You may have already heard of Spelunky, by suspected secret superhero and game designer extraordinaire Derek Yu, either because it was briefly featured in a Weekend Download, or because you're one of the many, many (many!) people who have suggested it to us recently. If you've never heard of it, you should know Spelunky is a roguelike game of cave exploration. Except, hey! You got your platformer in my roguelike! Rather than taking the traditional route of turn-based combat, Spelunky is a game where you'll have to run, jump, whip, and bomb your way out of sticky situations. Oh, and did we mention it's completely free? Mmmm.
You play an unnamed little spelunker, descending into the depths of the Colossal Cave alone. Are you searching for treasure? Adventure? Or are you just trying to stay alive? Each adventure is different since Spelunky's random level generator means the cave never presents the same layout twice.
Spelunky's keyboard controls are completely customizable to your preferences by running the Config file included in the download. Or, you can play my favourite way, and use a controller. Spelunky lends itself extremely well to it, and the running and jumping feels much more smooth and natural. Although you start off with only a whip as your primary weapon, collecting all the treasure lying around will enable you to buy anything from guns to machetes from the randomly discovered stores. Or if the whip is working out for you, pick up a pair of climbing gloves, or a pitcher's mitt, or any of the other special items with unique abilities designed to make life a little easier for the intrepid explorer.
The bad news is that if you die, you have to start all over. No, not from the beginning of the level, but from the beginning of the game. While you do get several opportunities to fund shortcuts to certain levels, it does put that much more pressure on you to go slowly and watch your step. The only way to replenish your limited health, which is damaged by enemies or falling long distances, is to rescue a maiden and cart her to the exit of the level safely, or buy a kiss from one at a shop if you should be so lucky as to stumble across one. Who said you can't buy love? Or at least a heart or two. Of course, all the hearts in the world don't matter if you fall onto a bed of spikes. Or get impaled. Or... uh, well, let's just say there's a lot of fatalities waiting out there for you.
The thing to understand about Spelunky is you're going to die. Like, a lot. And in the beginning, it can be hard not to let that frustrate you. The sheer amount of tricks, traps, beasties, and pitfalls means you'll probably spend quite a bit of time watching your death count raise in the score menu. And yet despite this, Spelunky never stops being fun. The level generator is surprisingly intelligent about creating areas that have little-to-no pitfalls that would prevent you from conquering a level. Stuck in a hole? Bomb yourself out, or climb a rope to victory!... or to a speedy death at a trap you neglected to notice. But the more you play, the more you'll learn, and soon the ultimate treasure of the Colossal Cave will be in your grasp.
While Spelunky is currently Windows only, many people report success running it on Parallels.
Analysis: Spelunky winds up being one of those games where it either is your thing or it isn't. If it isn't, then all the tales in the world about robbing shopkeeps by bombing into their inventory from below or chasing down thieving monkeys in the dark won't convince you. The thing is, however, even fans of roguelikes may be taken aback by the platforming skills required to make it through the game. There's no real story to discover, and your reflexes will be put through the wringer.
But one of the things Spelunky does best is foster a sense of discovery. The tutorial will only teach you the basics of the game; how to run, jump, attack, and throw things. You'll have to find out the rest for yourself, including how to recognise traps and trigger them safely, the many uses of maidens, how to find buried treasure, and much more. While some people may seek out guides to find out all the game's tricks, dirty or otherwise, I found discovering them myself by trial-and-usually-fatal error to be incredibly fun and satisfying.
But to whet your appetite, you should know that once you finally make your way through the first few levels, whole new areas await you. Battle vampires in a subterranean jungle, or yetis in a slippery, bottomless icy cavern. Encounter giant piranha, or dig for hidden entrances to secret areas. Still not enough? How about grabbing priceless golden idols and narrowly escaping the trap, or defiling a sacrificial altar? Just don't spend too much time rooting out every last bit of treasure on a level, or you may find that the cave has even more unpleasant surprises in store for adventurers who drag their feet.
Despite being out for less than a year, Spelunky is rapidly becoming the little-game-that-could, with a new incarnation making its way to the X-Box Live Arcade in 2010, and a substantial fan base hungry for every bit of treasure and painful demise the game dishes out. While the somewhat steep difficulty may be discouraging to newcomers, those that stick with it will be rewarded with what I consider to be the most fun you'll have as a spelunker in a game, ever. Since Spelunky is free, you have nothing to lose except possibly hours of your time. Just remember, never leave your hat behind.
Thanks to Kyzak, Kasper, Nic, Kegluneq, Chris, Vanguard, John, Ed, Sockhands, Cory, Temposaur, PlasmaMan, and Purequestion for demanding, uh, suggesting this one.
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