There’s an old Erasmus saying that I sometimes like to refer to when I feel that I might be among a group of people who are all about as helpless as each other: “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king!” I am reminded of this when I play Spelunky 2, because for every speed-run or incredible secret reveal I see on YouTube, I probably have ten or more deaths on the very first level.
Ever since I played Rick Dangerous on the Amiga, I have loved delving deeper and deeper into forbidden mines and ancient crypts via scrolling platformers. From the original Pitfall and its passable 16-bit remake through to the first Spelunky, I find myself compelled to test every trap and lift every idol — regardless of the consequences. Like Spelunky before it though, I find Spelunky 2 just a little bit too difficult to be as fun as it might be.
The basic aim is pretty much exactly the same as it was in the first game — make your way down and through the current procedurally generated level and pass through the exit to reach the next level. As progress is made, levels tougher and more complex, and in this sequel, there are some occasions where you might choose one exit or another in order to follow a different, unique path.
While the opening levels will be familiar to any returning Spelunky players, later environments include jungle (also somewhat familiar) and volcano (which is all new). There may be other environments to explore as well, but I’ll be honest and simply say that I haven’t made it through the jungle or volcano stages in any of my fifty or so runs to date.
People may say that videogames are getting easier in general, but I’m not convinced that’s true in Spelunky 2, which I find every bit as difficult as its predecessor. The player character has very little life, and enemies are frequent right from the outset. Attacking with the basic weapon (a whip) is weaker than it was in the first game, with less range — making timing your attack against a pesky spider or bat a matter of life and death.
There are some new additions and features to help players, such as the ability to ride animals such as turkeys and axolotl’s (which will take a hit for you, or add a unique attack or ability) or to recover life by cooking your turkey and eating it. Yeah, really. A lot of the same concepts for gaining power also return from the first game — with sacrifices (alive or dead) on altars and item shops featuring heavily.
Alas, the one thing that sets Spelunky 2 apart from other games that might fall into the “roguelike/roguelite” category is that when a run ends (in the untimely death of the player) there is almost nothing that carries from one run to the next. Yes, later on in the game you will unlock shortcuts and there are a few unlockables, but Spelunky 2 isn’t a game where your characters gets stronger and stronger and therefore what seemed like an impossible challenge early on simply gets easier.
Instead, Spelunky 2 trusts that you’ll learn the game with each play. You’ll remember what that particular totem does, how those particular spiders move and so on, and you’ll learn to weigh your moves and to be patient in certain situations. You’ll realise that keeping resources such as bombs and ropes is pointless if you’re going to die anyway, and that when you make progress as a result, you’ll find more things to experience and learn all over again. It’s an organically rewarding approach to design, but it also makes Spelunky 2 all the more frustrating when you have a really good, fifteen minute run, only to then die three times on the first level because you’re keen to get back to where you were.
Fans of Spelunky will surely love Spelunky 2 for all the same reasons — even if they do have to accept that what is new here is more evolution than revolution. Players who hated or struggled with the original game will definitely not find any new content here to convince them that Spelunky 2 is a major diversion. For me that’s a shame, as I feel that some kind of legacy or easy mode (or whatever) would have been both helpful and fun.
In reality, I’ll probably never reach the end of Spelunky 2 because of how it’s structured. I simply never get the time and I don’t have the patience to play the same (ish) levels over and over again, sometimes dying within a minute or two. For the patient, the experienced or the absolutely masochistic, Spelunky 2 remains one of the best examples of how to make an incredibly tough, modern, two-dimensional platform game.