Spelunky 2 poses a problem rarely encountered by videogame developers: how do you follow up a game that’s already perfect?
Note that by “perfect” I do not necessarily mean “the best”. Art is subjective, and not everyone likes Spelunky, and that’s fine. However, I struggle to think of a game that hits all of its design goals with the unerring accuracy that Spelunky does. Everything in Spelunky meshes together so well to create an endlessly replayable dungeon-delving platformer roguelike, and there’s no wasted effort on extraneous, unnecessary features that bloat the game and don’t contribute anything to those design goals. Doing the usual sequel thing of adding new levels, items and features is going to be like adding a fifth wheel to a car, while taking anything out to make room for those new features is just going to create the dreaded Reliant Robin of games.
Having to make a sequel to a perfect (or almost-perfect) game is not something that happens often; of the few examples that do exist, the one I’d point to is when Nintendo had to follow up Super Mario 64 with a launch Mario title for the Gamecube. Mario Sunshine was a decent game which tried some new and interesting things with its water-spraying mechanics but which, ultimately, did not come together anywhere near as elegantly as the dead simple 3D platforming mechanics in 64. That’s fine. You can’t make every game a classic, and Mario Sunshine is still a lot of fun to play and a very worthwhile experience even if it ended up standing in the shadow of its predecessor. I think I would have understood if Spelunky 2 had ended up being the Spelunky series’ Mario Sunshine; I would have been a little disappointed, sure, but I would have respected the attempt and probably, eventually, enjoyed the game for what it was, just like I did Mario Sunshine.
Instead, what Derek Yu has made here is essentially Kaizo Mario 64. It’s the same game as before, but with all of the dials turned up to 11, and then turned all the way around again until the dial breaks. It’s Spelunky 1 for streamers and speedrunners; it’s Spelunky 1 if it were squarely targeted at the 1% of players who think Hell runs are too easy. It’s Asshole Spelunky. And I do not like it.
It will be no shock to you to learn that Spelunky 2 follows the same gameplay model as its predecessor. You control an adventurer who is exploring a series of procedurally-generated caves. You start the game with a whip, four bombs and four ropes. Bombs can be used to kill tough enemies or blast through terrain to reach otherwise inaccessible areas; ropes are thrown upwards and climbed to allow you a bit of vertical movement, as otherwise you’re restricted to your adventurer’s two-tile-high jump. Each level of Spelunky 2 starts with your adventurer entering through a door at the top of it, and they have to travel down through the level, fighting enemies, avoiding traps and collecting treasure, until they find the exit at the bottom which will take them to the next level. Treasure is used both as a scoring mechanism and to purchase helpful items from shops that appear along your route. You start the game with four health, which isn’t very much at all, but fortunately you can acquire more by rescuing various cute fluffy animals and transporting them to the level exit with you. What keeps Spelunky moving along at a brisk pace is a three-minute time limit on each level, after which a ghost will spawn and start chasing you; if it touches you you die instantly no matter how much health you have. The base goal of the game is to make it through all sixteen levels (divided into four worlds of four levels each), beat the boss at the end, and escape the caves.
This is all as I thought it would be. I was expecting Spelunky 2 to be more Spelunky, not that it would suddenly morph into a real-time strategy game or something. Spelunky 2 instead takes the traditional sequel approach of “more is better”. Spelunky 2 has much more in it than Spelunky 1 did. More levels! More enemies! More items! More secrets! The problem here, though, is that it hasn’t taken anything out to make room for the “more”, and so Spelunky 2 feels dramatically overstuffed. Boot up Spelunky 1 and play through the opening level of the Mines, and then do the same for the Spelunky 2 equivalent, the Dwellings, and you’ll see what I mean. The Dwellings have all of the same enemies and traps from the Mines — snakes, spiders, bats, skeletons, spikes and arrow traps — along with moles, horned lizards, cavemen who have been rudely transplanted from the Jungle, and a set of tiki traps that “only” do 2 damage instead of outright killing you. The spawn frequency of old stuff hasn’t been toned down at all (if anything it’s been increased) and the new stuff is just thrown straight in on top of it, meaning levels are much busier than they were before. There’s so much on screen at once that it’s hard to keep track of everything, even if you have 200 runs under your belt and know how everything behaves. And remember, this is Spelunky, where a single momentary oversight or lapse in concentration can, more often than not, end up killing you.
