Spelunky is a game about failure. It's difficult, ruthless and incredibly brutal. The game makes no effort to be accessible or ease in new players with a graduated difficulty curve. Don't let the cute façade fool you. Spelunky will happily kick your ass, but the beautiful thing is it keeps you coming back for more. The game smartly makes every death feel justified, ensuring that "just one more time" is a constant refrain.
If Spelunky's screenshots seem familiar, it's because the XBLA version of the game is a reworking of the PC original. Crafted in Game Maker and first released in 2008, the PC version of Spelunky was a hit among indie game fans. Inspired by rogue-style games, Spelunky features random levels and permanent death.
Described as a "reboot" by its developer, the XBLA version of Spelunky got its start when Jonathan Blow (the man behind Braid), recommended it to Microsoft. Looking at the two side by side, the core elements of Spelunky haven't changed, but a lot has been added to justify the 1,200 MSP ($15 USD) asking price.
The most obvious update is the high-definition overhaul. Spelunky may evoke an 8-bit look, but all of its sprites look absolutely gorgeous in HD. Characters are bright, colorful and instantly recognizable. This is especially important in Spelunky, as certain traps mean instant death. Being able to spot them in advance is one of your main survival skills.
Many of the monsters, items and traps are from the original, but there are also quite a few new additions specifically for the XBLA version of the game. In short, even if you've played the original, Spelunky for XBLA won't feel like a retread.
When Spelunky says the level design is random, it means it. Every time you die, you start from the beginning of the game with every level reset. You never get the chance to learn a specific level because, quite frankly, it's doubtful that you'll ever see the same level twice. Instead, each set of four levels shares a common set of enemies, traps and obstacles. The goal is to learn their behaviors, so you can handle whatever the game throws at you. Rather than mastering individual levels, Spelunky challenges you to master high-level patterns.
After completing a set of levels multiple times, you'll be rewarded with a shortcut. This allows you to bypass the mastered sets, though it'll prevent you from earning certain Achievements. Taking a shortcut also means your scores won't be uploaded to the leaderboards.
So, with all these randomly generated levels, Spelunky must be a pretty massive game, right? Not at all. In fact, it's possible to run through every single level in the game in less than eight minutes. In reality, there's absolutely no chance of someone doing that on the first try or even the 10th try. The game really is that challenging.
What will keep you coming back for more is the fairness of it all. You have to accept the fact that you're going to die. You're going to mess up. You're going to swear at the TV. Through it all, you'll know exactly why you died, and cheap deaths in Spelunky are an extreme rarity. As a result, what would be an annoyingly frustrating experience in most any other game is surprisingly satisfying here.
Spelunky also has a multiplayer mode, allowing up to four players to cruise through the adventure or duke it out in deathmatch. The deathmatch rounds can also be played solo, with bots filling in the extra slots. Unfortunately, all of the multiplayer action is local, so there's no way to go head-to-head over Xbox Live. As a couch co-op option, though, it's great. Deathmatch isn't quite as exciting due to its spastic nature. Whereas Spelunky's adventure mode feels finely tuned, deathmatch feels like everyone's randomly spamming buttons to see who comes out on top.
If you're easily frustrated, you might want to pass on Spelunky, but anyone who loves a challenge is going to find hours of enjoyment buried within. Learning how to effectively use every tool in the game, fighting off hordes of enemies and rescuing damsels in distress may sound repetitive, but if there is one thing that Spelunky can guarantee, it's that no two games will ever be alike.
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