The time has finally come Sony fans, Spelunky is here. For more than a year, Xbox 360 owners have enjoyed plunging the depths of the randomly generated, tough-as-nails caves that make up the classic indie hit from Derek Yu and his team at Mossmouth. With the game now available for the PS3 and PS Vita is it the perfect time to pick up this downloadable gem?
The world of Spelunky is riddled with death. It’s lurking in the shadows, hiding under rocks and flying overhead. More than anything, though, it is right out in the open. Players select a brave adventurer who has set out to find the secrets of a mysterious cave. What drives him or her? It changes with every new adventure. The game generates a few cryptic lines in the opening cutscene about a love interest or a mysterious map or following in a father’s footsteps, nothing more. But no matter what, the cave’s layout keeps changing and the player always “revives” after death. Those familiar with the varied difficulty of roguelikes will recognize the formula.
A generous tutorial shows the basics, letting players dip their toes into Spelunky’s mechanics. A whip, bombs and ropes are the only tools initially given to players. With it’s short distance the whip can kill several smaller enemies with one hit, larger ones will take more effort. Not only can bombs blow up tougher foes but they can turn rocks and about everything else into a fine powder. Sometimes a bomb will be the only way to access certain parts of the room or get to an item surrounded by rock. Ropes are used for climbing when a simple jump won’t do. In the first few levels players will begin to learn that snakes and spiders can hide in pots. They will learn to carry around a rock or skull to trigger a statue that shoots out an arrow capable of shaving off two hit points (the game gives four at the onset). Many of these lessons are learned the hard way – death.
Unlike a game such as Rogue Legacy where experience can be used to level up after death, Spelunky strips everything away from the player after dying. Except, of course, the knowledge they gained from the previous life. Becoming familiar with enemy patterns and AI is essential to survival. Understanding when to be patient with jumps and plan ahead is one of the best ways to prevent frustration. There is no denying that Spelunky is an incredibly difficult game. A constant barrage of traps and tough creatures will terrorize the player. Just like in Dark Souls, learning the ropes of everything is no easy task. Often it is a large part of the game’s enjoyment. It’s a small triumph being able to reach the end of some sections with only one bit of health intact.
Luck is often a big deciding factor on progress. At times it feels like one playthrough is catered to victory while others hinder advancement at every juncture. It isn’t uncommon to find a jetpack or shotgun tucked away in a crate while in another game it’s nearly impossible to find a spare bomb without having to drop some cash. Other times a life-giving damsel (in the form of woman, man or Pug) will be buried deep under rocks when in a previous stage they were right out in the open. In a sense, the game teaches you not to get greedy. Hubris will shatter the hopes of many who think that one fantastic item is the key to victory. But one of the biggest sore spots behind Spelunky are a handful of questionable mechanics that, for a lack of a better term, seem unfair. Luck and randomness are par for the course in a roguelike. Sometimes, however, the player will awkwardly throw a rock and it will bounce off a wall onto their head from a meager distance and reduce health. A stray arrow triggered by an enemy can still cause two points of damage if it unsuspectingly hits the player from above. It is also worth mentioning that the invincibility window after getting damaged is also virtually nonexistent. Obviously many of these factors play into the idea of being careful but they can sometimes spoil a run that is going good.
Spelunky can no doubt be a grueling game and break a lot of spirits. Much of that can be alleviated with practice. Hundreds of lives might pass before even reaching the end or discovering the “true ending” but a lot of fun can be had in learning new ways to tackle exhaustingly tough challenges. Even a seasoned player can still die just as swiftly from a bed of spikes or a long drop. The difficultly doesn’t change the fact that Spelunky is absolutely addictive in how it plays. Some of the longest runs will only go a little over a half an hour and most might only be a few minutes. Players are discouraged from spending too much time sightseeing because a ghost capable of delivering instant death chases the player when too much time has run out. Only those who have reached a boiling point will want to stop because a new life and a new chance is only a few button presses away.
Graphics & Sound
While much of the game’s success can be attributed to its addictive nature, a lot of appeal can be found in the unique art style. Enormous spiders, poisonous snakes, vampires and shotgun-wielding shopkeepers are all deadly but have a wonderfully animated appeal. It might not border on the “cartoony” but the game is flooded with color and charming character design. Screenshots and videos rarely do the game any justice. Seeing it in action is the purest way to enjoy how crisp of a game Spelunky is. The game might shine on any HDTV but it really dazzles on the Vita. The OLED screen has always made games look great. With games like Spelunky, the colors really do come out. The game also runs ridiculously smooth. Frame rate hiccups and slowed performance are completely absent even when everything is exploding in circles of blood.
Relying purely on a soundtrack and a scant few sound effects, Spelunky doesn’t have much to say. Voices would be completely pointless for the experience but the complete absence of some quirky creature sounds is a questionable omission at times. With such an interesting array of foes, adding some more sounds would have added to the atmosphere. Then again, the lack of it doesn’t detract from the focus of the game either.
Controls on the Vita might not be as tight as they would be on a DualShock 3 but they are solid. Though players can use the control sticks for movement, the directional buttons traditionally offer a tighter experience. Pulling off a tricky jump in Spelunky is usually only an issue with timing. The game controls well and only feels unwieldy when running or being knocked unconscious. There are moments when a stupid fall or accidental nudge in a certain direction will lead to a loss of hit points or life. Sometimes it’s because jumps don’t stick like they should, a lot of times it’s because of a stupid screw-up.
Imagine what it would be like to be Indiana Jones. Now imagine being Indiana Jones and constantly getting crushed by that rolling rock of death despite getting that fabled treasure. Spelunky puts players through a lot of pain and suffering but does so in a way that is as fun as it is tough. Every death will help the player in their efforts to brave the challenges that await them. Purchasing Spelunky through the PSN will net players both versions of the game. With Cross Buy and Cross Play it’s a great deal. For Vita owners, Spelunky is a must have. Being able to play on the go while stopping and starting levels on the fly might just make this the definitive version of the game. It’s a thrilling adventure that shouldn’t be missed.