I should have known what I was getting myself into. When I reviewed the 1985 original, I proclaimed that "Spelunker is Satan's love letter to NES owners." I contested that the punishing gameplay and cheap deaths had no place in the 21st century, ultimately suggesting people pass on reliving the frustration. Apparently Irem didn't get the memo, because Spelunker HD is here to raise your blood pressure to dangerous highs on the PlayStation Network.
I didn't go into Spelunker HD with a chip on my shoulder; I wanted to give this high definition remake a fair shake. I hoped that the developers would tweak the controls in such a way where Spelunker may finally be fun to play, showing me what I missed a quarter century later. Sadly, that is not the Spelunker HD I experienced. It may look pretty, but this is the same old action game with broken controls, unfair obstacles and lame trial and error gameplay. This is the developers putting lipstick on a pig.
Spelunker tells the story of a guy trying to make his way through 100 dangerous levels of underground caverns. His goal is to collect as much treasure as possible, while at the same time making sure not to run out of oxygen or fall to his death. Along the way our hero can pick up flair guns (to get rid of bats) and bombs that will blow up walls and rocks. If the player can navigate the temperamental spelunker through ten levels, they will be rewarded with a checkpoint they can access at nearly any time.
As a high definition remake, Spelunker HD manages to hit all of the notes. Gamers who had the patience to explore every last level in the 8-bit release will find a lot to like in this update. The gameplay is practically the same, which leads me to my chief complaint about Spelunker HD: It's too damn hard. The game is so difficult and unforgiving that it ceased to be any fun within seconds of pushing the "start" button. I would get so worked up over the cheap deaths that I would turn to Super Meat Boy for stress relief.
Yes, I died a lot in Super Meat Boy. I wouldn't be surprised if I died a couple thousand times in the course of playing through that game. But these deaths were my own fault. Even at its most frustrating, I always felt like I died for a reason. Sometimes I didn't time my jump correctly, while other times I simply ran too fast for my own good. That's not the case with Spelunker HD. Time after time I was left scratching my head, wondering why exactly my poor spelunker died.
It doesn't help that you die on everything. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not. For starters, our hero can't fall more than an inch or two without dying. He also can't fall into small (mostly invisible) holes without dying. And guess what happens when he gets hit with bat poop. That's right, he dies. The sad truth is, he dies constantly. And to add insult to injury, the PlayStation 3 controller shakes wildly each and every time he makes a fatal mistake. I died so frequently and found the shaking to be so annoying that I eventually had to turn the rumble off entirely, but not before learning to hate this game.
The problem is that there's not much build up to the extreme difficulty. I died literally on my first jump, which certainly caught me off guard. And then after respawning, I died once again trying to get back on the elevator. And again getting off. And again jumping over a rock. And then again climbing a ladder. And then again when dealing with bats. And then again jumping over an invisible pit. Game over. My only option is to start over from the start of level 1.
It would be one thing if I only died on things I didn't see, but half the time I fall to my death because of the crummy game controls. Even though I know I need to jump on that platform, it's hard to judge how far my character will jump at any given time. It's common to overshoot the platform, leading to more eye rolls and four letter words escaping my mouth. The game tells me that if I make it far enough into the caves I will eventually be able to start from a level other than 1. While that may be true, don't expect to simply pick things up from level 2 at any time. You have to go ten levels into the game before you can take advantage of this option. By that time you will have played level 1 so many times that you could probably play it with your eyes shut. The game rewards constant trial and error, though mostly error. You need to learn from each mistake and apply it the next time you go through the level. Hopefully you have a good memory, because you're going to need it if you want to get anywhere in this HD remake.
It's not always a jump or bat poop that will kill you, sometimes you simply run out of oxygen. Your air gauge acts as the game's clock, constantly counting down and forcing you to keep moving. For much of the game extra oxygen tanks are plentiful, but sometimes that's not the case. The game can be a little inconsistent when it comes to distributing the much-needed air, which can cause even more unnecessary deaths. These tanks are even more important when you realize that they also power your ghost busting equipment. Wait ... ghosts? That's right, not only do you have to worry about falling more than an inch, but you also have to deal with spooky ghosts.
To the game's credit, the developers have given us a handy save and quit option. This is a great addition, especially if you are like me and got sick of replaying the first level hundreds of times for no reason. While I'm sure the game wasn't intended to be played this way, I found myself relying on the save and quit option, going back to the title screen each and every time I died. Doing this certainly made the game more manageable (and help avoid the repetition that is playing the same early levels over and over again), but I shouldn't have to constantly save and quit just to have a reasonably good time.
For much of the game I wondered if I was simply missing something. I know a lot of people who swear by this game, suggesting that it should be included on the list of games of the year. I was sure I was playing it wrong, since this opinion is coming from people I know and respect. But even after playing through the tutorial and watching online videos, I'm convinced that they don't know what they're talking about. Spelunker HD is where fun goes to die.
These complaints aside, there are things I like about this $10 download. For one thing, the brand new graphics are gorgeous and everything animates smoothly. I also like the addition of the original 1984 game, even if it's mind-numbingly difficult. There are also some fun multiplayer modes, which add a lot of value to the game. Of course, all of the problems still apply in these modes, but everything is better when you have friends helping you out.
Spelunker HD proves that it doesn't matter how good the game looks, I'm simply not willing to put up with terrible gameplay and cheap deaths. If you're looking for a punishing difficulty that rewards trial and error gameplay, then look no further than Spelunker HD on the PlayStation Network. This is one retro release that can stay buried deep in a cavernous pit.