From the ridiculous to the sublime. That is the power of Spelunky. On booting up your PS Vita and making your way through the introduction, the cutscenes and the choice of character you find yourself in some mines headed downwards to the level’s exit. You die. You try again only this time the level’s layout and everything in it is different. You die again. You get a handle on how far you can drop without breaking every bone in your body; how late you need to crack your whip to take down that bat. You get that little bit further and you still die. You do this for a few minutes before rage quitting, launching your Vita at the nearest wall and crossing your arms. For about forty seconds before trying again. You get that little bit further but then you die again and you are right back at the start. Eventually you cannot put the thing down, repeatedly trying that one more time having developed a strategy for avoiding the awakening skeletons and saving that damsel in distress in order to up your health. You make it to the exit and you meet the Tunnel man, oh sweet Tunnel man. You die, and it starts again. By this time you’ve invested tens of hours and died hundreds of times but you no longer want to rage quit and destroy anyone who ever mentions spelunking ever again. No, now you’re pretty much in love with the potholing guy who looks like Rick Dangerous and you wanna give that Tunnel man all he needs in the hope you get all the way to the end of this game.
So yes, Spelunky is an incredibly challenging but oh so moreish slice of digital entertainment. As you start the game, choosing your preferred avatar to go potholing with, you learn of Yang and his own spelunking starting at an ever-changing mine. No run-through is the same. Yang is your tutor, providing practical experience of how to do each and every move you’ll need to draw upon as you continue down the rabbit hole. You can jump with X and if holding R whilst moving you do so at speed; combining the two yields a super jump. You can crouch, you can pick up items and drop or throw them. You can use your whip by hitting Square from the start, but that can be replaced by other weapons or useful items as you progress. The control of your character is impeccable. Movement is swift, incredibly responsive and although at times you might think something is amiss as you try to attack a bat whilst flying through the air, it’s actually just that you’ve slightly mistimed it.
The game’s structure is that there are nominally four areas each with four levels to get through. Do so and you beat the game. You have to do so in one go though (at least, to start with), with just four bits of health to keep you going. You can get more, by saving the damsel (or dog) in distress for example, but fundamentally you need to just be very very careful, clever and hope for a bit of luck. You also begin with four bombs and four ropes and hooks which can be shot upwards to allow vertical traversion. This is where things get interesting. You need to get from the mine’s entrance to the exit and then repeat on the next level. The route is downwards but the area itself has a significant horizontal distance too so it’s not always as easy as just placing bombs and dropping down. You’ll meet various enemies along the way each with repeating attack patterns - the bats will fly towards you once close enough; spiders will drop as you pass under them. In other areas the enemies change - bees will hunt you down and deliver a sting resulting in anaphylactic shock whilst orange frogs will self-destruct if jumped on. Just as you develop strategies to repeatedly survive a given attack the game ups the ante by introducing a new and ever more challenging selection of opponents. Around the same time you’re hanging on to your last piece of life in the hope you can get that little bit further.
The way to survive is to try different things, determine what works for you and to do that over and over again rather than take risks. Once you find a solution stick with it or run the risk of losing life. Despite the inherent challenge presented by this game it’s not that hard if you can be disciplined and not do anything stupid. This is actually quite hard as it turns out, but sound advice if you can stick with it. One way to get past a particularly awkward bit might be to bomb through the ground and avoid it altogether. You might ensure you don’t ‘break every bone in your body’ by using a rope to move down rather than blindly dropping. You might prefer to jump on a bat’s head, or whip it at arm’s length. Whatever works, works. You have to play clever and determine a way around each obstacle in general. It’s kind of like Dark Souls only not. Whereas that game encouraged practice and learning what’s out there, where and what it does, Spelunky only lets you learn what everything does. The game is a roguelike and as such each time you re-enter the mines the layout of the level is different. The same in the jungle and further on, too. You might have a water-feature, a shop with the crazy shopkeeper (do not get aggressive as he does not take kindly to any offence - or do get aggressive and use the internet community’s multitude of tips on how to get the better of him!) or the lights might have gone out. You might have a graveyard, Kali’s altar or happen upon a golden treasure. There’s always treasure around to collect and spend in the shop on upgrades like the shotgun, more bombs or a jetpack (really) but often it’s a trade-off versus ease of escape as to whether it’s worth going for the gold or the gems.
Fortunately if you get to the end of an area (i.e. every four levels) you’ll run into Tunnel Man, a man you’ll grow to love at first, then latterly hate but always appreciate the support he offers however expensive it might get. You see, each time you meet him he asks for your help in terms of something he needs from you. Provide it three times at the end of each area and he’ll build a shortcut from the start. Such a wonderful man and a very well-received introduction given you’ll be pulling your hair out by the time you finally make it to him that very first time. Naturally the next time you see him will be much quicker as you’ll see your skills improving tangibly as you progress. You’ll work out better ways to get past things, you’ll know whether you like to bomb shortcuts or some other tactic and you’ll see your control of what’s happening move upwards in quality. The progression you make is just enough to demand you come back for more again and again. We’ve died hundreds of times to get all the way to the end and there are still secrets hidden away. Some easy to find - see what happens if you spend too long in one level - whilst some are there but tantalisingly out of reach to date.
The PS Vita ensures the game looks beautiful thanks to the OLED screen and the vibrancy of the cartoon-like graphics full of squat character models and primary colours in amongst the browns and blacks demanded by a game based underground delight the visual sense. There are no in-game touch controls which is fine as the challenge would demand use of the much more efficient physical buttons anyway. The game itself is perfectly suited to a handheld given you can be dead in three seconds or complete the game in under eight minutes, if you’re good enough. The leaderboard aspect (if enough of your friends are playing it) will ensure continued attempts long after completion but even if it didn’t chances are you would keep coming back to it anyway given its near-perfect bite-sized gameplay. There’s the option to play with others ad-hoc over wi-fi or by utilising the cross-play (it’s cross-buy as well, brilliantly) feature you can get people playing together on both PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. With more than one character in an area at a time things can get incredibly hectic, especially when everything alive, and the environment as well, reacts to one or another’s actions.
Spelunky started life as PC shareware and then arrived on XBLA in 2011 and PC earlier this year. The PS Vita execution is as wonderful a game as it has always been - despite some framerate issues when certain events are triggered or areas entered - but is more at home given the way it plays and the fact it nags at you every moment you’re not playing it - which is reduced if you can take it with you wherever you go. Sure it can frustrate like hell but when you finally give that Tunnel Man what he needs meaning you never have to (if you don’t want…) see another giant bee again, man, that feeling is good.