The first few goes at Spelunky were accompanied by pangs of irritation. Having made a clumsy mistake, we'd be sent back to the beginning of our adventure. Worse still, the next time we got to the same point, thanks to the game's clever level randomiser, entire world would have rearranged itself, throwing new traps in our way and robbing us of the chance to pre-empt and perfect the stages. Life seemed grossly unfair.
Then things started to click - as players we're spoilt by the predictability of hand-crafted levels that can be memorised, generous checkpointing and recharging health, but that doesn't mean that when you take those things away there isn't the opportunity to improve. The slippy-slidey platforming controls become second nature, the timings of enemy attacks are drilled into your cerebellum, becoming pure motor response, and the balance of risk and reward becomes more and more defined. Eventually you're dancing past spikes, beaning enemies with the damsels you're supposed to be rescuing and nabbing loot from beneath the glistening jaws of giant tarantulas. Life is good again, at least until you get to the next world and have to learn a new host of traps and enemy types.
This is the glorious flow of Spelunky. Each new area is fiendishly difficult at first, but as you explore and become proficient at dealing with the various, often instantly lethal threats it becomes much more about taking measured risks, Indiana Jones style. You'll still die but, much more frequently, it'll be your own damned fault.
The other thing you'll discover as you push further into the depths of Spelunky's underworld is that, while death is permanent, there is the opportunity to retain your progress, in the shape of 'Tunnel Man'. Manage to reach a new area and he'll ask for either equipment or cash to help complete a shortcut tunnel from the hub world to that area, meaning you can start the game from there if you please (though you won't be able to post a time to the leaderboards). You'll have to get to that transitional corridor multiple times, but that enforces the all important learning process.
That's single-player, but the four player co-operative version of the Adventure mode is almost a completely different experience. Add an extra player or three and it becomes about frantic communication and the occasional impromptu whip fight. The game's just as mortally hazardous but, in a rare forgiving touch, felled explorers appear as ghosts, capable of causing minor mischief by blowing on items and triggering traps to ensure the remaining players make it to the exit. It's worth continuing to co-operate even if your corporeal form has been lobbed around by your cackling friends, because there's every chance the game will throw a coffin containing a brand new body into the next generated area.
Then there's the seemingly throwaway Deathmatch mode, which actually plays like an even more chaotic, side-on version of Bomberman as players attempt to either incinerate, impale or otherwise incapacitate each other on a tightly confined map. It's unlikely to become a long-term favourite, but as a way to decompress after your well-oiled adventuring machine has broken down for the 40th time, it's an absolutely welcome addition.
The only minor wrinkle in an otherwise clean sheet is the fact that both the multiplayer modes are offline only - you'll need to gather those three friends in the same room at the same time. That's no great loss when it comes to the deathmatch mode, but the co-op is so utterly involving and so regularly hilarious that it's a real shame there isn't the option to play it over Live where, if the game enjoys the success it deserves, you'd have an abundance of Spelunky-obsessed chums to choose from. Still, it's worth enduring the human contact just to experience the unfettered joy of pushing through an endless supply of near-perfect platforming with a similarly clumsy friend.
Even if you're confined to single player, Spelunky is yet another small but perfectly formed nugget of joy to be unearthed on the Games Marketplace. Like Fez, Joe Danger and Super Meat Boy before it, the charm simply oozes out of the screen and leaves a saccharine sticky patch at the base of your TV. That initial infuriation crystallises into solid determination and 1200MP buys you an endless supply of levels against which to test your wits and skills. Just try and resist having one more go - you're doomed to cave.
- Gorgeous visuals
- Clever level generation
- Tons of depth
- Hilarious multiplayer
- Why no Live support?