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Spelunky (PC) artwork

Spelunky (PC) review

"It took 168 hours and 1,101 deaths before I beat Hell... Spelunky no doubt had a cruel, masochistic grip on me."

It took 168 hours and 1,101 deaths before I beat Hell in Spelunky.

I had actually given up on reaching the secret ending, and in fact had much of this review written up at the time. But let's backtrack a little. For the uninitiated, Derek Yu's Spelunky is an action-platformer in which you're tasked with making your way progressively deeper into the caves to reach the shiny treasure at the bottom. It's 'roguelike', if you want to use the modern definition, with features including permadeath and procedurally generated levels. Spelunky started off as a freeware title, but I'm going to talk (in slightly spoilery detail) about the enhanced version on Steam and how I lost 10,000 minutes of my life to it.

It only takes a half-hour run to see the regular ending, and my best time - a speedrun attempt - clocks in at less than seven minutes. However, it takes a few hundred deaths before you are even capable of and have the knowledge required to reach and then best the final boss. The procedural generation doesn't just affect the landscapes. The spawns of enemies and traps change from run to run, and you never know what shops and items will show up. The seemingly endless combinations and the way everything complements each other ensures a different experience every time. It also rarely feels unbalanced. Sure, some items are better than others (it's difficult to top the jetpack/shotgun combo), but you never have to rely on a god-tier weapon, and there's nearly always a clear path to the next exit.

Beginning in the mines every time (unless you want to cop out with 'shortcuts'), you find that you learn something new from each run you do. For each death, there is a lesson to take away. As your first few hours add up, you'll get a good handle on the best way to take out pesky bats with your whip without losing precious health, figure out a bomb's exact radius and use it to your advantage, and automatically trigger arrow traps by dropping items - or even coaxing enemies - into its line of sight. You'll discover that you can run through spikes on foot, learn that giant spiders drop paste making your bombs sticky, and think twice before destroying an altar, for fear of incurring the wrath of its goddess who will spawn and send a large cluster of spiders after you.

Fast-forward 20 hours, and you're still uncovering new things about the game. A risk for sure but if you don't have sticky bombs, you can still destroy ceilings and walls by cooking regular bombs and timing your throws. The mattock is an incredibly useful item which helps save on explosives, and one is guaranteed to spawn underneath a snake pit, should you come across one. And sacrificing innocent damsels at the altar will reward you with a chalice. Fill it up with blood from enemies to be granted extra health.

This is only scratching the surface. I could go on and on, listing hundreds of individual tips I've picked up along the way. Spelunky is not about memorisation; the permadeath and the procedural generation prevent this. It's about learning the game and its mechanics, and improvising with that knowledge. The satisfaction comes from getting better the more you play and seeing your notable improvement first-hand.

Of course, it's not as straightforward as that. Your spelunker starts off fragile and can't take many hits. The caves are also split into four distinct areas; the first time you conquer the mines, you're in for a rude awakening when you enter the jungle - piranhas, pranking monkeys, boomerang-wielding inhabitants, one-hit-kill man-eating plants - and realise you have to go through the learning process all over again. And then you have to do the same for the ice caves, with its yetis, UFOs, slippery ledges and bottomless abysses. And then the temple, with its narrow passageways, lava pits, mummies, and lethal thwomp-like crush traps.

I completed the temple and the end boss there after 43 hours on my 451st attempt. It was such a rewarding moment, having all that work pay off, but I wasn't done yet.

The other thing about Spelunky is that it's littered with secrets. It's why I kept playing. There's a gruelling, extended bonus level inside a gigantic worm, in which lies an extremely rare instant-kill knife (although the short melee range greatly limits its usefulness). Find the alien mothership and defeat the alien queen, and get your hands on the powerful plasma cannon, which obliterates walls but with the potentially fatal drawback of a huge recoil. Then there's the black market, its entrance hidden in a random spot in the jungle, which houses seven shops - one of which containing a pricey ankh, which resurrects you one time. Shopkeepers armed with shotguns chase after you if you piss them off, but pillaging the stores is always tempting and reaps great rewards if you can survive their barrage of gunfire.

