...once you learn how to play by its rules, its exemplary level design takes a simplistic platformer and knocks it out of the park.
Spelunker is a classic platforming game that has been released on several platforms. Each iteration of the game from its debut on the Atari to its jump onto the NES is known for one thing: Merciless difficulty. Tozai Games, the now sole agent of the Spelunker IP, thought it would be nice to update this classic game, and people everywhere (mostly Japanese) are delighted with the result. Spelunker HD isn’t just a graphically updated version of the 6-stage NES game. Rather, Tozai has taken it upon themselves to develop over 200 stages that are startlingly similar in style to those found in the original Spelunker. To some, this means that there’s a whole lot of cave to be spelunked. To many, though, it simply means that there are more ways to meet your demise.
In Spelunker, you play the role of… a spelunker. Your unequaled passion for exploring caves and obtaining treasures will be challenged constantly, for you have chosen the most dangerous cave in the world to practice your hobby. To boot, you’re not really the best spelunker out there. You will die if you fall from too high. You’ll die if you touch a snake. You’ll die from the many ghosts that inhabit the cave. You’ll die from the flares you launch or the bombs you drop, and yes, you will die from being shat on by bats. Basically, you will die. The sooner you can come to terms with this fact, the sooner you will be able to get over it and learn to play the game.
What amazes me about Spelunker (and its difficulty) is how simple the game is. It’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer with a handful of limitations. As I previously mentioned, you can’t fall too far, lest you will die. This means that every jump must be calculated and every move must be second-guessed. If you walk onto a seedy-looking piece of rock, it will likely disappear and you will fall into a pit, losing a life. You’re equipped with flares, bombs, and the balls to keep spelunking after dying hundreds of times. Flares will scare away flying enemies and light up secret stairs. In later levels, flares will light up the screen when it goes black. Bombs blow up rocks that are in your way, as well as scaring away snakes. They can also be used to blast suspicious looking walls, unearthing precious gems and hidden tablet pieces. Again, you must be careful with your tools. Standing underneath a falling flair will lead to a death, as will standing near a bomb as it goes off. A big part of the platforming in Spelunker comes in the form of rope climbing. To get to practically anywhere in the game, you’ll need to learn how to shimmy up and down ropes and jump from one to another. For those of you who tend to slide off of the sides of ropes, there is a rope-assist option that limits you to vertical rope movement.
There are a bunch of different modes in Spelunker HD. Solo Excursion is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll make your way through ten different levels in a quest to gain phat lootz and set high scores. Each level contains 10 stages. The levels are impressively varied, ranging from plain caves to icy caverns to alien research facilities. The best thing about the different levels is that each one will find new ways to kill you. Just when you thought you knew everything to look out for, a golem will come alive (stage 3 spoiler) and stomp you to dust. It keeps you on point and in check, constantly reminding you to think twice before moving forth. Group Excursion allows you to play online and offline with fellow Spelunkers. Each stage is slightly different than its single-player counterpart, which is a nice touch. The online mode allows up to 6 players. It resizes the screens so that you play in one that’s about one-third the size of your TV, while five small screens are lined around the sides. At first I thought this style of screen splitting would be a problem, but after a few minutes of playing, I got used to it. I actually like the way it’s set up, as you’ll be able to see what other people are doing on their screens. Since the game supports voice chat, you’ll be able to talk strats and split up to make for fast-paced cave-crawling. You can also play the game locally with up to three other people. The screen is split into fourths no matter how many other people are playing. For some reason, the resolution is a bit smaller than it should be. I had to manually zoom in on my TV to get the screen to fit, and even then it was a bit small. The game also features a Competitive mode, which allows you to race others on five different stages. It’s an incredibly fun mode, since you’re encouraged to bomb/flare your opponents on your way to the finish line.
High scores. That’s what Spelunker HD is all about. Collecting items, gems, and staying alive will net you points, which will net you lives, which will lengthen your excursion, ad infinitum. The game’s loading screen, though you’ll seldom see it, is really cool. It starts out completely blank, and by collecting hidden tablet pieces, you’ll start filling in a huge mural. As if any added incentive to play was needed, there are 200 pieces to collect in all, one in each solo and each group stage. Watching the mural fill up is pretty cool, I have to say. You can choose to play the entire game with either the new, 2.5D graphics, or retro-style 8-bit graphics. I prefer the updated graphics because it’s easier to see where hidden items are located. It would have been nice to have chiptune music to accompany the retro graphics, but the new tunes are so good that I can’t really complain.
I may sound masochistic in my platforming tastes, but Spelunker HD’s punishing difficulty is exactly what makes it a masterpiece in my opinion. It’s a simple game, but once you learn how to play by its rules, its exemplary level design takes a simplistic platformer and knocks it out of the park. The added features, modes, and detailed leaderboards are just the icing on the cake. If this game looks remotely interesting to you at all, I highly recommend picking it up. Add me and invite me to play; I’ll teach you how to spelunk.
For more info on our review policy click here. This review is for the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
What I Like:
What I Dislike:
Developer:Irem Software Engineering
Release Date:November 2010
Players:1-4 (Local), 2-6 (Online)