Like chain smoking, heavy drinking or rampant substance abuse, Spelunky is a glorious bad habit. It’s an addiction you can’t seem to wean yourself off from. No matter how hard you try to switch off your Xbox 360, you’re doomed to succumb to those three hypnotic words in your head the moment you hit the game over screen, “one more try”.
Which is surprising, simply because right from the outset, there’s absolutely no reason for you to be head over heels for a game that looks more in step with the graphical leaps of the late 80s and early 90s. Big sprites, cute characters and primitive animations make up the framework of this oddly appealing game. It looks like something that would be right at home on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) than something as powerful as the Xbox 360.
Nonetheless, it’s harmless but adorable presentation is just the bait that lures you into an abyss of pleasurable hell. Spelunky has you cast in the role of an explorer who has to traverse the deep and dangerous expanses of an underground network of tunnels and caves. It takes place in typical platforming fashion where you jump from one safe location to another. There are a slew of devices at your disposal if you can find the merchant hiding in each level (we’ll get to this in the next paragraph). These include bombs, ropes and parachutes, along with a few others that would help make your arduous journey to the depths a little more tolerable.
As we mentioned, you’ll have to find the merchant hiding in each cave. Given how the game was developed, each level is randomly generated. Every time you die, you’re treated to a somewhat different layout, which more or less makes the great mugging skills and strong memory our educational system has forcefully bestowed upon us completely useless. However, this arbitrary placement of entities isn’t just restricted to merchants. Try exit zones, platforms, treasures, traps, monsters and even the option of rescuing the damsel in distress in each level. All of this leads to an experience that has you spending more time flinging your controller to the ground than playing the game. This lasts for the first few minutes.
After those initial troubling moments, it settles into a fine groove of jumping, exploration, inevitable death, followed by a retry. The cycle then continues long into the night and before you know it, it’s already daybreak. What makes Spelunky so damn playable is it’s single-minded focus on delivery; gameplay that at it’s core has you craving for more. Much like its presentation, the game plays like a throwback to the heady platforming days of yesteryear. You won’t find save points, cut-scenes, elaborate plots or any other devices that detract from the experience, which includes running down caves, avoiding obstacles and jumping a lot. The controls are simple to use and feel just right; you never end up feeling like your character is too heavy or too light.
Similarly, you never end up thinking that the number of items at your disposal is too much or too few. This is despite being limited to using one item at a time, weapons included. The balance is superb. And it is this masterful equilibrium between controls, inventory and level design that makes Spelunky a fun game to play. You never feel distracted or overburdened with excessive information. Instead, you’re too busy moving from one ledge to the next.
Tacked on multiplayer isn't a good thing
Thanks to the random level generation, predicting the layout of a cave from memory can be dangerous. Honing your instincts to react to your surroundings is a better ploy. Each time you lose a life or are greeted by a 'Game Over' screen, it is due to your fault alone. There is no way you could end up blaming the game for your character’s deaths, for all of it is a direct result of your actions; be it stepping on traps, being chased by monsters or even angering a shopkeeper (they tend to keep shotguns to deal with annoying players). Jumped on some spikes? You weren’t looking properly. Couldn’t get past a few baddies in a tunnel? You didn’t buy the right items or react quickly enough. Every time you find yourself starting a tunnel devoid of any items, you can beat yourself up instead of throwing away your controller in disgust. If there’s one thing you can’t fault Spelunky for, it’s for being a fair game.
Multiplayer though, feels like another game altogether. The cooperative mode, which allows you and three other explorers to brave these underground caverns for fame and fortune, is okay. But the deathmatch mode feels forced. There’s no way anyone would have fun laying traps and causing the death of other players in such retro surroundings. It just ends up being an attempt to saddle an unnecessary game mode to justify the price of 1,200 MS Points (roughly Rs. 1,000).
Which brings us to the final part of the review - Spelunky is a classic example of a game that takes a few seconds to learn but an eternity to master. The game ends up feeling too little a game for the price. With games like Comic Jumper and ‘Splosion Man being 400 MS Points cheaper, there are equally interesting albeit slightly dated options available on the Xbox India Marketplace.
It's a bit expensive
So, much like every other hopeless addiction we’ve come across, Spelunky manages to fill each check box on the list of broken dreams. Namely, easy to get hooked in, tough to get out of and the inevitable realisation that its cost can’t be rationalised in any way whatsoever. None of this means you shouldn’t pick it up at a lower price, though. In this case, one of three isn’t too shabby at all.
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