“Spelunky 2” drops players into the role of an intrepid explorer who journeys to the moon to explore a vast underground complex. Initially, players can select from four characters: Colin Northwood, a bloke who sports a mutton chops beard; Margaret Tunnel, who is keen on purple dress and looks like a swashbuckler in the making; Roffy, a sloth with a pompadour hairdo that has a 50s vibe; and Anna Spelunky, whose parents have gone missing while exploring the lunar complex. Other characters can be unlocked later. Alas, I’ve yet to make their acquaintance.
I never played the first game, so even after the short (and for new players, indispensable) tutorial, it took me a while to even begin to wrap my mind around the game’s many subtleties. Having played tons of platformers since I was in elementary school, I had no trouble with the basic control scheme. On a PlayStation controller: x is jump; square is used to attack with a whip, pick things up and throw; triangle is used to toss a rope to climb up or down to reach difficult, or perilous spots; and circle is used to drop a bomb.
Although Spelunky features many staple items one would expect to find in other platformers — keys, treasure chests, deadly spikes, traps etc. — figuring out all of the ways that such objects can be interacted with may take time. For instance, I knew that falling on spikes would lead to death, but I was mildly shocked to discover that I could run through them. Similarly, although I intuited that I could pick up an item (like a rock off the ground) and throw it at an arrow trap, triggering it so I could scoot by unperforated, I had a eureka moment when I realized I could use a rope to do the same thing. Ditto when I found out that treasure boxes and keys could be chucked at enemies to kill them without risking the items’ physical integrity. I’m tempted to cite other examples of things I learned over the last few days but part of the joy of Spelunky is working out its different systems for yourself.
“Spelunky 2” is a roguelike, so players can expect randomly-generated levels. What makes the game particularly addictive is that the difficulty of a given run can swing wildly from one go to the next. If you’re lucky, you might begin a level with, say, a pet companion close at hand. If you manage to carry it to the exit and keep the little critter alive, you’ll be rewarded with an extra heart, your health in the game. (In the options menu you can select what type of pet the game will generate for you.) If you’re not lucky, you might find a pet sandwiched between traps with multiple enemies patrolling nearby.
Even having not played the original, I had heard tales of one particularly notorious enemy, the cave mole. Verily, I curse them and all their brood. Cave moles can tunnel under the ground and pop up in the most unexpected places to ruin your run. I was positively gobsmacked the first time I entered an item shop, a traditional sanctuary in games, and one of those fiends burst through the ceiling to knock off a heart. Naturally, that threw me into a frantic effort to retaliate but when I attacked the mole, I accidentally also hit the shopkeeper which caused him to pull out a shotgun and finish me off.
Generally, it has been easy for me to laugh off the myriad ways that Spelunky can snuff out one’s avatar — stumbling on traps placed on either side of the exit to a level provided one particularly memorable send-off. Crucially, the levels themselves are short. It’s possible to zip through many in less than forty seconds, making it easy to muster up the energy for another run.
Though I’m only now gazing past the base of a formidable difficulty curve that seems to vanish into the clouds, I can still say that “Spelunky 2” is one of my favorite no-nonsense video games to come along this year.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.