Spelunky Preview: This Year's XBLA Masterpiece?
Fortune and glory.
Spelunky is a game about stories. Great big ones that last hours, five-second misadventures and everything in-between. No single one defines it. Instead, over hours and restarts they blend together, and from your missteps and triumphs some kind of epic takes shape.
Not bad for a rogueish platformer with a red-nosed hero. Spelunky was released for PC in 2008, and this XBLA remake is the real thing: an audio & visual overhaul, new objects & zones, and all the original's genius for accident and disaster.
The re-done visuals are gorgeous. As with every 'update' to a classic, there are those who will swear blind by the original pixels, but the hand-drawn art here is bold and colourful with the exagerrated proportions of its cartoony figures keeping just enough of the original sprites. There's one tiny touch I miss - the edges of the spelunker's hat used to flop up and down, but now he's wearing a hard hat. Perhaps a well-drawn fedora would have inched too close to copyright.
There's a whole new level of detail in the effects, which can be something as simple as a dust-cloud when landing or the stunning light effects in darkened stages. The best though, is surely the blood particles that fly out of vanquished enemies - big red globs that explode outwards and spatter into nothing.
The audio's been overhauled, too, with the original's chiptunes being directly updated in some cases and transformed in others. There's no exact word for what Spelunky XBLA's soundtrack is: chiptunes, basically, that have been made with proper instruments and modern synths. What's it like? Well there's one tune in the Temple so good that, whenever it starts playing, I think I'm going to die.
You cannot listen to it without trying something heroic - and in Spelunky, trying to do something heroic is the surest route to an early grave. You learn to play slowly by being punished. Look before you leap (spikes!), be careful around pots (snakes!), always check the ceiling (spiders!), keep an eye on the walls (arrows!), and never, ever pick up a golden idol without some kind of a plan. It's easy to die in Spelunky, there are hundreds of possibilities. And every single time it's heartbreaking.
In terms of its mechanics Spelunky is a 2D platformer, but the rogueish element is its randomly-generated (and fully destructible) levels which occur within an overarching structure. In each level your goal is to get to a door that will be somewhere at the bottom, but every stage is its own combination of maze and deathtrap - filled with tempting baubles, hidden treasures, deadly traps, and monsters great and small.
This approach to level-building works so well in Spelunky because its building blocks are so multifaceted. Take the arrow block, for example, a staple of the mines. This has a face carved into it and is easy to pick out among the usual brown blocks - though there are still times you'll somehow fail to see it. If anything moves in front of the arrow block, it shoots an arrow (!) at high speed, dealing a whopping amount of damage to you or killing most enemies instantly.
They're usually just where you need to go. Sometimes it's easy - you can drop or throw anything in front of it, a stone or a chest or even in desperate times a bomb or mouse. Enemies can trigger them, so sometimes you can lure one into position. If there's literally nothing to use, you can try falling fast enough at sufficient distance and you might just make it.
And after it's fired, watch out for the arrow bouncing off the wall and hitting you in the head. Then pick it up and start chucking. Score a direct hit on an enemy and the arrowhead is lost, rendering it less powerful on subsequent throws. The fact the arrow block reacts to everything in the game, and the arrow itself works as an independent object, is why it's much less one-dimensional than the name sounds.
Spelunky's challenge goes hand-in-hand with its level design, and it's a particular type of difficulty. The randomly generated levels are made up of elements like that arrow block that you will eventually see thousands and thousands of times. They all have predictable behaviour, up to a point, so you learn how to deal with them, up to a point. You learn how its system works, and then each new game gives you things in a different shape and order. It gives Spelunky an evergreen quality, something a little surprising every time you play. That can be starting in the middle of a nest of giant spiders, or it can mean three juicy item crates straightaway - in one jungle level, my spelunker entered pitch darkness and, picking up a torch, saw nothing but water either side. One ill-advised spontaneous leap later he was torn apart by piranhas. Chump.
One of Spelunky XBLA's main new features is offline co-op for up to four players. During this the camera centres on one of the four (helpfully marked out by a big flag) and the other three players have to keep themselves more or less in check - enemies and traps will still attack off-screen players. Trying to keep four players on the one screen feels a little crowded and haphazard, but the splitscreen alternative clearly wouldn't work visually so it's the only possible compromise.
Multiplayer Spelunky is a funny, funny thing. It might seem that having four times as much health and manpower would make combat and exploring more efficient, but in my experience the opposite is true. I've been hit in the head with pots, thrown off ledges, sacrificed to the gods, blown up, smacked with boomerangs and shot in the face by my partners.
Fact is, in a game like Spelunky you just can't trust people. The best example came in a two-player game, where a mate responded to the presence of a bat with the immortal words "I'll take care of this." He went to whip it, missed and hit me, got bitten, panicked and dropped a bomb on my stunned body, got bitten again and impaled himself on some spikes as I was blasted to smithereens. On the game over screen, you could see the bat still nipping away at his corpse.
When things go to plan, it feels like a military operation as all the little spelunkers clamber over and around the same terrain, ganging up on beasties and following each other up ropes. A shared treasure pool means there's no pettiness while exploring, but when it comes time to spend money at the shop... well, turns out Spelunky's shopkeepers are easily capable of defending themselves against three stooges.
It's worth mentioning, finally, that Spelunky feels great as a platformer. The controls are simple, but allow for great precision in moving exactly as required - and learning its little kinks, like the bounce on particular enemies or the kickback from a shotgun, is a delight. It's such a seemingly inexhaustible game because of the ferocious logic that underlines even the most chaotic situations - every single possibility and impact is worked out. I realised after several days of playing that the hook that fires up to tether ropes can be used as a weapon. You're maybe going to be in a situation once in a hundred games where that's needed, but I was - and it worked.
That feeling, the knowledge that the developers have been here before and worked it out, gives the player a confidence that can't be faked. Months away from release, Spelunky XBLA is a polished, always surprising and unique game - one that just keeps pulling you back into its dark and deep depths again and again. Summer can't come soon enough.