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EGM Review:
Spelunky (PSN Version)

Posted on August 30, 2013 AT 11:54am

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Four is a diabolical number. Spelunky knows this, and uses it to craft psychological torture that, coupled with the usual amount inherent to roguelikes, creates a near-unending gameplay loop in which players will experience the same four worlds and their  four stages over and over and over and over again for an alarming number of hours—and never get sick of it.

Unless they bite it in any given fourth stage. That’s when the cussin’ begins.

Despite a lifetime spent playing videogames, I hadn’t played a roguelike until Spelunky. It’s a sub-genre that—like many, I suspect—I thought I “got,” at least conceptually, and so typically dismissed due to disinterest. And I’m not even certain roguelike is a genre so much as it’s a philosophy, the core facets of which are randomly generated dungeons, an absolutely unforgiving treatment of death, and the absence of conventional save points (or, more often than not, save points at all). But something about Spelunky—no doubt its classic 2D aesthetic—caught my attention. So when the chance to play and review the title for its PS3/Vita release came up, I leapt at the opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong—this game will drive you up a wall. It will try your patience, cut your arm, pour salt in the wound, then reach right in there and pinch your frayed nerves. Because, for as fun and addictive as Spelunky is, it’s also punishing in just the right way a roguelike should be. It’s never brutal, and it’s far from inaccessible, but it is unassumingly hard.

See, the unnamed spelunker, for all his adventurousness, is a very fragile man. Most of Spelunky’s monsters and traps will kill the poor climber in one hit, if not set him down a string of bumps and bruises that ends with his body being deposited unceremoniously in the dirt. And while your goal from stage to stage is simple—get from the entrance (usually up top) to the exit (usually down below) and progress to the next level—so much of Spelunky is distraction. Maybe you bump into a snake or spider along the way and lose one of your precious hit points, but you notice a dude or damsel or dog in distress. Now you risk your remaining hit points just to try and rescue them, since they can give you back a hit point. If you successfully reach them and carry them to the exit, you’re back up to speed. But if you get hit on your way to them or back, well, then you just effectively wasted your time.

This happens often. It happens with princes and princesses and dogs, it happens with gold and gems, and it happens with crates and chests containing unknown treasure. This is where that fiendish four factors in. There are exactly that many primary worlds in Spelunky, each containing that many stages. I don’t know if someone at Mossmouth studied psychology or what, but they expertly execute their unique brand of mental torture by capitalizing on this number’s awkwardness in a form of entertainment that otherwise worships the number “three.” Dying in stage one or two won’t faze you. It’s not a lot of work and survival to wade through again. Stage three is typically a sign of relief. After getting through stages one and two, you gain more confidence and navigate the spelunker with practiced precision. And then there’s only one more level before you get back to the next! But your newfound confidence then betrays you in stage four, and—whoops, you died. Back to the beginning, starting from scratch. Welcome to roguelikes, motherf***er.

But the thing about Spelunky—and games of its ilk—is that it employs randomly generated levels. And sometimes those levels have random conditions: no lighting, an increase in undead enemies or other creature types, and so on. Because of this, no matter how many times I replayed World 2, Stage 3—probably hundreds of times, if my overall death count is any indication—it never actually felt repetitive. It was familiar but always different. Plus, Spelunky is not without modern concessions. Granted, access to them requires jumping through a lot of hoops, but there are ways to arrange quick-access tunnels to World 2, 3, and 4, so you don’t have to soldier through them every single time.

Really, that’s Spelunky in a nutshell. It boils down to personal challenge—that’s the hook. You want to do better, you want to play better, and you want to get further. There’s nothing particularly interesting waiting for you at the end of the tunnel, just the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting there. That will motivate you for hours and hours while Spelunky relentlessly murders you again and again and again and again. But you’ll explore, and you’ll plot, and you’ll take risks and lose but swear that next time will be different. You got this. You’ll toy around with using items that bolster your jumping height, or cushion your landings, or make your bombs adhesive. You’ll abandon the need for those extraneous extravagances and be a real hero by playing as a purist. And you will die 328 times trying.

But rest assured: Hours—days—after you start up Spelunky, you’ll still be playing.

Developer: Mossmouth • Publisher: Mossmouth • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.27.2013

Spelunky is the roguelike equivalent of training wheels attached with only one turn of the screw. It’s a great way to ease into the genre and a worthwhile entry in its field, but immediately following that “I think I got it!” moment, you’ll quickly be left having to keep upright on your own.

The Good Can’t stop playing. Must reach next world.
The Bad Douchebag snake knocked me into a spike pit. Now I’m dead.
The Ugly Is that— Are those— Why are aliens down here?
Spelunky is available on PC, Xbox 360 (XBLA), PlayStation 3 (PSN), and PlayStation Vita (PSN). Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 3.
Chris Holzworth, News Editor
Chris Holzworth has wanted to write about games all his life. He first cut his teeth writing for enthusiast sites such as RPGFan, and after writing for just about every other enthusiast website he could came across, wound up as EGM's east coast news correspondent (read: editorial intern) before relocating to LA to serve as news editor. You can follow his rants about storytelling on Twitter @manadrive.[Meet the rest of the crew]

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