Spelunking is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby.” It is also the cover story that Bruce Wayne used in Batman Begins when he was acquiring equipment to explore the ground beneath Wayne Manor to create his Batcave.
There is a slight theme here: exploring caves. This is what you find yourself doing in Spelunky, a hit PC-indie game which was recently released on the Xbox 360 via the Arcade. Having never played the original computer version, I eagerly bought the game on the Xbox, prompted by the passing mention of the real world hobby in the aforementioned Batman movie. I will say this, I have never played a game quite like Spelunky, it is certainly unique and it is very, very good.
You take control over an unnamed adventurer with the simple goal of exploring an elaborate, ever changing cave system that contains four distinct zones. It is also very challenging, I have only progressed to the second zone once so far after 33 deaths. You will get used to dying very quickly, whether it is from falling, dropping a bomb too close to your feet, setting off a trap or getting attacked by an angry shopkeeper. That is just a fraction of the deaths you will experience, but it is worth remembering that you start with four lives when you enter the first stage of the game, the Mines.
My best death, (if you can ever call a death your best) came from a long fall down a shaft (one life gone), on landing I was immediately hit by an arrow from a trap (second life) which sent me flying into a snake (third life gone) which sent me to my final ruin on some spikes.
I am sure that if I manage to progress deeper into the Jungle (the second zone) or further I would encounter even more bizarre and hilarious deaths. Not that I would ever purposely kill my little spelunker, once you die you have to go all the way back to the first Mine level. So all that treasure you have hoarded through your journey just disappears once you die, and it isn’t a case of retracing your steps from the first level once again, every level in Spelunky is randomly generated and rendered in a beautiful 2D environment. Thanks to the random levels, you might have a wonderfully easy first level with treasure everywhere and a shopkeeper selling the rarest of items waiting for you. Or you might start with a level in the dark with only a small torch to light your path through the skeletons, snakes and spiders.
One of my favourite moments was seeing a shopkeeper pacing around a room deeply surrounded by earth with two boxes for company. He didn’t have anything to sell, he was just pacing back and forth. In the next level of the Mines I encountered a spinning wheel, where for the princely sum of $2500 I could try my luck at winning some more money or a pair of magic boots. After a few spins I manage to come out $500 ahead, I think he was running a fixed wheel to be honest. While in some games, this kind of tomfoolery and the temptation of a free pair of boots might tempt you to kill the shopkeep, that is easier said than done in Spelunky where the shopkeepers will quite happily blast you away with a shotgun.
As you get used to the game you realise that there is always a choice to be made, one that could either pay off handsomely, or lead to your ruin. You might see the Damsel, you gives you an extra life at level end, in the same chamber as the Idol which will give you a healthy cash bonus. The only problem lies in the fact that taking the Idol will set off a massive rolling boulder which might come into contact with a shopkeeper thus sending that shotgun toting retailer into a blind rage. Trouble is doubled though as you can only carry one special item at a time, and there is the risk that if you get the damsel to safety and get back to the Idol that the Ghost will arrive to hurry you to the exit. You certainly don’t want to waste your time twiddling your thumbs in Spelunky.
(I must mention that there is a co-operative mode, I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet as it is local only, a great shame that you can’t play online with some friends.)
Spelunky is one of the finest indie games on the market at the moment, both on the PC and the 360 version which I played. It is a wonderful little adventure, albeit one full of death. A must buy.
Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available – PC, 360
Platform Reviewed – 360
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