“XBLA. Why Did It Have to Be XBLA?”
Three years after Spelunky was released as freeware on the PC to rave reviews, the smash indie hit has made its way to the Xbox Live Arcade. While the XBLA version doesn’t come for free, it does feature all the graphical upgrades that you’d expect from the platform (and three years’ worth of time). It doesn’t sacrifice anything in the gameplay department, and developer Derek Yu has made sure that no punches were pulled in maintaining Spelunky‘s trademark notorious difficulty. As a result, the 360 has gained a title that, as many already know, quickly draws you into its hypnotizing spell, severely punishing you for it all the while.
Spelunky is a game you don’t so much play; rather, you submit to it. Some may call it a roguelike – it is essentially a 2D platformerwith several roguelike qualities, most notably randomly generated levels, merciless insta-death, and no save or check points in between levels. You are the spelunker – sometimes referred to as Indie, due to his outward similarities to a certain professor of archaeology (and, of course, the humble origins of the game itself) – and it is your job, your passion, to seek out the secrets buried deep beneath the earth in great burial chambers and mine tunnels, and gather all the treasure you can. Of course, nothing in life is ever that easy, and, as you’ll soon discover, Spelunky exacts a high toll on your patience and skill as a gamer if you want to emerge victorious.
We Named the Dog ‘Spelunky‘
Spelunky ranks up there as one of the most grueling gaming experiences you’re likely to have in your career as a gamer. Indie begins the game with four hit points, and every hit will take off at least one point of health, with some hazards (spike traps, etc) counting as instant kills. And the caves are stuffed to the brim with deadly creatures. Giant spiders, poisonous cobras, flesh-eating piranhas and blood-sucking bats are just the tip of the iceberg, the least of your concerns. In the dark depths of later levels, the foulest cave-dwelling horror can and will go bump in the night! And that’s just the living (and sometimes un-living) dangers you’ll face. Treacherous darkness, projectile arrows, crushing boulders, underground lakes and more are just some of the environmental dangers looking to crush you into explorer paste. Armed with nothing but your trusty whip (of course! What else would it be?), you must seek the exit and delve deeper and deeper into the heart of the underground tunnels.
But the dark depths aren’t filled only with traps and monsters. Amazingly enough, a band of shopkeepers have made their homes in the foreboding tunnels, willing to sell helpful items, weapons, helpers, even health to treasure seekers with the means to pay for them. But don’t mistake their odd business sense for weakness; cross one of these shopkeepers, and he will become your bitterest enemy, hunting you for dear life, even going so far as to alert other shopkeepers of your misdeeds and to be on the lookout for you. The caverns hide mystical secrets, as well. Rare magical artifacts await discovery, and if you’re willing to brave the booby traps, perhaps the goddess Kali will bless you if you return a certain golden idol to her altar. In terms of variety, if you can think of something that could be done in an ancient cave, Spelunky will likely let you do it.
Caves of the World
The game is split into four distinct worlds – the Mines, the Jungle, Ice Caves, and the Ancient Ruins – and each world has four stages that you have to advance through in order to continue. Sixteen stages doesn’t sound like a big deal. It is. Because you will die. A lot. Over and over again. And dying once will send you back to the start, guaranteed. No extra lives. No continues. No mercy.
However, despite this level of torture, the game continuously draws you back in; no sooner have you bitten dust than you’re already back up and at ’em, from the very beginning. The reason for this is that each and every stage is randomly generated every time you re-enter it, so no two stages are ever the same. That constant sense of discovery permeates Spelunky through and through, and it’s hard to stay mad at it for long. In fact, you’re more likely to take a break after you realize the game has just sucked several hours out of your day rather than ragequitting. It’s that fun!
Fresh attempts are quick to play; akin to similarly games that feed you ultra-challenging gameplay in bite-size chunks, like Super Meat Boy, a typical attempt at Spelunky will likely only take anywhere from two to six minutes (the latter for the experienced diehards!). Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to prolong your lifespan and extend your chances at success. Clearing all levels in a world and reaching the gateway to the next world will cause you to run into the Tunnel Man. This is a character that will, once you’ve paid him a certain sum of money, create a shortcut from the cave entrance to whatever world you’re currently up to, letting you jump right back into it whenever you die; this is as close to a check-point as Spelunky is willing to concede to you.
Your only other course of action is to replenish lost hit points in between stages. To do this, you’ll have to locate and take with you to the level’s end the damsel in distress; there’s one damsel per level, and she will restore one hit point to you prior to the next one – if you make it through the level. In this way, it is actually possible to exceed the four hit points you start the game with. However, should you fail to locate the damsel (or kill her/let her get killed, even), you’re on your own until the next level, when you’ll have a chance to do it all again.
A Tale of Two Spelunkies
If you’ve played the Windows version of Spelunky in the past, then everything I’ve just said has probably sounded very familiar to you. This is because the gameplay has remained virtually the same as it always has been, and why not? “If it ain’t broke…” and all that. But the 360 version does offer a treat in the form of beautifully re-worked visuals and an improved score. While better visuals are always appreciated, I did get the feeling that, in turn, the screen-size was somewhat reduced, and less of your surroundings were visible at any time than in the PC original. Sure, you could slide the camera slightly up or down to help plan treacherous drops into the unknown, but it does make navigating a tad more difficult.
Then there’s the biggie: Spelunky for the 360 offers a local multiplayer mode (no options for online), for both co-op gameplay and deathmatch competitions. However, deathmatch feels like an ill fit for this game; Spelunky is all about the exploration and lightning-quick survival reflexes, not about doling out death and damage by the bucketful. While co-op is a viable alternative to the single-player campaign, deathmatch feels hollow and unnecessarily tacked on, and is probably best avoided – in fact, with a campaign as intriguing as Spelunky‘s, deathmatch is definitely not needed. But even the co-op gameplay option is regrettably only available locally; not being able to join a friend’s trek through the Ancient Ruins via Xbox Live is a slap in the face, and pretty much phases the multiplayer options out of the game completely. You’ll be keeping this one all to your lonesome.
The Final Verdict
While Derek Yu certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel when porting Spelunky over to Xbox Live Arcade, it’s hard to ignore the game for its graphical and musical improvements while keeping the addictive qualities that made the original so playable. While it isn’t a perfect game, and players will more likely spend an hour or three at a time playing Spelunky and have absolutely no progress to show for it, it remains now, as ever, a game that is easily recommended and universally enjoyed. With its pick-up-and-play approach, gamers new and old will have a good time chewing on this one for months to come!