Many deaths await you in Spelunky
Death in video games is something that's very familiar to all gamers, even if survival is more prevalent than in the days of the coin-up classics. Dying (or 'dying') can often feel cheap and frustrate you – but when the situation is such that you can clearly see where you went wrong, the 'one more go' factor sets in, and you're immediately back for more. Spelunky's appeal lies in the way that you're killed by creatures or traps that you know you should have avoided. It is only the first time you encounter each foe or obstacle that you'll be surprised at how they kill you. Perhaps you'll be thinking it was unfair, but it's all part of the learning experience: You explore, you get familiar with your surroundings and the creatures that inhabit them... and then you set one foot wrong and you're dead in an instant.
Eager to do better, having learned from your mistake, you start over again – but that is not to say that you'll be retracing your steps. You may be familiar with who and what is to be found in the world of Spelunky, but the layout is different every time. The game may look like a fairly standard 2D platformer that sees you delve underground in an Indiana Jones-style adventure, fighting giant spiders, snakes, frogs, cavemen and a wide variety of other enemies along the way, but it is structured in the same way as rogue-likes such as Nethack or Shiren the Wanderer. This means that character death is permanent in the sense that you'll start over from scratch every time you die, losing all acquired items and gold, and you'll be back at the beginning of a new, randomly generated set of levels.
There is still a kind of progress that carries over from game to game, though, since you can unlock shortcuts to each of the game's four, differently themed 'worlds' by giving gold or specific items to the aptly named Tunnel Man, who will then unlock the shortcuts one by one to be accessed from the starting area.
He is not the only other friendly character you'll meet. There is also a shopkeeper who sells various useful items that you can purchase with the gold and diamonds that you find throughout each of the levels. You may want to add a couple of extra ropes and bombs to your arsenal, the two only items that, apart from a whip, you start each game with (and the only two which are practically essential to your progress), or perhaps you'd rather buy a weapon (like a shotgun, boomerang or freeze-gun), a pickaxe (used to easily get through layers of dirt, which you normally use bombs for) or how about some climbing gear? Or a cape or a parachute to avoid falling to your death?
There are two trade-offs to spending money like this. First of all, if you buy a weapon or pickaxe or similar item, your character will be carrying it in his hands and he'll not be able to pick anything else up while doing so. This might stop you from getting two of the the more useful pickups in each level with you all the way to the exit: The damsel in distress, who restores one health point with a kiss if you get her safely through a level (and in Spelunky, each health point counts a great deal, it has to be said), and then there's the Golden Idol, which gives you a huge amount of gold if carried through to the exit. Watch out, though, as it triggers a devious death-trap when picked up, Raiders-style, with a giant boulder rolling through the level, destroying everything it hits (and it'll royally piss off the shopkeeper if it hits him, and he'll blame you (who else?), call you a terrorist and start chasing you like a mad-man – so be careful!).
Secondly, there is the matter of high scores. Your ranking on the leaderboards is determined solely by the amount of gold you've acquired, so spending too much of it will not earn you a high position.
The second point will probably not be important to you until you've made some progress by unlocking the shortcuts, though. I'm still working on the last shortcut myself (due to the Tunnel Man requiring you to carry a specific item all the way from the first world to the end of the third - not easy), and as such I don't hesitate spending gold on items that can help me survive the rest of the day... or at least the next couple of seconds. Yes, each game of Spelunky can be ridiculously short, given how fast you can die. You start off with four health points (hearts), but those are quickly lost if you, for example, bump off one enemy and into another, or if you happen to land on a couple of spikes (which will kill you instantly, and there's a generous amount of them to avoid everywhere).
As a result, most games will probably not last you more than a couple of minutes, but the levels are also very short, which means that progress is fast when you happen to be able to stay alive for more than two minutes. This is probably also part of the reason why dying is not as frustrating as in games where you'd play for much longer, only to suddenly lose all that progress. The small amount of time and effort that you spend trying to overcome the steep challenge in Spelunky is part of the appeal: It's a game you can keep coming back to for a couple of quick plays, and the randomized levels always provide a fresh, yet familiar challenge.
It also helps that the controls have been tightened up since the freeware version that was released on PC in 2009. The d-pad on the 360 controller may not be particularly great, but it doesn't hinder you in any way. Not once did I feel like the controls were to blame for my many deaths. We're talking Super Mario levels of precision control, here.
While we're comparing this version to the PC original, it is of course the re-drawn, high-resolution graphics that are most immediately apparent. They're beautiful and more importantly very clear and uncluttered, making enemies very easy to spot (the exception is when you're unfortunate enough to find youself in a pitch-black level, carrying a torch the whole way through, hoping not to lose it or fall into a pool of water). It's definitely a step above the low-res graphics of the original.
Somewhat disappointing is that the wonderful music from the PC game has been ditched in favour of something that is much more dull, at least when it comes to the theme tune that you're greeted with on the start menu. Some of the music in the actual levels is quite good, and there's more variety to it than in the original. On the whole, despite worse music, Spelunky on XBLA is a great improvement on an already wonderful game. Even additions which may seem superfluous at first, like the Journal which keeps track of enemy types, items etc. (very useful the first time you've been killed by something and want to know what the heck it was), or the little lines of dialogue that add a bit of humour to each of your deaths (such as "I'm allergic to bees", just as you've been killed by a giant killer bee), are welcome little touches. In addition to that a completely chaotic deathmatch mode has also been added as well as the ability to play through the game co-operatively, though both of these additions are off-line only, but at least there are bots in the deatmatch mode.
The question that remains is whether Spelunky would be for you. If you're the sort of gamer who enjoys hard, but fair games such as Demon's/Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy and Trials, then I'd say chances are high you'll like it. The good news is that it's easy to find out before parting with your 1200 points as the trial on XBLA is fairly sizeable (you get the tutorial as well as the whole first world to play through), or you could go back to the entirely free PC original, which may sport a less impressive, more pixelated retro-look, but it's basically the same game with only slightly worse controls and better music. No matter how you play Spelunky, though, one thing is for sure: You will die, and you will die quickly. And then you'll be back for more, again and again.