A mark of finding something you truly love is that you feel like a fool for not having created it. Such is the case with "Spelunky," a 2-D platformer in the manner of "Super Mario Bros." that goes far beyond genre conventions.
Loosely based on the 1983 game "Spelunker," "Spelunky" casts you as a squat Indiana Jones lookalike exploring a series of caverns. The underground setting is rendered in delightful subterranean cross-sections that will warm the hearts of anyone who remembers "Master Blaster," 2004's 8-bit throwback "Cave Story," or that one "Where's Waldo?" spread that sees him journeying through a network of dragon-jammed caverns.
Unlike in Mario games, though, the goal isn't simply to survive a journey from left to right, but to find the exit to each cavern. All you have to help you is some rope, a few bombs to blast away walls and floors, and a laughably short whip with which to dispatch the rats and snakes and ... otherwise ... you meet along the way. Levels are also scattered with treasure you can use at the occasional shop to buy everything from a knife to a jetpack.
Sounds simple, right? Right. Except for two twists. One, the levels are new every time you play. The game generates caverns from a huge variety of elements, like, say, a snake pit or a piranha tank, so no two levels are alike. Even the items offered in the shops -- whose locations are also different every time -- are randomized, and the game's unpredictability is infectious.
|» System: Xbox 360|
|» Price: $15|
|» Rating: 5 out of 5 stars|
It would be little more than a curiosity, though, without the game's second twist: its difficulty. "Spelunky" offers no way to save, rendering each of the four hits your character can take -- from the beginning to the end of the game -- incredibly precious. You can gain an additional hit point by saving the damsel in distress in each level -- whose location is of course unknown -- but still, it's always an exciting time. "Spelunky" sharpens your gaming skills like little else, and you're amazed at how soon things you first found impossible seem so simple.
Lots of games are super-hard. Lots of games are super-fun. Almost zero are both. "Spelunky," with an addictive variety and the most authentic '80s music created outside that decade, lures you with its old-school sights and sounds, then unfolds into a game of incredible depth. Always challenging, rarely frustrating, it is one of the great 2-D platformers of our time.