As gaming veers ever closer to the the proverbial middle of the road, each AAA game lost in a gloopy treacle of mediocrity and over-familiarity, the rise of the here’s something different has never been more apparent. It’s easy to label such diversions as indie – in the alternative sense of the word – but Spelunky, released today on the Xbox 360 – is so happy with its off the wall mechanics you can’t help but wish more games were so daring and bold.
Not that a side scrolling platformer is particularly daring in itself; there’s enough elements of Boulderdash and – clearly – 16-bit classic Rick Dangerous here that Spelunky’s in danger of looking, at first glance at least, like just another two dimensional explore-em-up. It’s not, of course, but there’s at least one core idea carried over from the early nineties that’ll make gamers brought up on a diet of PlayStation and auto-saves spit out their breakfast.
In Spelunky, you can die.
In the most permanent sense of the word, this isn’t immediately true: the game does bestow the player character with some concessions – multiple lives and a reasonably generous energy level when facing off against the lesser enemies for example – but if you do run out of options it’s game over, and everything around you that you fought hard to accomplish will come crashing down. And then get replaced by a completely fresh set of levels.
You see, Spelunky’s cavernous halls and dark tunnels are procedurally generated each time you play (and lose) meaning that although thematically you’ll have some sense of progression and location, the walls, pick-ups, puzzles, traps and wandering foes will differ. Initially this is confusing, but after a few attempts at the game it’s both surprisingly fresh and actually somewhat liberating – and it means that the game will never truly be over.
There’s a path through the game, naturally, and one that makes sense even when placed against a slightly bumpy difficulty curve, but it’s one that’s crucially paved with stories that only you (and your fellow local co-operatively playing friends) will ever experience. It’s a game that GameFAQs can’t help with, and it’s one that’ll provide water cooler discussion on nothing but an overall, extrapolated level. Nobody else will play the exact same game you’re playing.
A simple tutorial section eases the player in before opening up the rules. Weapons echo those of the aforementioned Mr Dangerous (bombs, for example, are a staple and a whip replaces the stick, although that’s hardly an inspired, original call) at first, and then progress into ever more whimsical and extravagant items that must be found within the organically built structures or from a no-nonsense shop keeper that doesn’t take kindly to thieves.
There’s elements of strategy everywhere, not least in the frequent decisions like whether or not to carry a damsel in distress for the remainder of the level (and get a health boost) or whether it’s worth risking a dangerous looking route for the promise of some gold.
With shades of Minecraft’s destructability and a get out of jail-like rope, adventurers are encouraged to do just that, and the bravest will always find the most loot. In multiplayer there’s often a scramble for the goodies and a good amount of sofa-based humour, but it’s telling that the game feels just as busy and alive when just played solo: each game a series of similar but always distinct snapshots of danger, laughter and just a tiny dash of frustration.
I’m a big fan of Spelunky. On Xbox 360 (four years after the freeware PC version) it looks gorgeous and feels as complete as anything else on the Arcade Marketplace, and plays without fuss for those wanting to take the path of least resistance and just dive in and see what happens. It’ll punish the foolhardy, but it’ll reward the smart and the courageous like few other games, always seemingly one step ahead of what you’re thinking, even if you’re Indiana Jones.
Spelunky is out now for Xbox 360, priced at 1,200 Microsoft Points.