Welcome to the king of rage quits.

I have to admit, my curiosity with Spelunky only really started when I read that it was coming to the Vita. From here I found Eurogamer’s 10/10 review and so I started my investigation. For those of you who don’t know, Spelunky actually started as a freeware title for the PC way back in 2008 and was so popular that it went on to receive an enhanced XBox 360 release and a further official PC release. Fast forward to last Wednesday and Spelunky finally hit the Vita and PS3 as a crossbuy title. Spelunky has you on a quest as a spelunker (read – cave explorer) through four different worlds in randomly generated caves. Touted as a rogue-like (read – crushing difficulty and death means you have to start over) platformer what you have here is a rock solid experience that you will love or hate. Or perhaps love to hate. Maybe even hate to love.

In the dark, dark jungle.

You start the game by selecting from one of many cute little characters. Whether it be a little green ninja, a robot or someone who looks suspiciously like that gun toting menace from Jumanji (“Time’s up sonny Jim!”) it really doesn’t make a difference as they all play the same. From here you’re taken into a tutorial which is explained through a book you discover and a flashback where you play as the author to learn the game mechanics. As you venture forth into the cave you soon discover that game play is deceptively simple; the left stick moves you, X makes you jump, square allows you to whip in true Indiana Jones style (if you count whipping one block forward badass enough), Δ allows you to throw a rope upwards should you need to climb to higher platforms and Ο allows you to drop a bomb. The R trigger also allows you to sprint which comes in handy when you need to make a quick escape or jump further. Ropes and bombs are in short supply so you really have to think whether it’s worth using them as your initial supply is limited to four of each, and your spelunker also starts the game with four lives.

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One green ninja and his dog.

Initially while playing the tutorial I thought to myself  how I’d complete the game in an hour or two max (given one of the trophies is unlocked through an eight minute speed run). Oh how wrong I was! After dying roughly fifteen times in the first five minutes of play I was almost ready to switch off in disgust and yet I didn’t. It’s fairly rare that games give me a true beating but the fact that you have to restart from the beginning every time you die makes things a hell of a lot more interesting. Indeed this is actually the first rogue-like I’ve played (I know, I haven’t lived!) but the whole thing somehow hooked me in a way most games don’t. After dying (and admittedly giving up in anger) a couple of hours later I was back for more.

I wondered if this is perhaps what masochism really feels like, if there was some kind of screw loose in my brain that just kept me coming back for more. The truth, rather more simply is that Spelunky is a game that is heavily based around discovery and it becomes a joy (and a pain) to learn what’s next. The first time you get an arrow trap to the face, a boulder crush to the body or a totem spike in the back , you will hate it, but you will also learn something new. It’s this learning and filling your journal with information as you get gradually further into the game that makes you keep coming back for more, because you know in your heart that somewhere you will have learned enough, played enough and had a bit of luck (the difficulty can vary due to the randomly generated caves) on a run that you will be able to complete the game. And then the real challenge starts. The trophy set for Spelunky is pretty insane. You may even wonder why some of these trophies are bronze instead of gold as you will need to sink considerable time and effort into the game to ever hope of getting them all. And then there are the leader boards that make me feel less like a man and more like a prepubescent child. The first time I checked them I saw that people have completed Spelunky in under five minutes. Five minutes? Needless to say I have a long, long way to go to even dream of an achievement like that.

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Capes are cool. You will feel cool. Then you’ll die. Again.

Anyway getting back to things that can actually help you in your quest, there are a few features that you’re going to want and need to utilise to get through. The journal fills up with entries each time you are killed by a trap, collect a new item or encounter a new monster. Knowledge is power as they say. Also littered throughout the levels are gold bars and jewels that award you currency. Whether you save up for the high score on the leader boards is up to you but every now and then you’ll come across a shopkeeper who will have a random set of items you can purchase. From your standard bombs and ropes, to knives that slash enemies, capes that help your fall and even a camera (pointless unless I missed something) there are lots of perks to uncover. If you’re clever (or stupid) you may try and kill the shopkeeper to grab his stash but it wouldn’t be advised. Crates and treasure chests are also littered about, as are pots that often contain loot but sometimes contain enemies. The list continues with golden idols that massively boost your wallet and damsels (which can be male, female or a dog??) which afford you a valuable extra heart if you can take them to the exit. I really can’t express how much there is to uncover and I won’t spoil it for you but I will say it’s worth uncovering.

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Don’t be afraid of the dark.

Is there anything bad about Spelunky? Well it really depends on what you’re after. I’m not really the sort of bloke that likes randomly generated levels but I admit they do work here. As is the nature it does of course sometimes mean you can feel like you’re up against it through particularly difficult sections, especially when you’ve gotten further in. You could also argue that the game is too hard (it certainly is for the average gamer) but I feel the difficulty is well placed here. It’s not the sort of game you could focus on for hours at a time but it’s certainly one you will return to time and time again. The multi-player arena battles and multi-player mode for the main campaign are ad-hoc only which to me feels like an oversight and a big shame. I don’t have any friends local enough with a Vita so it was a feature I was unable to test, though obviously if you have a PS3 and several controllers it’s less of an issue as you can play together on your TV. I also noticed the odd annoying bug where I’d get trapped and be unable to rescue my damsel but these occurrences are rare. Other than that it’s fairly plain sailing. Whilst 2D platformers are pretty common on the Vita now due to the influx of indie titles, Spelunky truly does feel difficult and while at times it’s brutal I don’t see it losing place on my already cramped memory card soon. The fact that its cross buy and doesn’t cost that much also helps sweeten the deal but for the casual gamer not. I don’t think Spelunky is as close to perfection as some reviews have said but it’s certainly a brilliant game that’s worth your time and attention…just make sure you’re feeling calm, your walls and floors are coated with rubber or your Vita is in a smash proof case.

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I'm 27 years old, and have been playing games for 20 years now, ever since Sonic and Alex Kidd on the master system. I love most types of games but I have a particular passion for music games and racing games, though Final Fantasy VII is and probably always will by my all time favourite as it's the only computer game to ever make me cry!
  • Rod

    Nice review! It’s so nice to have the Vita Lounge back in action 🙂

    As I can’t afford to buy Spelunky just yet (though I’ve wanted it for so long), is a competition to win a copy on the cards?

    • Jonathan Harding-Rathbone

      I don’t think so at the moment I’m afraid butbif anything happens we will let you know!

      • Rod

        I caved and bought it anyway. How could I not on the strength of your great review? I’m glad I did – it’s fantastic!

  • Buckybuckster

    Thanx once again for a well executed review Jon!

    This type of game really puts me in a quandary. You want the game because you know in your heart that it’s a great game. Yet you know that the game’s calling card is it’s high difficulty. You know right from the start that even before you can afford the thought of finishing it, many deaths are slated for your future.

    I just don’t know if my gamer”s psyche has the patience to tolerate the abuse! : ) Would have to test drive a demo if there is one.

    • Rod

      There is definitely a demo, but if that’s not long enough for you to get a feel for the game, you can download the PC original for free! That’s what convinced me that I loved Spelunky!

      Here is the link http://spelunkyworld.com/original.html