'Spelunky' Documents Your Failure as a Gamer

We really lucked out here. This was almost another Skyrim review.

Dawnguard, Skyrim's first DLC offering, just released, and oh boy, is it ever a doozy. Let me tell you, when Michael Corleone was talking about getting pulled back in, he was talking about Dawnguard.

But July 4 brought an unexpected gift—independence, blessed freedom, even, from having to fawn over the latest Elder Scrolls release. And all from a humble Xbox Live Arcade port of a free two-year-old PC game, no less. Indie darling Spelunky finally got its long-awaited HD makeover, and it's the best thing in a long time that I completely forgot about.

Spelunky has an 8-bit premise. There are caves. They're just massive squares, really, randomly generated little side-scrolling affairs. You spelunk them, because spelunking is fun. Sometimes in your spelunking, you find treasure. Most of the time, you die, because spelunking is incredibly difficult and you are the world's most frail adventurer. And then you spelunk again.

And you will spelunk again, over and over and over until you find your way to the bottom, or (more likely) until some base animal need like sleep overtakes you. Individual sessions count their duration in seconds, but once the game has you, the number of those sessions played at any one time—and their attendant and inevitable deaths—can reach the triple digits.

Spelunky is deceptive in that way. Even in its HD incarnation, with its multiplayer options and its $15 price tag, it barely feels like a game. It's a shiny little bauble on a sun-kissed pedestal, glittering in the light but otherwise barely noticeable. But when you pick it up, something clicks and a momentum not at all your own takes hold, and before you know it, you're being chased from one death to the next at a speed that's entirely too fast to be safe.

It's difficult to properly sing the praises of a game like this in an era in which your typical protagonist is a nigh-invulnerable juggernaut with more armor than your average Crusade and better shields than your average Death Star. Vulnerability hasn't been the name of the game since the NES era, and it stands to reason that many "modern" gamers just won't get it.

But Spelunky isn't a game that you play. You chip away at it, getting just a little better and going just a little deeper in those brief moments between deaths until your luck holds just long enough to allow you to make it to the next plateau. Frustration isn't a byproduct of the game; in a very real way, it's the game itself.

The only thing about it is, it's a game that once was—and still is, really—entirely free. The old version is still out there, advertised on the Spelunky website right next to a reminder to download the paid version from the Xbox Live Marketplace. It's not too dated, or, more to the point, it's deliberately dated, with deliciously retro graphics overlaying more or less the same Spelunky experience as the fancy new console version. If you have a PC or Mac that was built in the last 10 years or so, chances are you can run it just fine. (Your mileage handling it with keyboard controls, of course, will vary.)

And maybe that's a good thing. After all, what better demo could exist for a game than the game itself, only older and with fewer features? If you want a smaller experience, the Spelunky of three years ago that most everyone has either played and forgotten about or didn't know about in the first place, then maybe the retro vintage of Spelunky is right for you.

But if you want your Spelunky to be bigger and better, with more eye candy and a couple of multiplayer modes that bring to mind the love child of Super Mario Bros. and Bomberman, then this might be right up your alley—your frustrating, trap-laden, corpse-strewn alley.