Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Spelunky

Olmec, then and now.


Spelunky is a platformer that recently made its X-box 360 debut.  It became available nearly three years ago on PC as freeware (and remains available here), but an updated version (including new cooperative and competitive multiplayer game modes and improved graphics) has been ported over to the X-box Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points, or $18.

Unless I'm already emotionally invested in a series, or something about the story or gameplay of a new title really interests me, the only reason I'll purcahse a new game is if there isn't another game captivating my attention at the moment.  It's a shame I just discovered this game a couple of days ago.  If I'd known about it when it was released on PC, I feel like I could have avoided numerous unfortunate game purchases that I've come to regret.  Platformers aren't my usual cup of tea, but something about Spelunky has grabbed my focus and won't let go.

The game features randomized levels, destructible environments, item collection, nearly no save points, and incredibly frequent player death that can only be avoided by knowledge, forethought, and skill.

It's not everyday you see a game with better graphics on console than PC.
On PC, the graphics are pixelated but nostalgically attractive; the X-box version features improved sprites and backgrounds, as well as more vibrant colours. Sound-wise, the effects are logical and reminiscent of other platformers. As for music, I'm guilty of watching movies, television, or streams while gaming, so I rarely keep the music volume of any game above zero, but Spelunky's 8-bit, environment-appropriate soundtrack makes me want to turn off VLC and listen in.  The X-box soundtrack leaves a little something more to be desired, but isn't unpleasant.

Return on Emotional Investment

Spelunky's emotional investment comes entirely from within the player.  Death visits you often, but every level is utterly random, so progressing from one to the next is almost irrelevant.  You want to make progress, but the way the game "punishes" you for not doing so is by giving you a completely new level to explore when you start over: this is exactly what you'd have gotten if you'd survived to enter the next area.  Over time, your experience and skills will grow, and you'll surely find yourself delving deeper and deeper more often.  The rewards you experience are intrinsic, and the frustration minimal.  A brand new adventure awaits you regardless of failure or success.  

Do you care about seeing all the tilesets? Does beating the game, snagging all the achievements, finding the secret areas, or securing a high score mean anything to you? Personally, I find each new descent into the mines is fuelling my addiction, while remaining fun, addictive, and rewarding all on its own.

Return on Monetary Investment

On the surface, perhaps Spelunky sounds a little repetitive.  Until the first four levels are behind you, you're going to see a lot of the same traps and enemies.  That said, progressing to a new stage introduces new items, traps, enemies, and environments.  There's a nearly limitless number of encounter possibilities and ways of defeating or avoiding them.

Spelunky, as aforementioned, is free on PC.  It's a small download; everyone should give it a try.  You're getting a great game for free.  For $18, though, you can play the improved version on Microsoft's console.  The core gameplay remains the same, though a few extra features come along with the purchase.  The improved graphics deserve another mention, they're quite pretty.  More, there's a journal that fills up as you encounter new creatures and items, an enhanced tutorial, and a couple of local multiplayer modes.  They feel a little tacked-on, only because progress you make isn't saved, except in the form of high-scores for the deathmatch mode.  Still, if you've got a friend or three on your couch, it's entertaining to take on the mines cooperatively or destroy each other in very brief, but hilarious, death matches. 

Return on Temporal Investment

It's taken me probably five hours to unlock the first checkpoint (on PC, I still need to repeat the feat on X-box).  These checkpoints come in the form of "shortcuts" that allow you skip stages.  To unlock the shortcut, you'll have to pay an NPC a pre-determined amount of treasure and items.  You may not have sufficient means to pay the full fee on your first encounter with this NPC, so multiple playthroughs of each stage are definitely required.  Personally, I had to pass through the first four levels four different times (without dying, obviously) to have enough to purchase that first shortcut.  Actually, it helps to think of these shortcuts, which you can only access when you start the game, as Warp Zones.  

Skill improvement is what's being demonstrated, here.  For my first couple of hours of play, it seemed impossible that I'd pass the fourth level even once, let alone three more times.  Hand-eye coordination is on display, but more important and fascinating than that is the quick strategizing you'll do and the risk vs. reward calculations you'll make.  You're standing before the exit.  Do you climb back up to seek more treasure, the maiden, or the Golden Idol?  Perhaps you should just cut your losses and move on to the next level.  The experience of quickly analyzing each encounter is both enjoyable and applicable to daily life. 

To Conclude

Spelunky is difficult, but you'll find yourself learning from each failure, no matter how spectacular or mundane.  Try it for  PC first, if you can, but the X-box has the clearly superior version.

Despite not being much of a platform gamer, I'm glad I picked this one up.  I'll be enjoying many hours with it in the weeks to come, and it's a game I'm sure I'll dive back into here and there for years.

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