What once was old…. wait, this is new!
There's something suspicious about Spelunky… almost like I've played it before. In actuality I know I haven't, but there's still something about it that's all too familiar. Maybe it's the throwback feel to the play style, or possibly the cutesy look draped over the crushing difficulty. You remember when players and publishers started to say games are easier nowadays? Spelunky is an apparent throwback to the days when a cartridge game punched us all in the face, made us fight for every stage and every point, and we loved them for it.
Starting out life as a Windows freeware title with the feel of a classic Sega Genesis game, there are two main goals in Spelunky: dig as deeply as possible and collect as much loot as you can carry, which as it turns out, is a lot. There's an Achievement based around finding and carrying $500,000 of gold, jewels, and loot. But if you're up for a helping hand, you can use some of that to pay for upgrades of your equipment, like climbing boots or parachutes (trust me, you'll want to invest in for the large amount of blind jumps).
Here's the kicker: Each level is randomly generated throughout the journey, so even when you imagine you might have a grasp on how everything works, there's a change-up to what you have to get through. Oh, and in order to reach the "end" of the game, you have to work through four different area types, each with their own collection of unique traps, baddies, and hazards to figure out and wade through. And trust me, each of those are hard as hell, really testing not only a player's skills, but resolve. That's one of its great features.
Of course, that curve can lead players to the old days of thrown controllers and swearing fits akin to that German kid recorded on YouTube who destroyed his keyboard after a particularly frustrating firefight. Here, you have to either find or earn enough scratch to buy your gun. Or teleporter. Or climbing gloves. Really, any of the various tools available in shops or hidden around the stages. The amount of tools at your disposal never feels too small or too large; even with only one object able to be held at a time (which includes weapons), there's just enough in here to play with. The bombs, the most common of the weapons, is definitely the most effective and entertaining… aside from the occasional shotgun.
The stages, characters and even weapons look like a brought-to-life coloring book. Bright colors, large details on every enemy—everything fits the appearance of a "kid's" game. Even the small spurts of blood from any damage inflicted look adorable. Each and every environment is entirely destructible, with gold and gems hiding in the rocks, so exploring with explosions is a perfectly acceptable way of working toward the goal. There are a handful of background tracks that are also played at random from location to location, and they sound like they're straight from the Sega soundboard circa 1991. This is pure nostalgia without the tarnish of old age.
Spelunky does support multiple players, but unless you're exploring the area together, it's seriously a joke. There's a four-player deathwatch mode where everything is apparently based on luck, and appears to be the same destructible and disposable arena every time. This is obviously a game developed for a single-player, and it will be played as such. I can't imagine anyone would get their jollies from playing through a room of small platforms over a floor of spikes for more than a round.
The nostalgic nerd in me is seriously delighted to play something with a minimalistic play style that doesn't just grab my attention but can totally kick my ass. Ignoring the tacked-on multiplayer modes, the only turn-off I see is the occasionally-overwhelming difficulty. In the video game world, there are few "minute to learn, lifetime to master" games, and this is one of the great ones. If you need a challenge on the level of a Mega Man or a Metal Slug with the feel of Dig Dug and Mr. Driller, or if you just enjoy any of those, this should be on your radar. If you just want a quick few Achievement points, you're not going to find them here.
Masochist gamers, behold your new speedrun opponent.