The promise has been made.
When Spelunky HD launched on Xbox Live Arcade back in 2012, I was at the height of my platforming and roguelike obsession. I spent at least a little bit of every night after high school trying to get further and further in the procedurally generated platformer, which was full of secrets in a way that tickled my Banjo-Kazooie brain. When the Steam version came out, with its daily challenge feature and leaderboards, I got even more hooked, going for some of the hardest achievements in my attempt at technical perfection. You can bet that when Spelunky 2 was announced, I was beyond stoked to get back in the habit and flex my skills in a new and expanded version of the game I came to love. Spelunky 2 is that bigger and bolder version I was hoping for, and barring some strange design choices, manages to successfully replicate the feeling of playing Spelunky for the first time all over again.
Spelunky 2 largely plays the same as its predecessor. You navigate through four levels of various themed worlds, using all manner of tools and tactics to jump and whip your way through a slew of enemies and traps in hopes of reaching one of many ends. While there are a few major changes, like the addition of mounts or branching paths, pretty much everything has been expanded upon from Spelunky HD in new and exciting ways. Hidden zones have been overhauled, with most of them appearing in the form of “sub-worlds”, unique areas nestled behind doors on the interior of a level, and bosses are (for the most part), much more dynamic than they were previously.
Nearly everything in Spelunky 2 has become more fluid, and that’s not just limited to the crazy physics on lava and water. Enemies have more wily patterns; bouncing, wiggling, and rolling all over the place in the most intimidating ways imaginable. The addition of branching paths has allowed you to accomplish the same goals and reach the same endings with different plans and procedures. There’s a new level of depth to everything you do in Spelunky 2 that just wasn’t present in the stringent and straightforward Spelunky HD, and while it can be a lot to take in, it’s incredibly rewarding to play around with.
One of the defining aspects of Spelunky has always been the series’ focus on exploration and discovery through gameplay. While Spelunky is assuredly a roguelike, unlike most modern staples of the genre that focus on gradually building up pools of items or gameplay bonuses over various runs, Spelunky drops you in the same areas with the same potential array of tools every single time. Even as someone who loves the sensation of building the perfect set of items in a game like The Binding of Isaac, the way that Spelunky nurtures that sense of filling out a mental journal as you learn how all of its moving parts and pathways intersect with one another is second to none. Unfortunately that’s exactly what can make some of the more questionable design decisions in this sequel utterly frustrating.
Spelunky HD was a difficult game. It was challenging, requiring precise platforming and execution on every enemy and trap you came across, but at the same time it was something that you very gradually were able to figure out and overcome. Everything in Spelunky HD operated off of a very strict ruleset, and very simplistic patterns that were easy to remember once you learned how they worked (i.e. vampires turn into bats when you’re above them, imps move back and forth). However, Spelunky 2 is a much more dynamic game, and while your character still operates under the same rules, much of what you deal with has taken on extra layers of complexity.
This is most apparent in Spelunky 2’s opening zone, The Dwelling, which is a series of caves in the pastiche of Spelunky HD’s first level. While it retains its cavemen and arrow traps, several other threats have been thrown into the mix to freshen things up. The tiki traps from Spelunky’s jungle, tunneling cave moles that dig through the level geometry, and horned lizards that will roll when you least expect it make up the biggest threats to your early game experience. On their own, none of these obstacles are particularly challenging, but the difficulty of Spelunky always comes from how everything interacts with each other, and oh my god, do they interact with each other way too much.
I’ve had countless runs end in the first level, without a clear idea of exactly what happened, making me go and playback a video recording to try and see what actually killed me. I’ve watched the horned lizards roll in eight different ways from the same general spot, making it take some time to figure out a reasonable strategy, only to have a cave mole slam down from the ceiling on a second’s notice when I try to execute on it. Sometimes THIS HAPPENS:
and you just sort of sit there in disbelief, while considering a quick restart.
I appreciate a harsh opening to set the tone for the impending challenges you’ll come across over the course of your run, but oddly enough The Dwelling is far and beyond the most difficult level you’ll come across in Spelunky 2. While the other zones have more fearsome threats and dangerous environments, by the time you reach them you’re either warmed up enough to have a handle on what you need to do, or established with a good set of gear and items to turn the tide in your favor. The first level of a roguelike is often the deciding factor in what one’s first impression of a game can be, and should have just enough going on that it’s not too mindless or intensive when you’re thrown back into it after you lose a run. In its current state it would not be an exaggeration to say that, without a good deal of patience and dedication, The Dwelling’s difficulty can easily prevent someone from ever wanting to pick the game back up.
Which is a real shame, because when you get into the swing of Spelunky 2, nearly everything past the opening zones is fascinating and engaging far beyond what the original had. New areas are aesthetically interesting, ranging from coral reefs to futuristic cityscapes and eldritch infested wastes. Enemies in later zones utilize their enhanced capabilities in more interesting but parseable ways as well, with little dudes piloting mech-suits you can steal, or samurai crabs who will shoot out claws and poison bubbles being standouts. Unlike The Dwelling, overcoming these foes feels satisfying, and there are often clearcut ways you can use your tools or brain to circumvent fighting them all together.
Bosses are a great improvement off of Spelunky HD as well, with even the original’s first boss Olmec feeling like a more compelling and intimidating foe. If there’s one good thing to be said about The Dwelling, it’s that you always exit it by fighting the same boss, and they can be overcome in all sorts of different challenging ways. The Olmec fight has similar benefits- while the first phase is identical to Spelunky HD, and you can leave immediately after that, you’re rewarded for pushing him further and further until a decisive end. The only boss I had a bit of frustration with was the neutral ending boss, who can pretty much only be destroyed if you have a weapon of some kind. That can often be hard to come by, especially as later levels require more and more things to be transported between them.
Perhaps it is because of how good the design is across most of Spelunky 2, that these weird blemishes like The Dwelling standout so harshly. In a game where so much has been improved, and there’s such a degree of understanding and know-how from the developers, it makes these little things seemingly thrown in haphazardly so confusing. Outside of The Dwelling, there are a handful of strange decisions: status afflictions feel brutally harsh, with ways of removing them taking far too much time to acquire considering the quickness with which you contract them. Tools like the Jetpack, which were a hard-to-come-by reward in Spelunky HD that made you feel like anything was possible, now explode with incredible ease when exposed to a flame, feeling more like a liability than a treasure. Perhaps the most frustrating of all is the addition of complex lava physics, which can leave you sitting around waiting and hoping that perhaps you will eventually be able to exit through the door that is currently being covered with a constant flow of liquid fire.
There are other issues too, like shopkeepers becoming angry off-screen for reasons you can’t even begin to imagine, or the new insta-kill summoning “Ghost Jar” item being broken out of nowhere while you’re stranded in a sub-world, but I’ve somehow been able to push past all of them and just keep hammering away and honing my skills. Spelunky 2 is definitely not a game for everyone, and honestly if you’re someone who’s never played a Spelunky game before, I’d be half-inclined to direct you to its predecessor first and foremost. However if you’re like me, and you’re crazed and determined to get more of that Spelunky goodness, I think you’ll be happy with what you find.