The best word to describe Spelunky is dangerous.
The player takes on the role of an unnamed adventurer with an uncanny resemblance to Indiana Jones. With nothing but a whip in hand and a backpack brimming with ropes and bombs, you plunge into the depths of an ancient cavern. Deadly spikes, arrow traps, snakes, and giant spiders lurk around every corner, each hellbent on preventing you from obtaining the treasure secreted away in the deepest catacombs.
And that’s only the first area of the game. By the time you hit area three and four, a pit full of snakes will seem like a vacation.
Spelunky is a game that punishes hubris. Blind leaps of faith and a zeal for bloodshed will quickly land you in a coffin. Progress has to be made slowly and methodically; every risk weighed against the reward.
Rescuing a damsel will recover your health, but that will hardly do you any good if you eat a few hits escorting her to safety. Pilfering a golden totem could net you the money you need to buy a powerful weapon, but the booby traps that guard it could lead to a quick death.
And don’t even think about stealing for the shopkeepers.
The depth of strategy is surprisingly deep for a sidescroller. You will die dozens, if not hundreds, of times before you’re skilled enough to reach the end boss and claim your prize.
Randomly generated levels keep the game fresh on these repeated play-throughs. Like its rogue-like cousins, Spelunky delights in hiding treasures, traps, and monsters in inconvenient corners of the map. The only assured feature is an unobstructed walking path from the level’s entrance to its exit, although this hardly ensures a player’s survival.
Level feelings add further mystery and danger. These randomly applied themes superimpose additional rules, enemies, and structures onto a level for an added challenge. A mine level may be wreathed in pitch black darkness, or a jungle level infested with vampires and more peculiar forms of undead. This added danger is balanced out by an opportunity for additional gold and items, making the level feelings as much a weal as a woe.
Although I’ve written a great deal about snakes, spiked pits, and undead, the real danger of Spelunky isn’t faced by the game’s protagonist – it’s faced by the player. Spelunky is one of the most addictive games you’ll ever play.
Rogue-like games are addictive by nature, but the sheer amount of content in Spelunky is absurd. I’ve played the game – and its pixel-rendered predecessor – for dozens of hours, and I’m still discovering new things on each run through.
Evil relics that drain health from your enemies. New characters hidden away in oversized coffins. Cities rendered in pure gold.
Every dive into the catacombs will yield a new hidden mystery, and every death will propel you to try again to see if you can make it just a little bit further.
However, it’s the inclusion of a daily challenge mode that pushes Spelunky above the heads of its genre mates. Every day the developers randomly generate a new level, start to finish, and distribute it over Steam. Every player is given one – and only one – chance to conquer it. Player scores are uploaded to an online leader board and ranked to see who made it furthest each day.
It is a simultaneously sublime and insidious challenge. I find myself logging into Steam every morning not only to test my mettle against other anonymous spelunkers, but to see if I’ve bested by brother – and ask him where he went wrong.
I could go on to talk about Spelunky‘s opulently polished controls, graphics, and sound, but I think I’ve laid enough praise on the title for you to get the idea. Simply put, it is phenomenal. It is the most complete rogue-like game I’ve played since The Binding of Isaac, and it offers an experience that is both obscenely challenging and dangerously addictive.
Spelunky has devoured by life, and I couldn’t be happier.