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Review: Spelunky 2

I think it might be a reasonable assumption that folks who follow the indie game market on PC have heard about Derek Yu. He ran a popular gamedev blog/messageboard called TIGsource, and did the artwork and level design for the breakout indie hit Aquaria. After Aquaria, Yu developed a platform game he called "Spelunky," which blended traditional Mario-style platforming with some rougelike elements, such as procedurally generated levels and no extra lives or continues (permadeath). Amusingly, it had a bit of an Indiana Jones theme to it — the main character wears a fedora, and uses a whip as his primary weapon, while searching for ancient gold and artifacts. To make a long story short, the freeware version was popular enough that Yu was able to get a contract with Microsoft to develop an enhanced version of the game for Xbox Live Arcade; from there, it proliferated across various other platforms. The enhanced version did so well that Yu began working on a sequel, which was released last year. So this isn’t a new game, by any means, but I am finally getting around to writing about it.

While I tried to enjoy Spelunky Classic (the initial, freeware version), I couldn’t really get into it — I was never able to master using the keyboard to control the player. When Spelunky HD (the enhanced remake) was eventually released for Playstation 3, I played the heck out of it until my PS3 died. I then bought the game again from Good Old Games and ran it via wine on my Macbook. After playing it enough, I was eventually able to "git gud" enough to beat the game’s hidden boss, in order to find the true ending.

I bought Spelunky 2 after Proton compatibility was confirmed, but was initially pretty discouraged after playing for a while. The game felt even harder than (the already hard) Spelunky HD. Similar to the Japanese version of Super Mario Brothers 2, Spelunky 2 took the main ideas established by the first game, expanded them, and upped the difficulty. Instead of a strictly linear path, it’s now possible to choose from a few different branches as you make your way through the game. There are many more traps and enemies, making it difficult to keep on top of the situation as you progress. Many times, the emergent nature of the gameplay produced situations that it was impossible to anticipate, usually ending in an untimely demise. After playing enough to beat the first boss, and see the worst ending, I concluded that the game was too hard for me, and set it aside.

But as you might imagine, I came back recently. Why is the game so darn compelling? The initial impetus was that my son became super interested in the game, continually requesting me to play it. After a while, it started to grow on me again. Due to the constantly changing content of the game, it feels a little like gambling — you’ll do pretty well, but then die and start "just one more" run, hoping to pull an RNG seed that gives better items or results in more optimal level layouts. Over time, you just start to get better at the mechanics of the game — learning how certain enemies move, or how to overcome specific obstacles and traps. For example, in the jungle-themed levels of the game, there are bear traps that are scattered around each stage; deviously disguised to be hidden by some foreground obstacle and baited with a pile of gold. Touching one results in instant death, of course. I used to hit those with some regularity, but finally started recognizing how they are placed and am now able to avoid them. My new problem are the crush traps in the Temple of Anubis.

This second time around, I was able to get past the first boss and defeat the game’s first hidden boss. I considered this a decent achievement, as according to Steam, only 5.4% of players have done this. I wanted to continue and go for the true, final ending, but have been getting extremely frustrated again. Why is the darn game so %$#^&* frustrating? Well, some of the reasons are actually the same as those that make the game so interesting. Due to the random nature of the game, there may be level layouts or enemy placements that are just unfair, or too difficult to deal with. And while the emergent gameplay makes for some hilarious and unpredictable situations, it also can result in unexpected deaths. These are the worst when you have done everything right, only to have a small mistake wipe out a 30 minute run. This occurs with much more regularity when trying to attempt some of the late-game objectives — you’ve invested so much time in just getting to that point in the game, and one mistake means you need to start from the beginning.

So while I really enjoy this game (and can definitely recommend it to most players), I’m taking a break, even though I haven’t yet truly finished the game. Perhaps I can come back to it with a fresh perspective after a few months, and finally get to the hardest ending.