Spelunky 2 game review: Roguelite perfection

Patrick
Enlarge / Ana (center) is the star of Spelunky 2, and she’s on a search for her adventuring parents after they abandoned her to look for treasure on the Moon.

Mossmouth

My recent work at Ars Technica has mostly revolved around high-end gadgets like VR headsets, GPUs, and next-gen consoles. It’s fun stuff.

But while swimming through embargoed hardware and frantic news announcements, I keep coming back to a single video game well outside the “next-generation” mold.

Spelunky 2 is likely the most “dated” game I’ll slap the “Ars Approved” sticker onto in 2020. The adjective “dated” works in part because the game’s success builds largely, and loudly, upon the foundation of 2012’s 2D smash Spelunky HD… and that title builds upon the 16-bit genius of 2009’s freeware original. (Which you can still download! For free! Right next to its source code!)

A certain class of gamer will hear that “Spelunky 2 is everything good about Spelunky HD, only better” and wish to hear nothing more. That’s fair (especially for players who will hold out for the game’s launch on PC in two weeks, after its timed PlayStation 4 exclusivity runs out). The charm of Spelunky 2, like its predecessor, comes from how it cleverly shakes a cup full of gameplay and level-construction elements, dumps them onto a table, and shouts “Yahtzee!” as it surprises you again and again. (To be clear, in this game’s case, “Yahtzee” is a synonym for “You died!” You will die repeatedly in Spelunky 2.)

No spoilers yet, swear

Between runs, you can find the characters you've unlocked hanging out in a little subterranean village. (The characters are only cosmetic, but their audio-visual differences are still pretty fun to uncover.)
Enlarge / Between runs, you can find the characters you’ve unlocked hanging out in a little subterranean village. (The characters are only cosmetic, but their audio-visual differences are still pretty fun to uncover.)
Spelunky 2 product image

Spelunky 2 [PS4, PC]

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

To that end, this article is a mostly spoiler-free exploration of what Spelunky 2 gets right as a sequel. Primarily, the good news comes in the form of what hasn’t changed.

If you’ve never Spelunky‘ed before, or if it’s been a while, here’s a refresher: the object of every game in the series is to progress from the top of a treasure-filled network of caves to the bottom. Like in Super Mario games, your side-scrolling, 2D hero has a snappy amount of speed and momentum for running and hopping. As an Indiana Jones-style twist on the genre, your default arsenal includes a whip, the ability to grab onto ledges, and a limited pool of explosive bombs and climbable ropes. All of these core systems still feel responsive as hell, and it’s crucial that the game feels so good to control, because you need to master its pixel-perfect leaps and dashes to survive its chaos.

Every Spelunky 2 level is procedurally generated by shuffling and remixing a massive selection of premade level parts. Every time you die, your progress rewinds to the top of the caves, at which point you’ll find the world beneath you has been newly remixed. By default, you can’t memorize an exact arrangement of monsters, traps, shopkeepers, items, treasure, and secrets, then you optimize your run accordingly. This fact—combined with how the game’s dangerous elements can wipe an entire run in an instant—forces players into Spelunky 2‘s brutal reality: get your act together, or perish.

After my first three hours playing Spelunky 2, I kept remarking to myself how surprised I was by seemingly new monsters, items, and tweaks… only to realize how much of that stuff was entirely unchanged from the previous game. I point this out because I’m amazed by how many Spelunky 2 moments feel incredibly fresh in 2020 without changing the good ideas found in the 2009 original.

Your default whip attack still has a clever amount of “behind your back” momentum. Bats still fly “directly” at your hero in obnoxiously curved lines, making them a surprising nuisance. The freeze ray is still a blast to use, especially when it lets you turn a dangerous foe into a useful block of climbable ice. Monkeys are still freaking jerks who exist entirely to rob and annoy you. AI-controlled “helpers” are still maniacs who do more harm than good. Stuff like that.

Mild spoilers begin here

Instead of deleting or redefining tentpoles of the original Spelunky, the sequel exists largely as a reaction to the game’s decade of fandom. Die-hard fans have continued playing the original version all these years later, and Spelunky 2 offers fresher stuff specifically for the veteran audience, in ways that organically trickle down to anybody who might stink at the game.

In a recent interview with the SpelunkyCast, series creator Derek Yu explained that one key design pillar for this sequel was to make it feel more like an open-world game, where the likelihood of seeing “every” major gameplay element in a single run is less likely. If you’re going to play the game over and over, Yu figures, why should it always lead from the mines to the jungle to the ice caves? Hence, the first huge change comes from a forking path in every run, where players get multiple “world” options after roughly every four levels. When the environment is about to change, you’ll have access to at least two doors, and these diverge drastically in terms of the enemies, challenges, and traps ahead.

Without getting too spoilery, some of these environmental changes include new twists on “liquid” physics. Think about Spelunky HD, where you might feel compelled to blow a hole into a wall using one of your limited bombs to reach treasure or make progress. That still factors into Spelunky 2, but now, think about volumes of liquid that might be shifted or loosed by a bomb, either intentionally or accidentally. Does that liquid contain items? If you swim through that liquid (a new maneuver in this game), could you reach new places? Might that liquid harm you in one way or another? And if you have a freeze ray handy, can you turn dangerous enemies into floating blocks of ice?

Let’s argue

In our early tests, Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland and I had different opinions about these branching paths: which ones are safer, more fruitful, or more interesting. Neither of us dislikes anything in these branching paths. It’s just different enough to foster a compelling disagreement—which, gosh, is absolute juice for a game that lives and dies by procedural generation. A great random-adventure game should not only be fun but foster great watercooler talk among fans: “…and that got the shopkeeper angry, but then he got squashed, so I rushed to get his loot, only to have a horned lizard trap me in a corner!”

Beyond that major change, there’s just more of everything. More store types, including some that let you trade your accumulated wealth for slot-machine bonuses or tickets into mysterious, treasure-filled vaults. More items, including a deadly crossbow that can be reloaded with any arrow you find (particularly the ones that shoot out of traps). And more foes and creatures who remix every level with new, dangerous possibilities to look out for, like pesky moles who crawl into and out of ceilings and floors—and thus turn seemingly innocent tunnels full of treasure into potential death traps.

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