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I can describe the exact moment you’ll give up on Spelunky.

You’ll be at the very first level, having just died, yet again, at the hands of a giant spider/wasp/frog lurking in the bowels of the game’s lower levels. Once you’ve finished mourning the last thirty minutes of your life the game just callously cast aside, you’ll start making your way through the first level yet again. Then you’ll come across a pot, smash it open, and the snake hiding inside the pot will bite your face, sending you spiraling into a spike pit. That, my friend, is your cue to storm out of the room.

You’ll be back a few hours later.

Spelunky is a 2D platformer that heaps misery upon the unobservant, the hasty and the ignorant. You take the role of a diminutive treasure hunter, intent on retrieving some legendary loot from a haunted cave. Between you and said treasure is an army of spiders, snakes, mummies, aliens and yetis, all of which take a hard-line stance against the theft of cultural artifacts. Die at any point, and you’re dumped unceremoniously back at the beginning of the game, bereft of your weapons, money and progress. The only thing you get to keep is knowledge, represented in the game by a journal which is slowly filled out each time you encounter a new enemy, trap or item. That sense of self-improvement is what will keep you coming back to Spelunky, even as your death count reaches the four digit mark.

The relative ease of modern gaming has given rise to a genre where difficulty is the goal. The humble platformer, known for its drawn-out love affair with the bottomless and/or spike-filled pit, is generally the genre of choice when it comes to “masocore” gaming. On the surface, Spelunky closely resembles some of the entries in that particular genre. It’s savagely difficult, relentlessly punishing, mechanically immaculate and profoundly rewarding. The key difference is that while Spelunky will certainly appeal to those who want their platforming chops busted, there’s plenty here for the less-skilled gamer as well.

Every level in Spelunky is randomly generated, with different items, shops and treasures scattered throughout, and they can all be tackled in different ways. You start the game with a set of ropes, which can be thrown straight upwards and then climbed, and bombs, which do exactly what you might expect. Being able to bypass a trap by blowing a hole in the floor is super satisfying, and learning to weigh your precious supply of items against the risks or rewards posed by a given situation is a perfect example of why Spelunky works so well. It isn’t about how far through the game you are, or how many items you have, it’s about how much you know.

In the caves, you’ll find all manner of extra items, some of which have to be carried and others which straight up augment your abilities. Spike pits and giant spiders become considerably less worrying when you’re wearing a jetpack and armed with a shotgun. The trade-off is that most items cost money, which counts towards your final score. The shops themselves are random. Sometimes you’ll come across shops that sell only bombs or ropes. Occasionally, you’ll come across slightly less reputable establishments that offer gambling, AI slaves or “kisses.”

You start Spelunky with only 4 HP, and, excluding a few exceedingly rare items, kisses are the only way to restore or increase your health. You’ll acquire most of your smooches from the “damsels” hidden through the game. The damsels – you can choose whether they’re curvaceous blonde women, hunky guys or bug-eyed pugs in the options menu – restore one health point if you can get them to the end of the level. To pick them up, however, you have to drop whatever you might be carrying, yet another risk-versus-reward decision.

With its focus on player choice and skills set, you’d think Spelunky would be a stressful in the extreme, and in some ways it is. When you’re on level 12 with everything riding on a jump across a bottomless pit, the pressure is almost unbearable. But it’s also quite a relaxing game, in an odd kind of way. Spelunky‘s punishing set up means the consequences to your decisions are huge – an item missed could be the difference between success and failure – but also transient. I tend to agonize over in-game decisions (“Which route should I take?” “Which class should I be?” “Which Pokemon should I start with?” “Which of these aliens should I molest?” etc) but I found myself making snap decisions in Spelunky and not regretting them in the slightest, even when they turned out to be absolutely wrong. The fact every decision is made under a time limit – spend too long in a level and it spawns an indestructible ghost that can kill you with one touch – helps, but it’s mostly down to the fact that having to restart Spelunky rarely feels like a chore. It’s just that much fun. Every run through Spelunky plays out almost like a campfire story, with its own ups and downs, triumphs and inevitable defeats. I died plenty of times in Spelunky without achieving anything tangible, but I didn’t feel like any of my time was wasted.

The game features up to four-player local co-op, it’s frantic fun for the first few levels, but there’s a delicate balance to the single player that’s lost when you’ve got four people throwing bombs all over the place. It’s still really good fun, but the punishing nature of the game makes keeping a four-player group from turning into a four-player brawl difficult. The deathmatch mode is a fun, but shallow diversion. Spelunky is a game best enjoyed alone.

In the early hours of the morning.

Bottom line: Spelunky is a demanding platformer that manages to be both progressive and nostalgic at the same time. The enjoyment you’ll get out of the title is limited only by your tolerance for frustration.

Recommendation: A must buy for Xbox owners , though there is a less visually impressive version of the game available for free on PC.

[rating=5]

Game: Spelunky
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Derek Yu / Andy Hull
Publisher: Independent
Platform(s): PC, XBLA

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