Release Date: July 4
Platforms available on: Xbox Live Arcade
Price: 1200 MS Points (£10.80 / $15)
There is a distinct difference between a game that is hard and a game that is challenging. A hard game would ideally sit in a local arcade, with a difficulty finely and unfairly tuned to devour every last coin you have. A challenging game, on the other hand, will harshly punish players for their mistakes while always offering a path to succeed. Then there is Spelunky, which comfortably straddles the line between the two.
Most games that opt for the punishingly difficult approach rely on memorization to teach players how to succeed. Repeating a level in Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls will eventually provide the player with insights regarding the timing and placement of enemies and obstacles. It is a conscious effort from the game's designer or designers to teach you the best way to play.
It isn't simply a matter of different level layouts either, as you can play for hours and still come across new enemies, items and secrets with each new attempt. However, the levels are never completely random, with the tunnels, enemies and available items always providing an opportunity to succeed.
The challenge comes from fitting these pieces of the puzzle together. A simple rock can be tossed to knock out enemies and a harmless rat can be used to trigger deadly traps. Players are encouraged to experiment with their surroundings, and from each interaction you will actually learn rather than simply memorise.
Of course, that thrown rock can just as easily cause something to explode and unleash a swarm of spiders, but even the frequent Rube Goldberg-esque failures have something to teach beyond their surprising and hilarious consequences.
There is a great degree of freedom in how players can approach each level. A trap becomes an opportunity to lure away enemies and a shop becomes a risky treasure trove through attempts to steal from shotgun-happy merchants. Rescuing a damsel in distress restores health at the end of a level, but more sinister players will discover that sacrificial altars can offer their own rewards.
Adventurers also come equipped with a small stash of bombs and ropes, which can create new pathways or allow you to recover after making a wrong turn. The more you play, the deeper you'll dive into Spelunky's wide range of mechanics and abilities.
The procedurally-generated levels are often brilliant, but also lend themselves to some troubling problems. Despite all of the lessons you learn through experimentation, all too often your success will be determined by little more than luck. Special caves will occasionally pop up, with themes like an undead-filled graveyard, underground rivers and crashed alien spacecrafts.
One of the themes is darkness, shrouding the entire level and making it impossible to be mindful of the terrain even while carrying a torch. Some caves can also be generated where it is impossible to correct yourself after a wrong turn, relying on luck to pick a path where reaching the exit is possible. These flukes aren't common - however, they do present a betrayal of this type of game's mantra to be challenging but fair.
There is also a deathmatch mode, for which the word "frantic" doesn't nearly do it justice. Matches seldom last longer than ten or fifteen seconds as players unleash a barrage of bombs, whips, freeze guns, boomerangs and any other items they can find. It is utter chaos, and even more so, utterly addicting as a quick match between friends suddenly turns into a long night's entertainment.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that no matter how much you may like Spelunky, it does not care for you at all. The game gives the impression that it actively resents you for having the audacity to try and play it. But like so many of the game's deadly caverns, this too is a trap.
Before long each death will seem like a new dare, taunting you to try just one more time. After all, next time will be different, with a new layout offering the possibility of new outcomes. As you slide deeper and deeper into Spelunky's depths, you can almost make out the sound of the game laughing at you. But then again, how malicious can it really be if you're laughing right along too?