Originally a free PC game in 2008, Spelunky retains its retro game vibe in spirit, gameplay, and difficulty as it makes its debut on the Xbox Live Arcade.  Spelunky puts players in the role of an Indiana Jones style adventurer who, while searching for Olmec’s treasure, must traverse a variety of environments typically associated with adventuring.  What sets Spelunky apart from other platformers is that its stages are randomly generated, ensuring different enemies, traps, distressed damsels, shops, and level structure for every play through.

In addition to the standard whip, players can dispatch their enemies by throwing objects or jumping on their heads.  By collecting loot scattered about each level, players are also able to purchase special weapons and items from various shops, including a rope to reach high places, and bombs that can blast apart the fully destructible environments, carving new paths for the player.

Developed by:Mossmouth
Published by: MossMouth
Genre: Platformer
Platform: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
What works: The solid platforming and randomly generated stages ensure a uniquely fun experience every time.
What doesn’t work: The overly demanding checkpoint system and punishingly difficult gameplay can leave players spinning their wheels for hours.

Like many games of old, Spelunky is uncompromisingly tough and features no difficulty levels or save feature.  Instead, after completing areas multiple times, shortcuts to those areas are eventually enabled.  The multitude of instantly lethal traps and the player’s own dismally low health meter, ensure that certain doom is always only a breath away.  If players are able to locate a distressed damsel and successfully carry them to the end of the stage, they are rewarded with a kiss that increases their health by one point.  However, this is easier said than done because, like all objects that can be picked up, the damsel can be used as a projectile weapon.  Accidentally slinging the helpless damsel onto a bed of spikes or into the mouth of a man-eating plant may be hilarious at first, but dead damsels don’t offer rewards.

While some games suffer in terms of control when ported from PC to console, Spelunky thrives.  The responsive, well mapped controls allow for pinpoint precision when jumping and sprinting; a necessary characteristic of any successful platformer.

Composed entirely by Phlogiston, the new soundtrack is beautifully charismatic, and compliments Spelunky’s adventurous spirit.  As much as I enjoyed Spelunky’s pixelated look in 2008, it’s tough to complain about the new hand drawn animation.  The smooth, updated visuals give the game a cute and deceptively simple appearance, while the occasional subtle nod to various retro games is enough to make even the most jaded gamer smile.

Don’t be deceived by its adorable, child-like appearance; Spelunky is extremely, unfairly difficult.  Players can go from full health to dead in the blink of an eye.  Because the stages are randomly generated, memorization is not an option.  Instead, players are required to pay strict attention to their surroundings, developing their own strategies for survival.     

While I cannot fault Spelunky for its extreme difficulty, the game does take its fair share of cheap shots.  The creation of checkpoints is excessively difficult.  If a player has not already completed all of an area’s stages multiple times, donating valuable resources to “Tunnel Man” each time, they will respawn at the beginning of the game without access to any checkpoints.  To add to the frustration, the primary weapon (the whip) is embarrassingly inefficient.  Plus, encountering stages that are impossible to traverse without taking damage, or getting stuck completely is a common occurrence.  Being forced to quit a game, knowing all the while that your progress will be lost is tremendously aggravating.

Spleunky supports up to 4 players locally in both adventure and deathmatch modes, but both are more trouble than they are worth.  In adventure mode, the camera focuses entirely on player 1, forcing a mad scramble among the other players to remain on screen.  This cluster continually causes players to accidentally knock each other off of platforms to their untimely demise.  Deathmatch mode is even ridiculous due to each player’s fragility.  The confusingly chaotic matches seldom last longer than 10 seconds and are often won through sheer luck, or by simply avoiding interaction with the other players.

Blast Factor:  Spelunky may be insanely difficult, but it’s still really fun.  Reaching the end of a stage successfully can sometimes be based as much on luck as on skill, but the fact that Spelunky forces players to learn rather than memorize is an interesting twist on the genre.  As you would expect, playing for hours and dying literally hundreds of times without actually making progress can be immensely frustrating.  However, thanks to the random stage generator, players encounter fresh, new levels whether they successfully finish a stage, or die in the process.  1200 Microsoft Points is a bit pricey for an upgraded, free PC game, but if you truly find more enjoyment in actually playing games rather than beating them, I encourage you to check out Spelunky.

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