These days, it feels like every other indie game released is some take on the roguelite genre, but it wasn’t always like that. At one point it was even considered a relatively fresh take on game design, and one of the games to blaze the trail in this regard was Spelunky. After receiving an initial release in 2008 on PC, the version we have now on Switch was first seen on Xbox Live Arcade in 2012 and ushered in a whole new era of game design and indie studio success stories in the process. Now, nearly a decade on, is it as good? Yeah, pretty much.
The premise of Spelunky is simple: you’re an adventurer in the Indiana Jones/Rick O’Connell vein who’s exploring an ancient ruin that has a touch of magic about it. This magic seemingly can resurrect your explorer every time he dies to any of the countless traps and creatures awaiting him within, while the layout and structure of the ruins change completely each time he goes back in to delve deeper.
For the player this means your main task will be getting better at learning and applying the rules of the game, rather than memorizing strict layouts or patterns. Spelunky is divided into four main ‘worlds’ (although there are quite a few additional levels to discover) and each of these is built around certain stage gimmicks, enemy types, and traps. There are plenty of things in here that can kill you outright, and the constantly switched up level designs ensure that you’re kept on your toes, making survival more a matter of reflexes and knowledge, rather than level-learned muscle memory.
Each level is cleared by simply finding the exit that gets you to the next floor, but rushing through is generally not the best strategy. There’s plenty of treasure to be found and spent on items and powerups in shops down the line, plus each level has a ‘damsel’ for you to save who can give you back one precious health point if you can successfully escort her to the end. There’s lots of potential in each level, then, but you’re forced to prioritize things due to the threat of a ghost spawning after you’ve been in a level for more than a couple minutes. It passes through walls and never goes away — a most deadly Boo. If it touches you, you die instantly. Spooky.
Part of the charm of Spelunky is finding just how much depth (eyyy!) there is to what initially appears to be a very simple action platformer. Lots of hidden levels, characters, and items all have rather esoteric unlock conditions, which means that you’re almost constantly learning something new about how it all fits together. More importantly, there are plenty of ‘soft rules’ that you just stumble on as you play that make progressing just a little bit easier. For example, it’s a game changer when you learn that you can use the aforementioned damsel as a meat shield to block arrows for you and set off traps, though you usually do so at the cost of the poor lass’ life.
If multiplayer is your thing, there are also co-op and deathmatch modes to explore. Co-op allows you to play with up to three other friends, and while it’s nice to have some ‘help’ getting through the challenges, you’re much more likely to accidentally (or not…) blow each other up. There’s a little deathmatch mode, too, if you just want to toss aside any pretenses of working together and see who’s the better player.
Spelunky remains rather simple with its presentation, although this doesn’t strictly take away from one’s enjoyment. Character sprites are well-drawn and readable, while the environment designs do just enough to convey a sense of being lost in a cavernous and ancient labyrinth. Its visual design won’t wow you, nor will its mostly low-key and atmospheric soundtrack. The music feels just a little too chill given the high stakes gameplay — then again, something more appropriately frantic might have been way too stressful.
Nearly a decade on, Spelunky still has all the fundamentals in place and remains a great entry in the roguelike genre. Solid gameplay, plenty of secrets, and an addictive gameplay loop make for an easy game to recommend, though we’d say you should come into this one prepared to die a lot before you really ‘get it’. Whatever your tolerance for difficulty may be, Spelunky proves to be a nice fit for the Switch; it’s certainly worth your time if you never tried it before.