The sheer density of the enemy and trap spawns alone means you have a much higher chance of dying than you did before, but Spelunky 2 doesn’t stop there; all of the new enemies in Dwellings are much, much tougher than anything that came before them. A defining feature of most enemies in Spelunky’s Mines was that nearly all of them could be dispatched with a single whip strike, or a single goomba stomp, or just by chucking the nearest available rock at them. The one exception — the Giant Spider — was a rare spawn that could be avoided or, if you chose to kill it with a bomb, would reward you with Paste, one of the most useful upgrades in the game. This let you ease yourself into a run; the Mines took into account the fact that you start the game with nothing, and allowed you to build up the money and items required to make a success of the later levels.
By contrast the Dwellings would really, really like nine out of ten Spelunky 2 runs to end in the Dwellings. Cavemen aren’t too bad to deal with, at least, although I’m not sure how much of that is because I’ve spent quite a large amount of time murdering the Spelunky 1 versions. Horned lizards and moles, on the other hand, are an absolute nightmare. Both of them have 3 health, meaning they can’t be dispatched easily, and both of them are more than capable of killing an unaware player from full health. Horned lizards roll into a ball and charge at you the moment they see you; if they hit you they’ll stun you, and the stun window is longer than the amount of time it takes the horned lizard to charge up its next attack. On the other hand moles don’t quite have the same potential for one-hit kills, but they make up for it by being really, really annoying: moles can tunnel through dirt walls, which means they have an alarming habit of dropping out of an off-screen ceiling onto your head. As if their (relatively) huge health pool wasn’t enough, both enemies also have significant invulnerability windows (!) — the horned lizard is invincible when rolling, and the mole is invincible when burrowing into or out of the ground. And don’t think you can get around these new enemies by simply avoiding them, either; moles are spectacularly good at stalking you through a level and can just tunnel through the ground separating you until you’re being menaced by three or four on-screen moles simultaneously.
The entire game is like this. The Jungle has acquired instant-kill bear traps and Witch Doctors who can curse you so that your maximum health is reduced to 1. This curse is permanent. The alternate version of world 2, Volcano, is full of lava; this is supposed to show off one of Spelunky 2’s new gimmicks — flowing liquids — but has repeatedly ended my runs because you die instantly if you touch even a tiny drop of lava and the level is also full of exploding robots who blow up lava pools and drop it all onto the level exit. The third world, Tide Pools, is full of enemies with poison attacks; this is another permanent status effect that persists between levels and which slowly drains your health until it kills you. It can only be cured by taking a pet to the level exit, which is an absolutely huge ask at this point in the game when the level’s single pet is often found in an out-of-the way corner of the level behind a wall that you need two bombs to get through. If that weren’t bad enough, many of the poison enemies can masquerade as seemingly-innocuous pieces of level scenery, including crates, chests and, in one particularly rage-inducing case, a wall. Even the environment design is out to get you, with the attractive new tile art also being very busy (and far less readable) with lots of nice little details like hanging drapes, small shrubs and coral outcrops which perfectly conceal the ceiling spiders and bear traps that have helpfully been added by the level generator. The penalty for making a single mistake in Spelunky 2 is no longer losing some health, it’s death. You might not die immediately, you might struggle on for a level or two, but your run is over no matter what you do.
At this point you’re probably wondering: if the difficulty, density and overall lethality of the game has been massively amped up, what does the player get in exchange? What new tools and items does the player get to counteract the increased number of deadly challenges they’re going to encounter over the course of a run? Spelunky 2’s answer to this question is very simple, and consists of the following two words:
No, really. The player gets nothing. If anything the tech available to them has been reduced since Spelunky 1; I’ve done a side-by-side comparison and the whip range and area of effect has been reduced compared to the original, and it’s also no longer possible to turn in place without moving, which leads to some unavoidable damage when you can’t turn around without touching an enemy. There’s a couple of new items for your back slot — the Hoverpack, which can’t move vertically but which has unlimited fuel, and the Powerpack, which increases the power of whip strikes and bombs — but all items with the word “pack” in the title now explode if they’re hit by an enemy, meaning that attempting to complete a run with the Jetpack is akin to running a marathon with a large bomb strapped to your back.
Other staple items have been rendered extremely dangerous by inexplicable control changes — take the Climbing Gloves, for example. The way these worked in Spelunky was that jumping towards a vertical surface would cause you to stick to it like a shit Spiderman, where:
- Holding Up and pushing A would cause you to jump up.
- Holding Down and pushing A would cause you to jump down.
- And holding the stick in a direction away from the wall and pushing A would cause you to jump away from the wall.
