Spelunky, like The Binding of Isaac, isn’t a Roguelike, but it adapts so many elements from that genre that the appellation is understandable. It’s hard, its levels randomly-generated, it has permadeath. But it’s not a turn-based dungeon crawler; it’s a platformer where you descend through mines to whip bats and collect loot. And it’s highly addictive.
You play a cartoony pastiche of Indiana Jones, complete with fedora and whip. After a quick (and fortunately optional) tutorial that teaches you some basic skills, you’re off into the dungeon. And you’ll probably die right away. That’s because another thing that Spelunky has absorbed from Roguelikes is the difficulty level. You’ll have to play hundreds of times before you have a chance at completing the 16th floor. Each failure should bring a lesson learned, a minute improvement along your progress.
Enemy movements are simple, the items and traps easily understandable. As opposed to, say, The Binding of Isaac, you’ll probably figure everything out quickly. Simple is not the same as easy, however, as exact movements and some luck are necessary to survive. But there’s not too much randomness, as you won’t often get screwed over by the RNG like in Isaac; items are plentiful and it’s usually possible to beat the game with no items at all.
Don’t get cocky, though. Your starting health is pitifully low and it’s not easy to raise it. Maidens (which grant life if brought to safety in a triumph for women’s lib everywhere) are often in obscure locations. Kissing booths are prohibitively expensive. Altars are costly and sometimes impossible to fill. If you get hit by an arrow in the first couple levels, you might as well quit unless you also have a rad item like the shotgun or the jetpack. Your best bet is to move slowly and take in your surroundings, especially if you’re in one of the irritating (but potentially profitable) darkened levels. Play with the same mentality as Dark Souls: always be cautious, stay away from danger if you can help it.
Had Spelunky been a standard game of its sort (that is, with pre-made levels) it would have been a forgettable 16 stages. But the random element is what makes it stand out from the scads of other indie platformers. It has nearly infinite replayability due to its endless array of formations. And as you progress, the areas become more complex and less friendly. You’ll get used to the mines (the first area) pretty quickly; it’s basic platformer stuff. Then things start getting unreasonably hard; by the time you get to the final set of levels, you will be faced with dead ends, lava pits, mummies that spit huge amounts of flies, and invincible spike blocks that chase you like the guys in Glengarry Glen Ross chased leads. The frogs are trying to kill you, the walls are trying to kill you, even the shops sometimes try to kill you.
The shopkeepers present an interesting factor. Item prices were lowered in the most recent patch but theft still remains a valuable skill. Murdering shopkeepers can be extremely profitable and can also result in a quick game over even for the skilled. It’s a form of gambling in itself; do you really need that cape or box of 12 bombs for this playthrough, or have you mastered Spelunky enough to continue without the best tools available?
As with most PC action games, there is the debate as to whether to use a keyboard or a gamepad. The keyboard gives slightly more precision but most players would be more comfortable with an Xbox 360 controller. The controls are wonky either way; that is one of the game’s few shortcomings. I often found myself jumping too far or not far enough, and it’s frightfully easy to injure yourself with thrown objects.
Even after countless attempts at the game, I have beaten Spelunky probably a dozen times. But I enjoyed every attempt, every success and every stupid death. The PC and Mac versions are free and there’s an Xbox Live version with updated graphics if you’re willing to shell out the cash. If my 360 weren’t plagued with the red ring at the moment, I’d get the latter, because Spelunky is worth paying for. It’s a highly enjoyable experience, a sorta-Roguelike with a surprising amount of depth.
P.S.: The Onion AV Club (one of the world’s greatest websites, unironically) sprayed praise all over Spelunky, indicating that it must have been sufficiently arty for their taste. The rest of the internet concurs; the game has received universal acclaim, and deservedly so. Some people will gossip about Spelunky’s creator Derek Yu, who has a surprising amount of influence in the indie game community. His thumbs-up of the astroturfing corporate vehicle Journey was immediately taken as ironclad proof of that game’s worthiness, an indication of how trusted he is in the gaming community. But aside from that Yu has done nothing to earn my ire; he seems like a swell kinda guy. His game owns.