The ankh is essential for the game's secret fifth area, Hell. How hard is it to see the second ending? It took 125 hours after reaching the regular ending before I finally entered and came out of Hell alive.

Accessing Hell requires executing a very specific set of instructions. In short(!), you have to find the black market using an accessory that can only be found in the mines. You then have to die and use the ankh to resurrect you on a particular level in the ice caves, before defeating an optional mini-boss in the temple. The foe's sceptre unlocks a secret entrance to the city of gold. It is there where the book of the dead sits, and is used to open the way to Hell - which can only be reached by defeating the game's regular final boss directly underneath the entrance, so you can use his head as a platform.

Screw one of these steps up (and there are so many things that can go wrong), and Hell is out of reach this time. And that's just the task of getting to the damn place.

Hell itself is a claustrophobic area filled with traps, spike balls, lava pits, and vampires. Though you'll often have decent gear and equipment with you by this point of the run, meaning the learning curve isn't as steep, it's still punishing as you attempt to get to grips with Hell's intricacies. While the other areas are reached through natural progression, the demanding requirements to return to Hell mean it could take several hours before you earn another crack at it. Frustrating? Of course. But I still came back for more against my better judgment. If I didn't have other secrets or optional objectives to go for in order to vary up my runs - aside from bonus levels, there were achievements from speedrunning to collecting an initially daunting amount of treasure in one life - I probably would have given up dozens of hours ago.

It doesn't help that the controls aren't perfect, which is less than ideal given there's plenty of platforming. They're mostly competent, but jumping in tight spaces feels a little imprecise and I've had too many awkwardly positioned landings - irritating if you miss landing on an enemy and it costs you health, and even worse if you fall onto spikes contributing to your instant death. I had one recent run where I reached the temple with excellent gear, including an extremely plentiful and invaluable supply of bombs, and was on the verge of entering the city of gold. The spelunker unfortunately was too nimble for his own good, accidentally dropping to the platform below him and right into the shotgun blast of an angry shopkeeper. These moments made me question the point of spending so long on the game.

But I did it in the end. 168 hours. How much fun I had in the last 60 is hugely debatable - Spelunky no doubt had a cruel, masochistic grip on me, and in some ways, it's funny that I did what felt like the impossible just a couple of days after I declared I was finished with it. However, there's something to be said for a game to keep me hooked for four months, and let's remember that much of the headache surrounded this one optional, secret ending. Now that I have closure, I can see myself going back for a couple of casual runs now and again.

(After writing this review, I booted up Spelunky for a run to grab some screenshots. I beat Hell again. That's crazy, I spent a ridiculous number of hours failing repeatedly, and now I've done it twice in a row?)

Rating: 9/10

Ben's avatar
Community review by Ben (March 23, 2014)

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EmP posted March 23, 2014:

I've found a typo - There's a extended bonus, gruelling level inside a gigantic worm, in which lies an extremely rare instant-kill knife

The order of words is a little awkward, too. Perhaps There's a gruelling extended bonus level inside a gigantic worm... or some such might work better? And it eliminates your typo!

This, though, is a great review, dealing as much with the game as justifying sense of obsession some games seem to curse you with. I guess you'll have to retire your bio now and employ "used to fumble lucky wins on FIFA" instead.
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Ben posted March 23, 2014:

Thanks for reading/subbing, and good spot there with the typo! I've used your suggested rewording, because it's (annoyingly!) better than what I had.

I was a bit worried I went into too much detail in places, so I'm glad you liked the review. You're right, my bio needs updating now. I'm thinking... "gets kicks from beating Gary at FIFA".
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pickhut posted March 24, 2014:

I have a pretty good idea of how hard and silly the game is based on your review, so I didn't think you went overboard with the details. As EmP said, it's definitely a solid read.

Wonder if this is the same Derek Yu that used to make submissions to the Video Game Museum site, back when I used to post regularly waaaaay back on their message boards? Well... until I was shunned and almost banned for what I thought was a harmless joke >_>. Anyway, it's good seeing him succeed with games such as Spelunky, if it is him.
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Ben posted March 24, 2014:

Thanks! I appreciate the comments, and I'm happy the review worked for you as well.

I'm not very familiar with Video Game Museum, but Yu also designed Aquaria - another indie title.

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