Spelunky is a game about self-improvement. It's a sublime platformer with systems so clear, so polished, that you can see yourself reflected in your struggle to master them.
You will fail early and fail often while playing Spelunky, but if you get good enough, react fast enough, and play smart enough, you will win. Die, and you lose everything.
It's a frustrating loop that rarely feels unfair, because everything in Spelunky operates under strict rules that can be learned, mastered, and manipulated to your benefit. Success in Spelunky inspires the same savage joy that comes from playing Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, the joy of facing your own weaknesses and overcoming them.
Back to the mines
Reviewing Spelunky as though it's a new title would be to ignore the fact that this game has been available in one form or another since 2008, when creator Derek Yu released it for free as a downloadable PC game. Yu went on to build an enhanced version that came out on Xbox Live Arcade last year and earned numerous game industry accolades, including the 2012 International Game Festival's "Excellence In Design" award.
This enhanced version came back to PC in 2013, and this week it hits the PlayStation Network as a $15 downloadable game. It's a cross-buy game to boot, meaning you buy it once and unlock it for play on your PlayStation 3, your PlayStation Vita, or even both simultaneously over Wi-Fi via local deathmatch or co-op multiplayer.
The ability to play local co-op with a handheld device is revelatory because it affords Vita players their own personal camera, allowing them to venture off the main player's screen and still remain effective. It's a huge improvement over the Xbox 360 version, which forces all players to stay on the same screen. Playing Spelunky by yourself is just as fun and frustrating on Playstation 3 as it ever was on Xbox 360, but that's no surprise; what is surprising about this latest version of Spelunky is how well it works as a mobile game. The vibrant, cartoonish imagery looks great on the Vita's OLED screen, and Spelunky's concise adventures and lack of tedious narrative make it equally well-suited to whiling away long plane trips and quick bus rides.
When I say there's no narrative worth worrying about, I mean it; Mossmouth's only attempt at storytelling is a randomly-generated three-line soliloquy on spelunking that appears every time you start the game. Spelunky challenges you to tell your own story by choosing an avatar from a cast of cartoonish spelunkers and guiding he, she, or it on a descent through a series of two-dimensional caves, collecting treasure and rescuing damsels on the way down.
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