can engross yourself in the depths and really start to enjoy the exploration. In fact I can safely say it is one of the most playable platformers I have experienced for a long time, successfully scratching the itch I had for some Spelunky meets Rick Dangerous meets, of course, Spelunker action. That was until I reached the ice world, and my love for the game faltered slightly. Ever since platform games have been around, developers have thought it necessary to add ice worlds, complete with irritating slippery platforms that make even the simplest of actions a huge pain in the ass. In Spelunker HD your character flips and flops around on the ice like butter in a hot pan, and even ropes become slippery. It's a complete cluster fuck and I am sure it will be the straw that breaks the back of many gamers. Persist through these levels though and it's back to familiar ground and having lots of fun again.

The caves can be explored by 6 players simultaneously

For the strong of will and nimble of hands there is Championship Mode. You get 50 lives to beat a ten stage area (known as EX stages), no mean feat considering that the game throws everything at you all at once. It is brutal, yes, but it gives you a serious test of skill that will be welcome once you have beaten the game, though the mode doesn't require you to have done so in order to play it. There are also a heap of downloadable levels you can buy to extend Championship Mode even further.

Not only can lone players tackle the huge single player campaign, but multiple players can enjoy some co-op action, either locally or online, though I couldn't find anyone online to play with (sob sob) despite multiple attempts. When I found a game in progress I was overjoyed, only to have my dreams shattered by the fact I wasn't allowed to join a session in progress. This barren online arena may be due to all the poor reviews of this game floating around online, clearly written by people who don't know how to play it properly (or a good game when it comes up and bites them on the ass). Well pish and tosh to all those naysayers who have derided Spelunker HD, because it is one of the best games (platform or otherwise) money can buy. It sits right up there with Spelunky as a modern 2D platformer with its roots firmly stuck in the past, and not giving a shit about scaring off novice gamers.

  The ghost is a persistant bugger, never giving up, regardless of how many times you vapourise him

I came to Spelunker HD expecting the worst, but was genuinely blown away by how enjoyable it is and, equally baffled by why it has received such negative press. I strongly urge you to ignore all these misguided reviews you have read and purchase it immediately. If you love it as much as I do then feel free to comment here / shower me with gifts. If you hate it, then please follow these instructions to the letter; form a fist shape with your hand, clenching tightly and covering your index and middle finger with your thumb. Turn your fist towards yourself so that you can see all four knuckles, with the thumb on the right. Move the fist towards your face as quickly as you can, be sure to use as much force as your strength will allow. Repeat this process until you are laying horizontal with consciousness slipping from your grasp. When you awaken, go back to step one and repeat.

For the rest of you, bathe in the warm glow of Spelunker HD and show your appreciation for such a hugely playable and insanely addictive slice of retro gaming by buying it, and coming online to share the love. I hope to see you in the caves soon.

The Good

  • Nice (but not outstanding) HD visuals with option to use NES style
  • Very addictive and exceptionally good fun to play
  • Challenging, with a high sense of reward
  • Catchy music
  • Huge amount of levels
  • Championship Mode adds further challenge
  • Online scoreboards

The Bad

  • Can take a while to get used to the mechanics, but once you do... wow.
  • Impossible to find anyone playing online

Developer : Tozai Games
System Reviewed : PS3
Price : £7.99

Note – Tozai has also just released (January 17th) the Spelunker Collection on the Japanese Playstation Network. This amazing compilation contains the 1984 Spelunker original, as well as the Arcade and NES versions, and the sequel, Spelunker 2 : 23 Keys. Apparently it is coming to the USA later this year, but no word on a European release yet. Fingers crossed this does come to the UK as, for fans, it will be absolutely essential.