This is all pretty simple, intuitive stuff — it happens to be exactly how the game handles regular ledge-hanging, so it’s very easy to remember — and so I have absolutely no idea why the control scheme has been changed in the sequel so that you now have to release the stick entirely to drop down. Holding Down and pushing A when hanging onto a wall with the Climbing Gloves now results in your spelunker jumping up, instead, which is the complete opposite effect to when you’re hanging on the edge of a ledge, where holding Down and pushing A will still cause you to drop down. Spelunky 2 now has two completely different controls for the same action that are location-dependent, and the resulting crossed wires in my brain have gotten me killed on several occasions. Even the seemingly innocuous control change that was made to the Cape has had some unforeseen consequences; instead of tapping A to toggle glide on and off, you now have to hold A to glide. Sounds simple, enough, right? Well it is, right up until you’re wearing the Cape and you try to climb a tree to get clear of the bomb you just dropped, only to discover that the gliding controls for the Cape (holding A) now take precedence over the tree climbing controls (tapping A), and that you cannot in fact climb that tree and are about to be violently separated into your component body parts.
Oh, I’m sure that if you went and asked Derek Yu he’d point to other things that have been added to the sequel that should supposedly give the player a leg up, like the animal mounts that you can occasionally find wandering around a level. In theory these are supposed to give you a bit of extra mobility and/or attack power, as well as acting like an ablative shield if you get hit while riding once since any damage will hit the mount first. The problem is that the mount controls have apparently been designed by an alien with no concept of how people play platformers; the button combination for dismounting from one is Up + Jump, which are certainly two buttons that nobody would ever press together when they were just trying to jump upwards normally in a platformer. This leads to a lot of accidental dismounts and you have to train yourself to not touch the stick when you’re trying to jump with a mount — but why should I have to do this when it’s not what the rest of Spelunky 2 asks me to do, and more to the point is not what any other platformer in existence asks me to do? Why are there so many different control schemes in this damn game? Because mounts are so difficult to use without accidentally dismounting into lava or onto spikes, and because they have other drawbacks like not being able to use ropes and ladders (you have to dismount and then carry the mount with you if you want to do that), it turns out the most practical use of mounts in Spelunky 2 is to herd them together and then blow them up with a bomb, which at least converts the turkey mounts into cooked turkeys that give you extra health points.
Then there’s the back level, which is something that I find frankly baffling. Each level in Spelunky 2 is divided into two parts: the main front level, which is where you spend most of your time, and a second back layer that can be accessed via caves and doorways. The idea is that the back level is supposed to add alternate routes and shortcuts through the front level, as entering the back level through a doorway in the top left and leaving it again through a doorway in the bottom right should result in a similar amount of movement through the front level and potentially allow you to bypass any obstacles in your way or access otherwise inaccessible areas. Unfortunately this never happens. The back level comes off to me as a half-baked feature that really should have been cut from the game, as nine times out of ten all it contains is a series of isolated caves with nothing in them that don’t connect to any other part of the level. You could bomb through walls to reach the other caves and perhaps move through the level that way, but if you’re doing that you might as well just expend those bombs in the front level to remove whatever obstacle you were trying to avoid in the first place. Mostly what the back level is used for is to sequester away the secrets and hidden areas that would, in the first Spelunky, have been secret levels in their own right — the Udjat Eye and Black Market are now found in the back level, for example — but the way they’re implemented here is functionally identical, and far less interesting, and I’ve gotten into the habit of ignoring the back level entirely unless I know it has one of these scripted payoffs in them. The actual procedurally-generated part of the back level is incredibly boring and adds absolutely nothing of value to the game, aside from diluting down the number of interesting features you can find in the front level.
This ties into yet another of my many, many problems with Spelunky 2: the lack of variance from run to run. For all of its increased enemy and trap density, for all of its overengineered visual design, one run of Spelunky 2 is almost exactly like the next. It reminds me a lot of No Man’s Sky in this regard; that was a game that would procedurally generate whole planets, and if you landed on the north and south poles of a planet each location would, in theory, be entirely unique. Unfortunately since the algorithm used to generate each location was the same and since the variance was too small to generate meaningful differences, to a human eye each location was identical. Spelunky 2 is much the same, with repeated use of the same tile layouts1 and not enough variance within them to make the tiles themselves, or even their intersections, interesting. Spelunky 1 had much the same problem, of course, although my suspicion is that the fact there was less going on in each tile meant that the features they did have were more meaningful – it’s the difference between one tile having feature A and another tile having feature B, and every single tile having features A, B, C and D.
