Dr. Jones, Dr. Jones, Calling Dr. Jones
Mossmouth Studios has done what no other developer has done before with Spelunky: make a good Indiana Jones video game. This charming indie remake borrows heavily from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s pulpy aesthetic and mixes it with punishing design choices to fuel your desire for exploration. You’ll crack a whip, fight snakes and tarantulas, and take some golden idols from trap-laden pedestals just like Harrison Ford’s famous character, all while trying to avoid swift death. Spelunky doesn’t shy away from sending players back to square one, but that only gives you more reason to hit continue and try again.
In some sort of horrific limbo, your squat, bigheaded explorer is doomed to spelunk through mines, jungles, and temples. Again, Indiana Jones is a clear influence here, from the character models to the weapons, even down to the damsel in distress that resembles Willie from Temple of Doom. As you begin, it becomes clear that the enemies and traps aren’t too difficult when encountered separately, but in concert, they can be hilariously deadly.
With Charlie Chaplin like absurdity, you might fall too far off a ledge and bounce, stunned, into an arrow trap that blasts you far over a chasm and into a snake pit. Or perhaps you’ll find a Neanderthal caveman who deals in overzealous body slams. However it happens, death always sends you back to the start with only your beginning items—bombs for blasting through walls and ropes for climbing up to higher ledges—and the level, loot, and enemy layouts are randomized next round.
This is sort of a double-edged design choice; it does help to create a real sense of discovery and exploration since everything is freshly laid out each round, but also makes the level design a bit loose. Sometimes enemies and traps just happen to be placed so that a lot of skill, resources, and some luck are needed to pass, and other times you’ll breeze through a level with little trouble. Also, levels can start to feel similar to one another despite being “random”, which makes playing for long periods a bit dull. The randomness doesn’t always keep the edge off the frustration of frequent death enough to sustain long play times, and it is easy to get stuck in a rut right before hitting a new level.
How you deal with Spelunky’s rapid cycle of dying depends on your lust for loot and seeing new areas. The loot itself sits mostly in plain sight—almost always tempting you to cross a wide spike pit—and usually doesn’t take too much effort to pick up. Where things get interesting is when you get greedy and go for too much instead of simply going out the level exit. I died often trying to get just a few more gold stacks or tangerine sized rubies when I should have been content. The problem is that merchants pop up and offer unique items and powerups for a premium, so if you want to wheel and deal for a shotgun, gliding cape, or exit compass, you’ll have to go for the dangerously placed gems. The designers clearly seeded the level generator with these liberally to keep players’ addictive centers on full alert, and to keep them in the literal rat maze a bit longer.
Even without powerups, Spelunky feels great to play. If you played Super Meat Boy or even Braid, you’ll feel right at home with how quick the run speed is and how far you can jump. Again, the random level design occasionally gets in the way here, forcing lots of rope climbing and tunnel blasting to get around awkward geometry, but generally works well. The run button is deceptively useful, leading often to accidental impalement. Careful planning is an essential component of Spelunky, and I quickly settled into a pattern of observe, plan, and execute rather than just brute forcing through levels. In fact, I don’t think it is even possible to sprint full speed through any one level of Spelunky without getting completely annihilated. Learning all the rules surrounding each enemy, trap, and even the merchant system (do not fuck with those dudes) comes slowly, but each time you break a rule you learn what not to do next time.
Spelunky’s starts you in the mines and soon leads to graveyards, jungles, and hidden temples, which all have different enemy sets with some crossover. Some of these areas are clearly more difficult than others, but thankfully there is a shortcut system that can be unlocked by donating supplies, money, and some firepower to a quaint fellow named Tunnel Man. I won’t spoil his tolls; suffice it to say he sets his price too damn high. Still, the convenience of popping right to the beginning of an area is too great to pass up.
How far you spelunk into Spelunky is based upon how willing you are to persevere through countless deaths in order to explore. The simple joy of delving into forbidden caves is enough for me to recommend the game, but you have to possess a great deal of patience when learning the game’s numerous systems. Like Indiana Jones, you will get roughed up and beaten down, but you’ll likely come through the other side intact and glad to have made the trip.