It is nigh impossible in this day and age to not know anything about Spelunky from Mossmouth before diving into it. Even if someone has never played the influential roguelike before, it’s very likely they’ve heard of the game at a minimum. I’ve consumed an enormous amount of media about a game I haven’t even played until reviewing it because Spelunky is such a prolific game. There are thousands of hours of content and analysis for this one little indie game. Speedruns, funny compilation videos, podcasts, and design analysis are all available for those curious because this game has meant so much to so many people.
If your interest in this review is exclusively wanting to know whether or not Spelunky runs well on Switch before making a purchase, I’ll get that out the way first: it runs great. I’ve never once encountered any technical problems like lag or dropped frames. The game performs like a 2D indie game from 2012 should perform on a modern console. The controls are responsive and intuitive. All my deaths are based entirely on my unfamiliarity with something about the game, such as misjudging my landing trajectory or not being sure how an enemy can kill me. If your only concern was if Spelunky played well on the go, feel free to buy it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Spelunky is a roguelike platformer. An explorer on a quest for buried riches arrives at a mystical set of caverns that trap explorers in a randomized dungeon until they can grab the hidden treasure and escape. The cave system is filled with a large number of enemies and traps that are all deadly in different ways. Some enemies will charge at the player head-on while others will jump towards the player. One enemy’s projectile can travel through terrain but another’s projectile can’t. There are spike pits and dart traps around every corner; every environmental interaction is a chance to learn how the maze can kill you.
Spelunky is a game about paying attention. Observing the path ahead and noting the traps and monsters in front of you is the safest way to advance through the game. Not noticing a dart trap will, at best, take away some health or, at worst, start a chain reaction that ends your run. A slow and methodical approach is best, but Mossmouth designed several ways to encourage the player to move quickly. Avoiding one hazard often means jumping into a new one. The most fun of these encouragements is if the player takes too long to clear a level, a ghost will appear and chase them until they exit.
As for how I feel about playing Spelunky, it’s complicated. I really enjoy some aspects. How good it feels to control the player character is almost unmatched. Moving through each level is a delight; even the most complicated of maneuvers feel natural to pull off. I want a straight 2D platformer with these movement controls or for Nintendo to give Mario the ability to mantle.
Another strength is the sheer amount of variety in the game. Not just in the enemy mechanics as mentioned above, but in the environments and items, too. Instead of focusing on ways to make your character more deadly, Mossmouth focused on ways to make your character better at platforming. The simple act of falling has several items that make it safer or more controlled: you can pick up a cape that slows your entire fall or a parachute that deploys at the last second. Early runs might have players only thinking that there are the four levels, but eventually branching out will lead the player to discover cities of gold or a worm’s intestines. The different themed areas change the enemies’ themes along with it. One minute you’re fighting people-sized scorpions or zombies, aliens, and abominable snowmen, to an Egyptian god the next. The amount of new stuff to see—big and small—in Spelunky is staggering.
Despite all the variety in other parts of Spelunky, I can’t help but feel like the player’s options are too minimalistic. Each level is filled with diverse problems that all have the same solution. The most common being “carry a rock.” Is there an enemy in the way? Hit ‘em with a rock! Got a trap that needs to be set off? Throw a rock at it! Some enemies can only be defeated by throwing a bomb at them, but those are few in number. Mechanically speaking, that’s also not much different than throwing a rock. The efficacy of common items additionally reduces the value of special ones. Why risk going for the cape or the parachute when careful platforming is enough? Why try to rob the shopkeeper of their shotgun when you have this perfectly good rock? I rarely visited a shop unless they had a compass, more bombs, or rope because those are the only items that made a difference to me succeeding in a run or not. The simplicity in design is likely intentional, but it isn’t exciting. Unless I was opting in to see the different items effects or different areas due to craving variety, each run was basically the same.
Take Size Five Games’ The Swindle as a counterexample. It’s a very similar game in that it’s also a roguelike platformer about paying attention. However, the necessary verb list in The Swindle is enormous in comparison and forces players to find unique solutions to different problems while still leaving room for player expression. Security guards can be bludgeoned, but traps and mines can’t. Hacking traps and mines will neutralize them or you could invest in an EMP charge. The mechanics required to enact each solution—hacking is a little rhythm game while setting off an EMP is one button press—plus what happens to the object (i.e., if the trap is now the player’s or if it’s dismantled entirely) add layers to the gameplay that Spelunky can’t match.
The item and player action mechanics aren’t the only time when Spelunky’s systems fight each other. Playing through I kept wondering what the point of each of the hidden levels was. Some areas like The Black Market are necessary to reach the secret, super difficult optional ending, but other areas like The Mothership or The Worm seem actively detrimental to explore. They don’t change the ending or make defeating the final boss easier. There are powerful items in these areas, but I think most items are less useful than bombs, so I wouldn’t enter these areas just for that. Apparently, these areas contained unlockable characters. In a potentially weird quirk of the Switch version, a lot of these characters are unlocked from the beginning. The Robot Spelunker would be found in The Mothership, but I started the game with them available. What would have been a fun reason to try and keep tackling The Mothership was removed in a disappointing way. Even characters that didn’t require a whole optional level, but rather a specific seed in an area were already unlocked like The Round Boy. Taking these moments away from the player removes what could have been added a sense of discovery from Spelunky that I think it desperately needs.
Death in Spelunky isn’t punishing, but it is frustrating and uninspired. Each roguelike is a Rube Goldberg machine waiting to spring a whirlwind of misfortune for the player character. No other genre has the capacity to make dying part of the fun like a roguelike. That could be better here. A lot of things can kill your character, but most of them involve being stunlocked until you die or touching one of the arguably too many things that kill you in one hit. Hitting a bat stunned my character long enough for them to fall on instant death spikes. The boomerang enemy can stunlock your character until they are done killing your character with the boomerang. Unless you're trying to complete a run from beginning to end or playing the daily challenge, lost progress can be kept to a minimum by completing the Tunnel Man quests to unlock shortcuts, but these are really boring ways to die. Especially for a genre that has some of the most interesting deaths in gaming.
When it comes down to it, Spelunky feels dated. Since its initial release, roguelikes and lites have evolved a great deal. That evolution, of course, is due in part to Spelunky. A daily challenge seed with a leaderboard is something I first heard about in Spelunky. When comparing it to the modern members of the genre, what you get is lacking. This is still a perfectly playable game, which is a strong compliment for a remake of a freeware 2009 release. The concept of Spelunky is timeless, even if the game itself is not. I just think that recently developed roguelikes will give players more.