Armed with a few bombs and some rope, my adventurer trekked off in search of treasure, mystery, and the odd damsel in distress to save. The bombs and rope make reaching areas possible, the treasure adds up quickly, and the mystery is near nonexistent. While I appreciated the option of choosing my damsel type (the pug dog was a nice touch), I wasn't too keen on the knocking-them-out-to-take-them-out-of-the-dungeon part. Despite this, things were going smoothly enough, and I was almost to the end of the level. Then, just as I was about to depart with my dog in tow, I landed on a spike trap and died in an explosion of fuchsia-colored blood for what was, by my count, the thirtieth time.
This is the experience of playing Spelunky, a game with a nostalgic art style, randomly generated dungeons, and some of the most patience-testing gameplay I've ever encountered. This is a game that seemed to be mocking me from the moment I beat the tutorial.
With an unforgivingly high difficulty curve, Spelunky is all about punishing you as a player from the moment you're set loose into the game, as with each deadly misstep you make, you find yourself returned to the very beginning of a level, to experience it all over again, with the platform areas completely reorganized, and no easily memorized path to the exit, or any hints on how to make this easier. There is no experience gained or lost from the gameplay, but the repeated attempts at completing stages is not very rewarding, and, in fact, had me abandoning the game on two or three occasions out of pure frustrations.
Spelunky bills itself as a randomly generated platformer. In theory, this sounds like a great idea, but the finished product is not what I had in mind. I expected a game where the level builds as I move through it, not a game where the platforms are just flipped upside down or spaced slightly differently each time I try to complete a stage. The randomness works against the game, as in spite of the colorful backgrounds, the levels begin to feel like punishment. Areas feel familiar at first, but quickly turn against the player, and repeated meanderings through the same dungeon over and over again, with platforms in slightly different places than before, does not encourage the player to really continue forward.
The mechanics of Spelunky are fine, and the game runs perfectly, with no freeze-ups or halts. Where it continually loses me is in its difficulty, and its lack of reward. Unlike the notoriously difficult Dark Souls, Spelunky has no skills to teach; there is no learning curve here, you don't really get better at this game, you just figure out how not to step wrong off of ledges. Even after I felt comfortable with the gameplay, I didn't feel any sense of accomplishment, and depended mostly on dumb luck to escape stages without dying horribly, usually leaving loot behind for lack of interest, and intent only on saving my own skin. My dumb luck wore out quickly, though, and I was booted back to the beginning, to take the ride all over again.
There is an argument that games in general are getting soft in the difficulty area, and are too accommodating to players who are unfamiliar with their mechanics. I personally don't see this as a problem if a player can learn how to play a game and then adjust the difficulty curve as they grow more comfortable. Gaming is as much a learning experience as anything else, but Spelunky is not content to be something so dull. You do not learn skills so much as punishments in this game. One simple mistake punishes you for what feels like a wasted five minutes of time, and after numerous five-minute wastes, I couldn't help thinking that I had other games to play.
Spelunky is one of that games that instills a deep love-hate feeling in a player. On the one hand, I love the presentation, the electronic cheesy adventure music, and the colorful environments. However, there is a fine line between challenge and patience-testing, and this game is, for me, the latter. A challenging game has the opportunity to teach a player how to play, without feeling like it's holding your hand; learning from mistakes ensures that a player performs better and more effectively in game. A challenging game should not, however, feel punishing and frustrating for the simple attempt of playing it. It should also do its best to not make a gamer think on the other games close at hand.
There are some gamers who are going to rise to the challenge of Spelunky and they will love it. There are a few people out there who thrive on this kind of masochistic gameplay. I am not one of those people, and I did not enjoy this game. I will say that I have a grudging respect for the game for what it is doing, but I do not see myself plunging into the mines again anytime soon.
The Official Verdict: 3 out of 5
This review is based on a Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher.