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Spelunky [Freeware] (PC) artwork

Spelunky [Freeware] (PC) review

"Challenging, addictive, thoughtful and beautiful, Spelunky is a stream of constant delight. The icing on the cake is that it's free, and a mere 8mb download. There are no excuses not to play this. You have been warned."

I've been meaning to write this review for a few days now, but I keep putting it off. Perhaps it's the inevitability that, once it's out of the way, deadlines will dictate that I move on to something else, forced to cast Spelunky aside for the time being. Maybe it's the difficulty of knowing where to start, when there are so many wonderful things to talk about. Or, possibly, it's because I just can't tear myself away from the thing for long enough to form my opinions into words. It's the most astonishingly addictive game I've played in ages.

First glances indicate, well, a better-looking Spelunker, the mid-80s Atari platformer of a similar theme. It's true that there are obvious parallels to be drawn: it's a game about spelunking, for a start, and the name's only a couple of letters out. The overriding objective is identical, too: make your way through a colossal network of caves, and lay your hands on the fabulous treasure that awaits beneath. But there's a killer trick up Spelunky's sleeve. All its levels are procedurally generated, randomly built from the ground up on each play. While there are four distinct themes to the environment, and the challenges increase in much the same way as the game progresses, you'll never see the same map twice. You also only get one shot at a time. When you die, you're deposited back to the menu screen, and have to start again. Oh, and you can blow up all of the scenery and carve your own way through the levels, digging for gold in the process.

The result is a game of multiple approaches, and a weighted risk and reward for each. With no ability to save your progress, the most natural response is a mad dash from start to finish in order to delve further into the game than before. This is fine, but it's going to make later sections more difficult. Without scurrying around for gold and other valuable items, youíre going to struggle to keep your equipment topped up to a reasonable level. When the exit is right in front of you, but you're low on funds and you know a shop with an awesome weapon is likely to show up in the near future, it becomes a game of decisions, and the delightfully difficult choice between instant progress, and added risk with the potential for reward later on.

This is where Spelunky absolutely excels. You're constantly rethinking your approach, continually forming new strategies and action plans. When you realise you can rescue damsels in distress for added lives, there's yet another aspect to consider. When you realise you can also sacrifice them to an all-powerful god, for the chance of an easier ride in later sections of the game, the decisions become insanely hard. And since it's game over the second you perish, youíve no margin of error. Your choice has to be the correct one. But it's a game where the correct choice is rarely apparent. It's magnificently devilish.

Other opportunities abound. Even a task as simple as shopping can pose questions. If you've not enough gold to buy all those wonderful contraptions, you could be a ruthless explorer and steal them. But then the shopkeeper will attack you. If you manage to evade the barrel of his gun, he'll circulate 'Wanted' posters around the rest of the game world, meaning all previously friendly characters will shoot on sight. But if one of the items you grabbed happens to be a fully-loaded shotgun, is it worth it? In a game that twists and turns unpredictably on every attempt, you can hardly ever be sure.

Spelunky is frustrating and unfair, but that's the point. Within fifteen minutes, you'll have a reasonably good idea of how everything works, how the game is out to foil you every second of the way. So you come to expect the instant-death traps, the enemies hiding in clay pots and the Indy-style rolling rock that tumbles towards you if you get a little too greedy. Spelunky is, in effect, the most exhilarating risk assessment ever.

It's the absolute definition of 'easy to play, difficult to master', because the difficulty doesn't really stem from a steadily increasing challenge, the unlocking of new features, or any of these traditional videogame elements. They exist, but that's irrelevant. Your roster of abilities, with a couple of exceptions, is fully accessible from the start, and while the amount and aptitude of foes steadily increases, you've always the option of simply avoiding them. Instead, you learn the game's foibles and, as it tries to undermine you, you work out how to undermine it.

It's clever beyond this. The title screen - also randomised - alludes to a variety of story interpretations, while none are ever thrust upon you. You could feasibly play Spelunky for weeks without ever considering anything other than going into a cave and nicking stuff. But you could also begin to consider the themes of revenge, redemption and religion that are hinted at as you begin. Why is this man here at all? What about that faded photograph compelled him to come to these caves? What were his father's last words? What is the victory he has so solemnly vowed to achieve? Maybe I'm looking too deeply into it, but that Derek Yu chose to include these title screens at all implies some intention.

It's singularly his vision. This is a game created solely by Yu, co-founder of Bit Blot and artistic director of wonderful 2007 side-scroller Aquaria. It shows in the distinctive art design, beautiful and creative despite the technology, transitioning perfectly across the consistently themed locations. Early levels are brown and bland, but later areas incorporate creeping vines, pools of water, caverns of ice and creatures floating around on hovercraft. The final showdown takes place in the depths of a volcano, the lava jetting you out into the open upon victory. In its simplicity lies its beauty. In spite of the pixels, it's always visually glorious.

It's full of surprises, too. Just when you think you've found a straightforward path to the exit, the game will deposit an enormous spider right in front of it, blocking your progression. When you're growing tired of the visual style, it'll divert rapidly into pastures new. Just when you're starting to get to grips with the tight, precise mechanics, it'll turn all the lights out, forcing you to drop some of your equipment in order to carry a flare. It's constantly evolving, and always raising an angry yet gleeful smile.

Perhaps the only significant problem facing Spelunky is its current array of bugs and glitches, as it progresses to its final build. Currently at version 0.99.8, it's all but finished, but there are still some technical issues to be ironed out. In my time with the game, I experienced a couple of freezes, and, for some reason, certain graphics failed to appear from time to time. But I'm always inclined to be more forgiving of such problems in independently crafted games. There are high-budget, major-studio releases that suffer more noticeably than Spelunky. It's hardly going to dampen your enjoyment.

Because beneath these slight issues is a simply wonderful game. Challenging, addictive, thoughtful and beautiful, Spelunky is a stream of constant delight. The icing on the cake is that it's free, and a mere 8mb download from the link over on the right. There are no excuses not to play this. You have been warned.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (February 22, 2009)

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