Review: Spelunky

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Spelunky will always have a special place in my heart. We go way back, back to when it was a freeware release that I stumbled across in my treks across the online wasteland. It was actually the first roguelike game I ever played, and my adventures with it served as a gateway all the way back to the likes of NetHack and IVAN. There’s little doubt in my mind that Spelunky can ignite that roguelike love in the hearts of even the most jaded gamers, but even beyond that it stands as an impressive and entertaining platforming adventure.

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You play as the most adorable button-nosed spelunker imaginable, Indiana Jones fedora and whip and all. Dropped into a series of randomly-generated platform levels, you must navigate the deadly traps of the mines, jungles, and stranger places in search of fantastic treasure. There’s plenty of gold and jewels lying around along with a wide assortment of tools and weapons, everything from climbing gloves to jetpacks, boomerangs to freeze guns. While each level is navigable just by running, jumping, and mantling, there are untold options for getting through each by using your supply of bombs or other means to clear out parts of the terrain, or your climbing ropes to scale otherwise impassable heights.

It’s the huge wealth of options presented right from the start that makes Spelunky such a joy, and those extend to the hilarious ways you can die, too. Almost everything in the game has weight to it, and can be deadly if sent flying in just the right way. Arrows from arrow traps can bounce and deflect, thrown stones can ricochet back, and even the otherwise harmless debris from explosions can trigger other traps or blasts. The enormous number of interactions between the elements of the world means that many of your deaths will be cartoonish, Rube Goldbergian chains of mishaps that start with you dropping a skull onto a trap and end with you and half of the level crushed into a pit of lava by a giant rolling boulder.

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Really the only thing you need to make peace with in this game is that you’re going to die. A lot. That’s the boilerplate warning for any roguelike but with Spelunky, it can become personal. Much of the experimenting you’re going to do early in the game, like “can I dodge that arrow trap” and “what’s at the bottom of the ice cave”, will end in your immediate and sometimes hilarious death. You’ve got to be ready to laugh at your misfortune, though, because like I said it can happen from simply dropping the wrong rock in the wrong place. Some of the items like the teleporter almost seem designed to hasten your demise with just how much can go wrong with it. But if you can find the humor instead of the rage, Spelunky becomes a non-stop comedy of errors even after you get good at it and start winning runs.

Rare is the game that makes the failures as satisfying as the successes, but Spelunky does it with reckless abandon. Once you learn the quirks of the game, though, there are plenty of secrets and challenges besides just winning. Hidden levels abound, there’s a chain of secret items that can lead you to a fantastic city of gold, and the most daring among you can attempt the hellish alternate ending. Along the way there are damsels to save, stores to peruse, and tunnels to dig, all logged in collectible style in your journal. There’s also daily challenges and local co-op if you’ve decided you’re tired of having friends, because there is no way you won’t “accidentally” kill them about a thousand times. But when even death is this fun, it’s hard to complain at all.

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