Let me set the stage for this review by saying that Spelunky is one of my favorite video games of all time; it’s the game that I point to as one of the best examples of emergent gameplay, risk vs reward design, and a model for the roguelike genre as a whole. All of that is still true with Spelunky 2, but make no mistake, this is a true sequel that doesn’t rest on its laurels. One that embraces all of the things that made the original so wonderful while also finding new and completely unexpected ways to improve upon the sense of exploration and discovery that’s so central to the experience. Yes, it’s brutally and often hilariously difficult, but if you can learn enough of its secrets to push through that, you’ll be hard pressed to find a game as consistently rewarding and endlessly engaging as Spelunky 2. This, my friends, is the motherload.
Like its predecessor, Spelunky 2 is a seemingly simple and disarmingly cartoony 2D platformer that challenges you to get your stout little Indiana Jones-like character from point A to point B while collecting as much treasure and as many items as you can. Of course, the catch is that those levels are procedurally generated and impossible to predict, and in between points A and B are devious traps, nasty critters, and approximately 999 other ways to die horribly – and when you do die, in true roguelike fashion the world completely rearranges itself for the next attempt.
Not much of an emphasis is placed on the story, but the gist of it is that you play as Spelunky guy’s daughter, Ana, who goes to search for her parents on the Moon after they failed to return from their own expedition. It’s simple, sweet, and almost entirely disconnected from what you actually do.
Part of the genius of Spelunky’s design is that its randomization demands that you carefully examine each area so you don’t run head first into an arrow trap, or get bounced by an enemy onto an insta-death spike, or drop an ill-advised bomb where it will do more harm than good. At the same time, the clock is always ticking: if you take more than three minutes on a level, a nigh-unstoppable ghost spawns and will relentlessly hunt you down. To survive for long you have to read the room accurately – and do it fast.
(Oh and you Spelunky pros who don’t fear the ghost and instead use it to increase the value of scattered gems, just know that’s not going to be quite as easy this time around.)
What ends up happening is that the more you play, the more a visual language starts to take form that allows you to instantly recognize whether you can drop down without taking damage, if there’s something around that can be used to trigger an arrow trap rather than your own body, where you should use a bomb or rope to find an easier route down instead of taking the danger-filled main path, how far away you need to be in order to avoid harassment from the tiny ghosts surrounding the witch doctors, and so on.
Dying is punishing, yes, as it causes you to restart all the way at the beginning and lose whatever powerful items you might have obtained in your previous life. But even though your character doesn’t get any stronger between runs, your brain is continually armed with new experience that can help prevent that same death from happening again… or at least if it does, you know it’ll be your own fault. This feeling of getting better, and knowing that it’s not because of anything but your own skills and knowledge, is incredibly powerful, and it makes Spelunky 2 one of the most rewarding video games I’ve ever played.
It helps, too, that the controls are a dream. You get just the right amount of mid-air control to make pinpoint-accurate jumps with great speed, and just the right amount of leeway on timing to easily make jumps in tight spaces that would be extremely frustrating in a lot of platformers.
Mossmouth does do a few small things to make the early goings of Spelunky 2 at least a tiny bit easier than the original. The most substantial leg up is that, if you’re okay with being a soulless monster, you can bomb turkeys for life-restoring cooked meat. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s a godsend in a game where your very limited health is persistent from level to level and the only other reliable way of restoring it is by locating and bringing a lovable animal friend to the exit (alive). It’s also more reasonable than its predecessor in that shopkeepers won’t immediately turn hostile towards you if a random act of God causes trouble in their shop, and you’re given much more light in the notorious dark levels this time around, making them a little more forgiving.
Spelunky 2 Screenshots
But the biggest difference in Spelunky 2 is that it is no longer a linear progression of levels that has you going from mines, to jungle, to caves, to temple, and for the truly hardcore, to Hell. Instead, you start at the Dwelling (which is Spelunky 2’s version of the mines), and from there you’re able to choose where you go next: take the path on the left and you’ll travel to the jungle; take the path on the right, and instead you’ll have to contend with Volcana, a new fiery area that takes full advantage of Spelunky 2’s new fluid dynamics system with deadly lava pools that spill out of control with just one errant explosion. In the first Spelunky, when you bomb a pool of water or lava at the base, the water just magically disappears, allowing you to safely collect whatever was at the bottom of the pool. In Spelunky 2, however, that liquid will spill out naturally and affect whatever it comes into contact with. With water, this isn’t that big of a deal, but it’s a huge hazard when you’re trying to make your way through Volcana and have to think twice about using a bomb when there’s lava nearby.