However, Spelunky 1 had two things in its back pocket that Spelunky 2 does not have. First is that it doesn’t sequester a bunch of the most interesting level features into the back level, obviously, but second is that level “feels” have all but disappeared from the sequel. A Spelunky level feel is a mutator that significantly changes the level in a semi-scripted way, from “I hear snakes…. I hate snakes!” telling you that there’s a snake pit spawn somewhere in the level — good for crates and gems, but obviously filled with snakes — to “My skin is crawling”, which means you need to be on the lookout for a section of the level that will be infested with giant spiders. Spelunky didn’t have many of these, but it had enough that one out of every four runs would include a feeling that would change up the run somehow. Spelunky 2, on the other hand, is almost completely devoid of level feels; the only one that I have ever seen, over 250-odd runs, is “I can’t see a thing!”, which is coincidentally the most deadly one as it pitches the level into darkness and drastically curtails your ability to see threats coming. Because this is the only level feel that Spelunky 2 has it is overused to the point of absurdity — I have had a run where “I can’t see a thing!” showed up in the Dwellings, and in the Jungle, and in Tide Pool. This comes back to the big problem with Spelunky 2’s general philosophy of level design: having a lot of enemies and traps and features might sound like a good way to make a level generator that can create meaningfully different levels, but not if it uses all of those enemies and traps and features in every single level on every single run. All that achieves is breeding a healthy amount of contempt through overfamiliarity, and I am very familiar with the first three worlds of Spelunky 2.
(And because Spelunky 2 hates the player right back it’s also reduced the amount of crate spawns containing helpful items, which in turn means you have a far lower chance of getting a memorably run-defining item like a Jetpack early on. You’re stuck hoping it spawns in shops, and because the shop spawns are much more regimented and predictable it makes runs in general much more regimented and predictable.)
The thing that annoys me the most about Spelunky 2, though, is that in order to implement all of these questionable new features it has massively compromised on the thing that I had previously considered its greatest strength: the consistency and legibility of the game mechanics. Spelunky 1 had a lot of damaging or instant-death mechanics, just like Spelunky 2, but it had a scrupulous sense of fairness in applying them that the sequel sorely lacks. For example, if you get hit by an arrow trap you take 2 damage – a painful blow when you start the game with only 4 health. However, if you pick up that same arrow and throw it at an enemy, it will do 2 damage to them instead. The arrow works the same way whether it hits you or an enemy, whether it’s shot from the trap or thrown by you or bounces off a wall and hits you on the head; if the arrow projectile hits something, it will do 2 damage. It doesn’t care what that thing is. Spikes work the same way, with a single, brutally simple rule: anything falling on them will instantly die. You can climb up onto them from below without dying, and you can walk through them from the side perfectly safely, but as soon as you push the jump button, even if it’s just a five-centimetre hop, you will die the moment you start to descend. This makes spikes incredibly dangerous for you, but the same is true of the various monsters and enemies infesting the caves; you can instantly kill anything by baiting them onto spikes, whether it’s a small spider with a single point of health or a giant-sized one that would take eight whip-strikes to kill. Knowing that single rule — that spikes instantly kill things that jump on them — allows you to accurately predict how everything in the game will interact with spikes, even if you’ve never seen it before. Spelunky may have been difficult, but it was consistently difficult. It never felt like I was having to memorise a set of specific rules for each individual trap or enemy type; I could just apply the same general ones to everything and be reasonably sure I’d get it right first time.
Spelunky 2 short-circuits all of this. Where Spelunky 1 was admirably consistent, Spelunky 2 is Edge Cases: The Game. You cannot predict how anything in Spelunky 2 will behave just by looking at it and using your prior experience; you have to die to it several times to figure out all of its quirks, and even then it’ll end up surprising you with a hitherto unseen exception to the basic rules of the game. I’ve mentioned several of them already — the controls for the Cape and Climbing Gloves and the mounts, the invulnerability window the horned lizards and the moles have — but I have a much, much longer list that I could get into if I wanted. For example, the moles are invincible when they’re burrowing into or out of dirt; you can goomba stomp on them and you’ll just bounce right off without doing any damage. This at least implies that they are still physical objects in the world that other physical objects in the world will interact with, even if they are invulnerable, but it turns out that if you bait a mole into triggering an arrow trap, and if the mole starts its invulnerable digging animation while the arrow is still in flight, what will happen is that, instead of bouncing off of the now-invulnerable mole just like the player does, the arrow instead passes straight through the mole and out the other side where it will carry on to hit any unfortunate adventurers who happen to be standing in the way. How on earth are you supposed to predict that? Another good one is that aggroed shopkeepers are now, for some reason, totally invulnerable to whip attacks, which is an excellent thing to discover when you’re desperately trying to kill one that was triggered by (sigh) an errant mole. Why do they get this magic invulnerability when the whip will reliably hurt everything else in the game, including unaggroed shopkeepers?
