Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Developer: Mossmouth / Platform: XBLA

During my Sophomore year in college, during a programming class, I saw a friend of mine playing this  2D platforming game on his laptop that I hadn’t seen before.  It looked like a lot of fun, despite the fact that he kept dying and starting all over again.  “Spelunky,” he responded, after I asked him what he was playing. “It’s free, you should get it.”  And so began my obsession with the deceptively hardcore platforming roguelike Spelunky.

Now, many of you may not have heard about the original PC version of Spelunky, and may feel like paying $15 for an HD port is a ripoff.  Even as someone who has played the original game to death, I still feel like the XBLA version is a great investment.  It is much more than a simple port, and really makes that price tag worthwhile.

If you’ve never heard of Spelunky before, it is essentially a viciously difficult platformer that changes every time you play it.  Each level is randomly-generated, and while the areas are still the same (four mines levels, four jungle levels, and so on), the layout is always different, and you’ll find something new each time you play.  What is the point of Spelunky?  To survive.  There is a final boss, and it is possible to actually beat the game, but you’re better off simply trying to survive for as long as possible.

Many, many things in Spelunky are trying to kill you, and it may feel at times that the game has the odds stacked against you.  Well, it does.  Spelunky makes absolutely no apologies, and will constantly throw cheap deaths at you. Does this mean that Spelunky should only be reserved for fans of games like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls?  Absolutely not.  Despite its high difficulty, Spelunky does one thing that many games don’t do very often anymore: it helps you – nay – forces you to learn at your own pace.  You will die a lot, many times to things you didn’t know about or couldn’t see coming.  But each time you restart, you’ll remember how to avoid what killed you last time.  It may take awhile, but being able to complete the Mines (or even further!) without taking any damage is incredibly satisfying.

There isn’t much that is persistent in Spelunky.  Most of the time whenever you die you’ll restart right at the beginning, just like your very first playthrough.  A few things do actually carry over, however:  New to the XBLA version is a journal, in which every item, monster, trap, or place you stumble across will be recorded.  This is a pretty handy way to look over what you’ve done, and adds a neat little “Hey!” moment every time you find something new.

In your travels, you’ll eventually find the Tunnel Man.  He’ll ask you for specific items.  If you can bring them to him, he’ll be able to open up permanent entries into specific levels of the game, allowing you to completely bypass the first few levels, which is pretty handy.  Unlocking these tunnels become very difficult later on, but they are definitely worthwhile.

Additionally, any hidden characters you may have met within your travels will also always be there to select, in addition to the four that you start out with.  Unlike the PC version these characters are nothing more than aesthetic changes to the game, but they are still fun to collect.

Also new to the XBLA version is local co-op.  While an online mode would have been fantastic, the addition of multiplayer is a fun little diversion.  Up to four players explore the same randomly-generated levels as the singleplayer game, however with extra people bouncing around each level, someone is more likely to make a terrible mistake.  Because of this, it is best to play co-op with friends that you are very coordinated on a team with, or friends that won’t mind it if you “accidentally” pick them up and throw them into a spike pit.  Terrible things will come from Spelunky co-op.  Terrible, hilarious things.

So, to sum up the new things in this version of Spelunky: New characters don’t change the way the game is played, but there is a large amount to unlock in addition to the four you start off with.  There are entirely new levels; however, they are quite hidden, even to series veterans.  Riddled about these levels, including the regular ones, you’ll find all manner of new enemies, traps and weapons.  If the helpless, dumb, and quite literally objectified Damsel (who can be thrown like a weapon at enemies, or used to disarm traps face-first) in the original Spelunky bothered you at all, fear not!  She can now be replaced by a hunky dude, or even a cute bug-eyed Pug.  It does bug me slightly that neither the Damsel nor the Tunnel Man – both playable characters in the original Spelunky – are not unlockable here.

Spelunky is an incredible game, and the XBLA version feels like a worthy upgrade.  There is tons of new content in this version, much of it incredibly well-hidden but surprising when you finally do uncover it.  Spelunky is fun no matter how good you are at videogames, and is definitely worth a look, veterans and newcomers alike.