Spelunky Review: Retro Gaming Revived

Looking back on the games of days gone by, there are many things we think of fondly; the characters, the music, the style, even the game mechanics. But often what really sticks in our mind is the challenge; the classic games we love to look back on were the kind that would chew you up and spit you out without a second thought.

Spelunky is an indie game that channels the very essence of retro gaming. From the moment you start it up the 2D art style and chipper music take you back to those simpler times. Then to continue the old-school theme it promptly punches you right in the face with a harsh reality – this games is really hard and you will die a lot.

Developer: Mossmouth/ Derek Yu
Publisher: Independent
Platform: XBLA
Players: 1 – 4
Genre: Platformer/ Action Adventure
Release: July 4, 2012
Price: 1,200 Microsoft Points

Originally created as a 16-bit piece of PC freeware, Spelunky has amassed a significant following with its fun but unforgiving gameplay. The game’s style takes obvious cues from retro titles like Spelunker and La Mulana, not only in its difficulty but also with game elements and appearance. Now the stumpy explorer, colourful graphics and throwback tunes have been updated and adapted for their debut on Xbox Live Arcade. Plus new features like co-op and deathmatch modes to share the pain with friends, and online leaderboards to track your best scores and times.

Diamond Hard

The game puts you in the shoes of the little adventurer of your choice, journeying deep underground in search of gold, gems and exotic new lands. While it may lure you in with its cute style, make no mistake, the gameplay is absolutely unforgiving; each level layout is randomly generated, with enemies abound and traps lying in wait that can kill you in an instance. On top of watching out for snakes, frogs, bats, arrows, vampires, skeletons, yetis, insta-kill spikes and more, you can even be injured by long falls, your own bombs and even your own projectiles.

All you have to help you traverse this pit of death is a whip, four bombs, four climbing ropes and four hearts – but use them wisely – if you find yourself stuck and out of items, or if (god forbid) you run out of hearts, you’ll be starting again from the very beginning of the game. That’s right, this game isn’t going to coddle you with save points, either you succeed or you are sure as hell going to die trying.

Your goal as the unnamed spelunker is to explore the vast depths of underground caverns, attempting to avoid an untimely death while picking up supplies, saving damsels and collecting treasure. In addition to greedily hoarding your spoils, you can use your gold to restock and buy special items from the shopkeepers within the caves. I cannot fathom why they think a tunnel of death is a prime retail location, but it’s probably related to why there are so many young ladies in the caverns in need of rescuing. Conveniently these buxomous blondes in need will also reward you with a kiss and an extra heart; so overall your hearts and items can be maintained – if you make it that far.


One of the main features of the game, aside from the difficulty, is the randomly generated level layouts. No two levels are ever the same, so you truly will be exploring new areas each play through. As well as mixing around the scenery and enemies, levels will sometimes go on a completely different path and you’ll find yourself exploring in the dark, avoiding a piranha-filled river or even traveling through the shopkeepers’ black market. Travel far enough and you will even access areas with a completely new-themes and unlock some level shortcuts with the aid of the Tunnel Man.

The key to the game is not level grinding or getting the best gear, but learning the skills that will make your next play-through just a little longer. For gamers used to collecting every last item, Spelunky is an exercise in restraint – you can try to get all the goodies but you will need to be on your guard every second, constantly weighing up the significant risks vs small reward. Will you rush through a level to get as far as possible, but risk not having enough cash to restock your supplies or the damsel’s gifted hearts to keep you alive? Or will you spend as much time as possible getting everything you ever wanted, but risk being hunted down and killed instantly by a imposing specter?


Safety in Numbers

If you fear the thought of venturing alone, Spelunky on XBLA also has the option of local co-op so you can share the pain around. You and up to three friends can explore the tunnels together, but if you thought that would make life easier you can think again. To even out this added assistance, your supplies will be cut in half to only two bombs and two ropes each. Not only are your items limited, but the addition of extra players will bring with it a new host of trials – the least of which will be some serious rage and animosity. To start it all off, when playing co-op your highscores and times will not be recorded on the leaderboards. You can also say goodbye to the assistance of Tunnel Man; thankfully if you’ve earned any shortcuts in singleplayer they will still be available, but if you’re a co-op player only then you won’t be unlocking anything.

Getting into the gameplay, in addition to the issues you already face when journeying through the caverns, spelunking with friends forces you to share screen space, watch out for friendly fire and share the rewards around. The camera view can cause some anger between companions, as Player 1 is given a white flag and as such the camera remains fixed upon them; if anyone strays too far and finds themselves offscreen, a timer counts down from ten seconds before they die. If the flag-bearer dies it gets passed along and camera’s focus shifts accordingly, but outside of death there’s no way to control who gets to be centre stage – you will just have to hope it’s someone responsible.

As you bounce around the levels trying not to die offscreen, you’ll also need to keep yourselves alive by saving your HP and coordinating the use of your limited supplies. Only the player who picks up the item or saves the damsel will be rewarded – so do you put the group ahead of your own needs or just look out for number one? Although the name of the game is survival, dying in a co-op game is at least a little less severe than when playing alone. Adding to the dynamic, upon death players take on a ghostly form and although they can’t touch anything, they can still float through walls and blow enemies away to aid their more lively associates. Then if at least one player can make their way to the next area, stray coffins can be found to free your once-dead friend at full health.

If you’ve had enough ‘assistance’ from your friends or just need to let off some steam, then the deathmatch mode is also available to wreak some vengeance. Unfortunately you’ll find that without three other friends to kill the bots will be jumping in to give you even more of a headache. The addition of the two modes does add a new dimension to the game, however the heart of the game is really still the deadly singleplayer mode.

Spelunking Summary

Spelunky is a game that is so infuriating its thoroughly enjoyable. Hardcore gamers will revel in the challenge offered, as its most basic mode puts the ‘Insane’ difficulties of today’s games to shame. People who reminisce about the soul-crushing difficulty of older games and the skills required to complete them will also greatly appreciate this homage. It may be hard, but when you get past all the swearing it is certainly worth it.

If you’re eager to start heading into the depths and put your skills to the test check out Spelunky on Xbox Live. If however you do not know if you can survive the tortuous tunnels and deadly difficulty, why not try your hand at the free 16-bit version for PC; then if you find yourself appreciating the challenge you can move to the new version to thank the indie developers for being so very, very cruel.

9.0 – Excellent. Fun, enjoyable, engaging, and memorable but is missing that little something that will make it exceptionable. People will fondly talk about this for generations to come.