And it’s all very well to say “oh, but it’s so rare that you’ll only encounter that specific edge case on one in every hundred runs”, but there’s so many edge cases in Spelunky 2 that you will reliably encounter a different one that kills you on every single run. At worst it makes the game next to impossible to learn as the amount of information I need to understand the game is exponentially larger, and even if I charitably assume that at some point, 200, 500 or 1,000 runs from now, I have finally constructed a good enough mental model of Spelunky 2 to take a serious shot at completing it, the simple act of keeping all of that information in my head at once for the entirety of the run is exhausting. The level of concentration required to successfully run just the Dwellings really is something else; maintaining it for the full 40-minute duration of a basic run knowing that a single mistake will kill me is going to be incredibly tough.
This isn’t my idea of fun. Spelunky 2 isn’t my idea of fun. I’ve long held the opinion that the best roguelikes do not actively try and kill the player. Instead they create scenarios whereby, through stupidity, carelessness or just plain greed, the player kills themselves. Most of my deaths in Spelunky 1 felt self-inflicted. Few of them felt completely unavoidable. Importantly I always felt like I was making progress; beating the game never felt like an insurmountable challenge. By contrast Spelunky 2 feels actively malicious towards the player, like every time I die it’s grinning and nudging me in the ribs going “Do you like the way I killed you this time? How about this? How about this?” And that’s not to say that I’m not still killing myself a lot in Spelunky 2, but those deaths are split around 50/50 with the ones where I let out an exasperated sigh at some new bullshit that Spelunky 2 has pulled in order to kill me, another little factoid I need to file away in the gigantic library index of bullshit I’m building up inside my head.
I suspect if you put this review in front of Derek Yu and asked him to read it his response would be very simple: he already made a game for people who liked Spelunky 1. It was called Spelunky 1. Spelunky 2 is not supposed to replace Spelunky 1, it’s supposed to be what people graduate to after playing Spelunky 1 to death, which is why it’s tuned to be so ridiculously, capriciously rock-hard. But the thing is, I played Spelunky 1 to death. I loved that game. I put 60 hours into it and cleared it many times. I made it to Hell on several occasions and even as far as the final final boss, although I never managed to beat him. I fall squarely into the “Spelunky veteran” archetype that Spelunky 2 is supposed to be aimed at, and the skill bar required to succeed at Spelunky 2 is set so high that I can’t even see it. It is utterly, absurdly exclusionary in the hard skill requirement it asks of the player, to the point where I very much suspect it is not intended for normal people to actually play it, but instead for those normal people to watch other people who have hundreds and hundreds of hours of Spelunky experience — and who do meet those skill requirements — play it on Twitch. When you consider it from a speedrunner’s perspective a lot of the changes that have been made start to make sense (like the huge reduction in overall run variance, which makes it easier to compare one run to another), but if Spelunky 2 is in the business of designing for speedrunners and fanatics at everyone else’s expense then it is a game I have no further interest in playing. I’m going to boot it up one more time to get some screenshots for this review, and I’ll continue to do the daily challenge for as long as my friends do2, but after that I’ll never play it again. Because make no mistake, Spelunky 2 truly is Kaizo Spelunky. And while the idea of a Kaizo game is a good joke when it’s a niche romhack targeted at the most masochistically hardcore players of the game, it’s significantly less amusing when the concept makes it into an actual game that I have been unfortunate enough to spend actual, real money on.
- A quick primer: each level in Spelunky is made up of a grid of 4×4 tiles. A “tile” here is a large space roughly equivalent to a screen; treasure, trap and enemy spawns within the tiles were randomised and there was some minor variance in terms of where individual wall and ladder blocks would be (or not), but the general layout of each tile is the same from run to run. When arranging the tiles, the main criteria the level generator has is that it should be possible to get from the level entrance on the top row to the level exit on the bottom row without expending any bombs or ropes, and it’ll pick from its set of prefab tile layouts until it has a set of tiles that fulfils this condition. ↩
- This should not be considered as an endorsement of Spelunky 2, but rather of the one universal rule in videogames: everything can be fun if you’re playing it with friends. ↩