Spelunky is a difficult game.
It’s indifferent to your suffering and makes no apologies for killing you instantly. If you’ve been softened by most modern game conventions (watered down difficulty levels, extensive auto-checkpoints, hand-holding, etc), this game is not for you.
In some ways, you shouldn’t feel inferior if it’s difficulty remains impenetrable to you. Occasionally, the game will spawn you into a situation that has you screwed from the get go. Also, the way Spelunky can punish you by having one mistake snowball into a chain of events leading you to your death can seem random and unfair. Those drawbacks aside, Spelunky is one of the most balanced games I’ve played in recent memory.
It’s an intricately calculated ecosystem of various rule-sets that interact in very precise ways. When you die, it is likely that you were too careless, reckless, or too arrogant. The honing of Spelunky’s systems and rule-sets are to be expected when it’s had so much time to incorporate feedback from fans. Similar to other masochistic indie games Super Meat Boy and the Trials series, Spelunky has its roots in the freeware game space and communities. However, Spelunky’s Xbox debut is the real thing. Updated visuals look fantastic, music is a great nod to a chiptune composition of the 8-bit & 16-bit world without being shackled by their limitations, controls feel tight and subsequently new content (a new multiplayer mode, weapons, monsters, areas, etc) make this package worth the asking price. It definitely feels like you are purchasing a meaty package, not a freeware game.
All that polish is much appreciated, but what truly makes Spelunky special is the core philosophy of the game; risk and reward. That core philosophy informers much of Spelunky’s design. An Indiana Jones-eque booby trap could kill you instantly, but the golden idol that activates it can get you a nice amount of coin. You could kill a shopkeeper and loot his shop for all its items, but he’ll try to kill you, all future shopkeepers will have a wanted poster of you, and they’ll all kill you on sight. The risk and reward design then informs your observation the games many systems (represented by obstacles and enemies) that are bendable to your will or skillfully learning how to avoid them through observation of what makes them tick. Baiting an enemy and tricking them into getting killed by another enemy, spike pit, venus fly trap, among several other manipulations, are one of the things that makes Spelunky so much more than Indiana Jones meets Mario (even though that’s not a bad thing to be).There’s depth and nuance in Spelunky that will reward those who pay attention, poke at systems and examine how they can interact with each other, much like baiting a bear into a dragon in Skyrim.
Spelunky doesn’t ask you to memorize a level lay out like a Mario game would. The levels are randomly generated and therefore always changing every time you die and spawn again. Spelunky breeds an environment that requires the player to adapt or they will eat shit for not being vigilant enough. If you’re into games like Dark Souls, the NES Megaman games, or Super Meat Boy, Spelunky is a must buy. I cannot stress its steep difficulty will definitely intimidate some, but it’s a necessary casualty to the fiendish brilliance of Spelunky’s uncompromising vision and willingness to ruin your day with cute monkeys.