How far are you willing to go for the sake of a solid gold bar? Are you prepared to take a leap of faith over what could be a bottomless pit? Would you test your mettle against a horde of vicious snakes? Is the promise of that shiny metal enough to make you risk all of your progress so far? These are just some of the questions that you’ll need to ask yourself as you’re delving into the depths of Spelunky – a game that’s just as brutal as it is addictive.
A never-ending stream of procedurally generated levels await your chosen adventurer, each full to the brim with treasure and deadly beasts. Your goal is ultimately a simple one: survive until you reach the next stage – but, of course, it’s far easier said than done. You’ll die a lot during your time with the game, especially in the beginning, but the title’s undoubtedly divisive difficulty is what gives it a unique personality.
Four hits to your character's tiny body is all that it takes for your journey to come to a grisly end – or one mistimed fall onto a bed of blood-stained spikes. Once you’re out of health, you’ll be forced back to the very start of the game, with checkpoints to different areas only available after that location has been completely explored. At first, being sent back to the beginning of your adventure seems overly harsh. After all, how could you have possibly known about the trap that fires arrows as soon as you step within its range? How could you have known that dithering too long in one level summons a creepy ghost that dispatches you in a single strike? But gradually discovering new dangers and working out how to overcome them is all part of the experience, although the steep learning curve will no doubt be enough to put some players off, and the lack of a beginner mode is arguably a missed opportunity.
Persevere, however, and Spelunky will never stop giving. Every freshly created location serves as a brand new adventure, with untold riches and wonders just waiting to be unearthed. The game’s loot system acts as a high score mechanic, tempting you to give that one extra push in order to snag a precious rock or artefact. Spotting a golden fortune that’s in the opposite direction to the exit always prompts a decision based on risk versus reward, and it brings a real sense of tension to the title. In the long run, though, it’s possible that you’ll end up regretting not giving into your greed, as equipment and items can be bought using money gained from collecting loot.
Dotted throughout the game, you’ll come across shops that sell a random assortment of gear, from bombs that can be used to blast your way through walls to spiked shoes that allow you to deal out more damage when jumping on the heads of enemies. Alongside these comparatively mundane items, you’ll also find plenty of crazy gear that you can splash your cash on, like the immensely satisfying freeze ray that immobilises foes before you run in and smash them into icy chunks with your trusty whip. Coming across a store at just the right moment can drastically increase your life expectancy, so spending your money wisely is paramount to progressing deeper and deeper into the mysterious ruins.
When it comes to actual gameplay, the release is easy to pick up and understand, but somewhat hard to master. The platforming basics are all here: you’ll be jumping and dashing around levels with ease thanks to the responsive controls, and pushing the square button to crack your whip in front of you – although getting used to its short range can take some practice. On top of the usual actions, you can also pick up small rocks and breakable pots, which can then be thrown at enemies. You can even pick up damsels in distress and carry them to the exit for a cash bonus, but as you can imagine, lugging around another person puts you in even more danger.
As if avoiding roaming, venom spitting snakes and giant spiders that drop from the ceiling wasn’t enough, you’ll also have to quickly solve deliciously dynamic puzzles if you’re to get through the game unscathed. For example, traps that shoot out arrows can be disarmed by hurling a rock or coaxing a critter into its line of fire, forcing it to shoot out its only ammo reserve.
Eventually, you’ll need a honed understanding of almost everything around you in order to survive later areas, which tend to get increasingly crazy in terms of aesthetics. Things start off simple enough as you explore typically bleak, rocky caves, but everything from the detailed sprite work to the delightful art style begins to blossom the further that you venture underground. In addition, the release’s visual charm is complemented by a brilliantly catchy soundtrack that ties the experience together perfectly, sporting a mix of tunes that amplify the atmosphere of your current surroundings.
Spelunking by yourself can become a slog, especially if you get careless and lose the majority of your health just a few minutes into your latest session, and, at worst, proceedings can really start to frustrate since death brings with it such huge consequence. Fortunately, local co-op allows for some great partner play, and the title’s deathmatch mode – which tasks up to four players with surviving in enclosed, incredibly hectic environments – brings a welcome change to the intense single player offering, and is almost guaranteed to result in hilarity between friends as each miniature explorer is utterly destroyed in comical fashion.
The Vita plays the perfect host to Spelunky. Its intense, fast-paced gameplay feels right at home on the portable device, where quick stints of gameplay can help to alleviate the frustration that the title’s unforgiving difficulty inevitably unearths. If you’re fortunate enough to dig your way past the rock-solid opening hours, a never-ending supply of treasure eagerly awaits your discovery.