Runs continue to diverge even further from there in ways that I don’t want to spoil, but rest assured, each area is jam packed with its own set of mysteries, NPCs, and hidden exits that all dramatically impact how each run plays out. What’s great is that every path offers its own risks and rewards: I’ve had a much higher success rate of making it through Volcana, but find myself better prepared for the later levels whenever I manage to make it through the Jungle thanks to some of the rewarding secrets unique to that level. Allowing you to have some control over your run based on which areas you want to hit and which secrets you want to try to uncover – once you learn them – is a great way to build on the already incredibly personalized experience of playing through your own randomly generated levels.
Each of those different areas has a completely different and distinctive appearance to it to accompany its own set of unique enemies and hazards. Spelunky 2 definitely looks much better than its 12-year-old predecessor – the sprite-based graphics are all 4K-ready and animations are smooth – but rather than making a big, unnecessary departure from the charming art style, Mossmouth instead gave the worlds and inhabitants of Spelunky 2 more personality, and the results are great. Cave drawings on the walls of the Dwelling foreshadow what’s to come, enemies will amusingly trip on bars of gold or discarded arrows, and just in general, characters are much more expressive. Some of them even have some fun interactions, like when two Cave Men run into each other and start striking up a spit-soaked conversation of gibberish.
The music, while not quite as catchy as the first game’s soundtrack, has some wonderful tunes that go hand in hand with the themes of each biome. What’s better is that the soundtrack is dynamic, so it will subtly change when you’re on the brink of death, when you get close to an exit, or when you’re in a level with a special theme. They’re very light touches, but they go a long way toward building suspense.
On that note, it’s also worth mentioning that even after 40 hours of playtime, according to the many blank pages of my in-game journal, I still haven’t uncovered half of what Spelunky 2 has hidden behind its many locked doors and cryptic messages. In those 40 hours, I rolled credits for the first time at about the 20-hour mark and still eagerly jumped back in to try and find new ways to beat it. The fact that I can feel like I’ve already discovered so much and yet still have so much more to go is incredible.
In addition to an added focus on exploration offered by the switch to a more non-linear style of level progression, there are a ton of new things going on in Spelunky 2, both of the subtle and not-so-subtle variety. First off, there are now rideable animal mounts! But as with almost everything in Spelunky 2, they each come with their own risks and rewards: in order to tame an animal, you must first jump on it and try to survive for a few seconds as it erratically moves left and right, often falling off cliffs and leaving you in a much worse position than you started.
But if you survive that ordeal, it’s a huge help. You gain a double jump and whatever their special ability is, whether it’s the turkey’s ability to slowly float as though you had on the cape, or the rock dog’s ability to shoot a quick fireball. Crucially, they also take hits for you while you’re riding them, so even if you do trip an arrow trap or fall onto spikes, your animal will be the one to selflessly take the damage.
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Another big new idea is that almost every level essentially has another level hidden behind the wall that you can enter and exit by way of special doors, and while this could have been a superficial feature, it’s used brilliantly in Spelunky 2 both as a way to hide some of its deepest secrets and create some fun diversions. One of those is a new NPC to whom you can pay a fee to access her challenge room where you race to light a bunch of torches or uncover as much treasure as you can with a provided pickaxe; there are characters in locked cells that you can rescue for a reward later on; and there’s always the mystery of what lies behind the locked doors of the various shopkeepers.
Of course, there’s also a host of new items that can be found, purchased, or stolen in randomly appearing stores, and those can be dramatic game-changers that affect the direction of your run in major ways. On one run you might get boots that allow you to jump higher, negating the need to spend precious ropes to reach rewards that are just out of reach. On another you could find a pickaxe that lets you completely ignore the main path through a level. Or if you’re truly lucky, you’ll find a jetpack that lets you completely avoid virtually every hazard, which raises the stakes of your death even higher. My personal favorite is a power pack that, when strapped on your back, not only powers up your default Indiana Jones-style whip by giving it more damage and the ability to set objects on fire, but it also affects the power of your bombs, allowing you to make bigger explosions that deal much more damage. Virtually everything in Spelunky 2 is destructible, and carving your own path through levels (and unlocking buried treasures as you do) is key to burning through to the exit in record time.
