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Spelunker (NES) artwork

Spelunker (NES) review

"Oddly endearing or nightmare fuel? Take your pick."

If you had told me 25-some years ago that a game about caving, starring a guy vaguely resembling Mario with his red and blue attire, would blossom into a loveable classic in the eyes of many a Japanese gamer, I'd consider you insane. But in a reality where plenty of bizarre protagonists, like a yellow dot eating ghosts, have become iconic video game characters, why is this hard to accept? Because Spelunker has garnered a reputation for being an infuriating and unfair one-hit kill title, due to its protagonist dying over the simplest of reasons, earning him the moniker of Weakest Action Hero. So why the love? Well, that's the reason. Apparently, the Japanese have this affinity for crap games, and Spelunker sits as one of the more cherished ones. I guess that would explain why it later showed up on Nintendo's Wii, 3DS, and Wii U Virtual Console services without fail, not to mention having iOS and Android ports...

Though, I always assumed the game was one of those cases where its difficulty was exaggerated by livid gamers, but when I finally had the opportunity to get my hands on a copy, nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared for the awe of playing NES Spelunker during my first hour. I have watched videos of people attempting runs, and often pondered how they could continually make simple blunders, yet here I was, somehow caught in a vortex of baffling deaths. To name a few, when I walked off the elevator at the start, I lost a life falling through a small crack at the ledge, got hit by an exploding bomb I planted since I wasn't farther away, damaged by a flare I ignited, and died standing in a pit. This isn't a game you can simply watch someone else fumble at to grasp the pain, Spelunker is something you need to face personally to comprehend its horrors completely.

Sure, this probably sounds like whining to people who never played the game, but you need to understand: the plain between life and death is so insignificant that, even when you get better at surviving, you'll still break into a cold sweat over, supposedly, the tiniest of reasons. For example, climbing and hopping off ropes in games is a typical task to execute, but falling more than an inch in any scenario with Spelunker results in death, making navigation to and fro ropes one of the most dramatic segments of the game. Just the act of shifting left and right on a rope can cause a fall, but in many situations, you need to adjust your flimsy character so he won't accidentally fall as you attempt a leap. And I literally mean to and fro, thanks to moments when you must tackle a row of ropes. You haven't felt true anxiety until you made it through nine ropes, only to botch it on the final one and scream as the game over screen pops up!

With these accounts I'm throwing out, you'd think the game is some botched piece of work, but it's far from it. As you put effort into battling Spelunker's four hazardous stages, you realize the game is intentionally designed to be a pain in the butt. Often, you'll need to do precise things, such as jumping on a ledge correctly, since there's a mount placed nearby that bounces you back. Running away from bombs turns into an exercise in grace, because these locations usually require your character to leap over a pit, between a rope, or up an elevator; all that while escaping the bomb's explosive radius in three seconds! Item placement is also meticulously planned, as you have to teach yourself restraint when picking up scattered health rods that help prevent your gradually shrinking vitality meter from running out. And other items, that pump up your score for potential extra lives (I think??), are carefully tucked in "interesting" places, as if the devs were saying, "We DARE you!"

Also, with some practice, Spelunker is actually not the demonic spawn some people seem to make it out to be. Once you get over the initial shock of how strict the gameplay is and comprehend how things work, you just might actually warm up to its challenging nature, maybe even understand why some are charmed by this "crap" game's mechanics and elaborate level design. You likely won't even have to play it numerous times before mastery takes over, as it took me less than ten playthroughs to eventually beat the four stages with confidence. I easily could've mocked this game for the entire review, due to the frustrating motions I was going through from the start. When I bust through those final two doors in the fourth level, with zero lives left and a vitality bar ready to do me in, I told myself I would never touch this game again. But, occasionally, I take it for another spin, just to see how far I can make it through variations of those four stages.

I'm not saying this is a solid product, as I really believe some of its deaths are insanely idiotic and certain segments are a bit too intimidating. However, there are so many titles out there more deserving of a bashing, especially on the NES, which had its share of shoddy and glitchy releases. Part of the game's charm is its clumsy hero, sure, but, even though the game is ultimately a very standard and harsh experience, I think that also lends to its allure; Spelunker is pretty unashamed in its straightforwardness and challenge, and I respect it for that.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (November 02, 2014)

Slime Rancher feels like its concept and ideas are more interesting than the game's execution itself. Like, Slime Rancher has a lot of neat looking merchandise I would contemplate getting.


If you enjoyed this Spelunker review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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JoeTheDestroyer posted November 02, 2014:

This sounds like something I might enjoy. Good review, Pick.
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pickhut posted November 02, 2014:

It might, since this is a pretty polarizing game after all. I mean, long after completing the review, I'm still left wondering if I should change the score to a 6 or leave it at 5. I know it's just a point difference, but it's bothering me for some reason. Anyway, just don't let the rage engulf you! And thanks for reading.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted November 02, 2014:

I think this does read a bit more like a 6, only because the game doesn't sound quite mediocre or average (which to me usually reads as "dull" or "vanilla"). I did get to play a few seconds of it a bit ago and it will take some getting used to. Even with the advanced knowledge, I also died falling off of the elevator. This guy really is the weakest game hero...
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- posted November 02, 2014:

Nice review. I actually played this for about 15 minutes out of curiosity fairly recently, after finishing with Spelunky. I came to the conclusion that Spelunker wasn't as good.
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pickhut posted November 02, 2014:

Thanks! I really need to play Spelunky some time...

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