Spelunky is mental. It looks and feels like a relic from the distant past – the olden days of the 1980s when platform games were little more than sadistic death-traps. You control an Indiana Jones knock-off on a quest to to reach the end of a sprawling cave complex, a vast labyrinth riddled with poisonous creatures, booby-traps, and supernatural horrors. You soon learn to respect these threats because your health supply is strictly limited, and dying wipes out all your progress. All of it. Fall into a spike pit, or lose your last heart to a pesky bat, and your cash and upgrades are stripped away, and you're dumped right back to level 1-1. Spelunky is brutal.
Were perma-death the games only gimmick, the experience might prove unbearable. But Spelunky has a second trick up its sleeve: each level is procedurally generated. No two play-throughs are remotely alike, and as such the game comes to feel more like a simulation than a vanilla platformer.
The levels are completely destructible, and every object can be lifted and thrown: rocks, skulls, corpses, and even the maidens you rescue to replenish your health. If your aim is true, a distressed damsel can be a deadly weapon.
The emergent possibilities are intoxicating. Instead of memorising the location of ghouls and goodies, you find yourself becoming acquainted with how the world works; how to make the most of running jumps, the best ways to trigger arrow traps, and how to outwit all those witless minions. The multi-varied, never-ending sequence of on-the-fly problem-solving is compelling, and your ego gets massaged every time you exploit the rules to your advantage. Even though you'll die dozens and dozens of times in a typical play session, you'll keep coming back for more, thanks to the 'Just one more go' factor.
Veterans of Nethack, ADOM et al will recognise the formula – Spelunky is the platform action equivalent of a Roguelike, and it manifests both the pros and cons of this niche genre. There's endless variety, but that inherent randomness always works against you. If you burn through your limited supplies it's possible to get completely stuck, and this danger only increases the deeper you probe. The gems and gold bars you collect can be spent at supply shops, but there's no guarantee these randomly-placed businesses will carry the grapple ropes and wall-destroying bombs you need. And you can't take too long to ponder any given platform-jumping challenge, as after a short while a deadly ghost appears that homes in on the tardy. Despite all its dangers, Spelunky forces you to play at a breakneck pace.
From time to time new monsters, items, structures, and mini-bosses are revealed, creating a genuine sense of exploration, even when you're replaying the same levels over and over again – even after hours of continuous play, the game always seems to have one more trick up its sleeve. A given level might be chock full of snakes, or zombies, or piranhas, or giant wasps. The odds are never in your favour, but that's the whole point. In Spelunky, suffering is addictive.
Those with flatmates/siblings/friends may also wish to dabble with the co-op and competitive deathmatch modes. While Spelunky is balanced for solo play, these multi-player modes are every bit as chaotic as Super Smash Bros. or Wrecked.
The old PC version of Spelunky is still freeware, and is definitely worth a go if you're still in two minds about this utterly unique platform game.