Every Death Tells a Story
Again, Spelunky 2 is a brutally difficult game, even with those aforementioned adjustments that ease up the challenge in the early levels. The important thing to note, though, is that the difficulty is not due to a reliance on twitch reflexes, ridiculously tough enemies, complex boss battles, or anything along those lines. Every enemy, trap, and hazard has a very simple cause and effect or behavior to it that you just have to learn to understand: If something passes the line of sight of an arrow trap, it will shoot an arrow; if I walk under a spider, it will drop, wait a few seconds, then leap towards me; if I walk within three tiles of a tiki trap, it will poke out spikes that only deal damage on the way out; if I anger a shopkeeper, he will shoot my face off. Unlike other difficult 2D platformers, like Super Meat Boy or Celeste for example, that often rely on elements of trial and error, muscle memory, and/or memorization, Spelunky 2’s difficulty is derived from the improvisation needed to be able to handle these predictable hazards getting thrown at you in unpredictable ways. It’s a unique brand of difficulty that’s exceptionally satisfying to overcome and always feels fair.
The best part is everything conforms to those rules, including your enemies. Deadly creatures and traps can be thwarted by momentum-halting spiderwebs; Man Trap plants that kill you in one hit can do the same thing to any Tiki Man; and explosive robots can set off a chain reaction that can cause lava to spill out and completely close off the safest path forward, forcing you to find a new one.
Sometimes these rules lead to some hilarious and tragic deaths, like the time I bought a shield from the shop and tried to leave without realizing that the shield pushes everything in front of it. So, I ended up pushing the other items outside the shop, making the shopkeeper think I was trying to steal, and… you probably know how the rest goes. Or the time when I quickly ran under a spike ball trap and shot an enemy with a shotgun, forgetting that the recoil from the shotgun sends me back a space, which put me back under the spike ball trap I thought I’d so deftly avoided. Of course, almost as often these unforeseen interactions work out in my favor and I end up crushing an enemy by accident.
The possibilities for interactions between yourself, your enemies, and the environment are virtually limitless, which is part of what makes every new run of Spelunky 2 so unpredictable and exciting. Reaching every new area is uniquely terrifying because you have to discover a whole new set of rules involving all-new enemies and traps, while saddled with the pressure of maybe, just maybe making it further than you ever have before. But it’s in these moments where you’re frantically trying to avoid death that Spelunky 2 comes to life.
Gather Your Spelunky Guys and Gals
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Spelunky 2 is how robust and fun the multiplayer options are. The original Spelunky had an arena mode as well, and while it was a fun diversion, it didn’t feel like a lot of time or thought really went into its implementation. This time around, the arena mode feels clearly informed by other excellent multiplayer indie games, like Duck Game and Towerfall, and the results are a literal blast. Maps are much bigger with better planned out hazards that give each level a distinct theme; there are a ton of options to customize the type of game you want to play, including a Smash Bros. esque item customization menu; and if you grow tired of the craziness of straight up deathmatch, there’s a much more cerebral mode that challenges you to hold on to a golden idol for a total of 20 seconds which is a nice twist on the formula.
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Cooperative play works pretty much the same as before, which is to say that it’s a bundle of absolute chaos. Sure, it’s definitely helpful to be able to have a couple extra pairs of hands to carry more items, and it’s slightly more forgiving because you can revive a dead teammate in the next area (plus deceased players can float around as ghosts and blow things off of ledges with a puff of air or freeze it them with a charged-up blast) but it’s balanced by the addition of Spelunky 2’s most dangerous enemy: Friendly fire. There’s a ton of coordination required to make it through Spelunky 2 in co-op, especially because the camera is always centered on one player, and if you don’t take things too seriously it can be a heck of a good time.
(Spelunky 2 also features online multiplayer, though the servers weren’t available at the time of this review, so unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test it out. Instead, we made use of Steam’s Remote Play feature to simulate local co-op.)