The weakest hero, for better or for worse?
Way back in 1983 a game known as Spelunker was released that was notorious for being hard to control, and just plain difficult in general. The reason for this notoriety was because unlike most video games, this platformer featured a very weak protagonist, one that would die falling from a 2 foot height. Other ways to die included touching a single spark of flame from a flare gun or jumping down an almost flat hill. Over the years it's legacy has been preserved in the minds of many as so arduously bad and unforgiving that it's actually a good game. The "Weakest Hero" Spelunker was (and still is) so delicate and pathetic that players from all around love him (either out of pity or maybe some sort of Stockholm syndrome). It is now 2017, and Square Enix has brought a new sequel Spelunker Party! to the Switch, and I think it's safe to say if you liked it back then, you probably will like it now.
Spelunker Party! features the same gameplay elements from it's NES prequel, where you are exploring downwards into caves to dodge enemies and obstacles to find shiny treasure. This time around you can have up to 3 other players join and help you during your fragile journey through the depths of the caverns, both locally and online. Using your friends to tackle the campaign can net you hidden and locked away collectibles not available while playing solo, and they can also revive downed players at checkpoints. Each player has a stamina bar that continually runs empty as they explore throughout the caves. Passing through said checkpoints fills the stamina bar to the max and also serves as a spawning point whenever a player runs out of stamina or falls ("steps") to their death.
The overall look and feel can be described as both cutesy and bland. Every playable hero and enemy are very plain looking, with barely any sort of detail or character attributed to them. By collecting "litho-stones" you can unlock tons of different hats, uniforms, and accessories that can change your appearance and offer certain upgrades and advantages while spelunking. For example, you can unlock firefighter suit that lets you get hit by fire once every life. Though seemingly providing minimal relief at first, I soon learned that any merciful gift was welcome. As you progress and conquer each level you are awarded with points that upgrade these items or unlock new abilities, encouraging you to seek out more treasure to increase your score.
As previously stated, Spelunker Party! is truly a difficult game. There are no second chances, one hit and you’re dead. Every level gives you 5 lives at your disposal and if you stop paying attention to what you're doing for even one second you may see them rapidly dwindle to a Game Over screen. That's not to say the controls aren't precise or fair, every death for the most part feels like it’s your fault. After some time getting used to the controls and physics I found a nice momentum pushing through the levels that felt very good.
Playing with other people can be easier in some instances, as they can revive you after you've lost all 5 lives. The important thing to remember is (like any group project) the team is only as good as its weakest player. This isn't like New Super Mario Bros. Wii where when any sort of challenging obstacle arises you can hide away in a safety bubble and let the others lead the way. No, in Spelunker Party! every player must navigate through the levels with no piggybacking. As you can imagine, this can lead to a problem if you are playing with less-than-experienced gamers, like for instance, ANY of my friends - at least at first. My wife and I struggled even to get through some of the first world levels because of the harsh difficulty, but as we trucked on we found that there are items to help with some of the difficulty, which was a very welcome surprise.
Every world has a direct path packed with modestly challenging levels, and veering off the beaten path will lead to other levels that emand much more skill. Every level has pretty much the same concept: meander about and collect differently colored keys to unlock matching doors, all while keeping your stamina up. Every now and then a boss level shows up to shake up the gameplay a little, but nothing you haven't seen before.
There are various weapons to use at your disposal including bombs, flares and even a "portable fan" (for those pesky ghosts!). Some can be upgraded along the way, for instance the portable fan can have a greater radius of attack. Using these upgraded abilities can unlock previously unobtainable items in earlier levels, adding some replayability to the mix.
If you don't have anyone locally to play with there are online options to gather a party of random online players. Being such a simple game, the lack of voice chat was never an issue and every time I looked for a person to play with someone showed up. Playing through the levels cooperatively was surprisingly fun, especially when the other players seem to know what they are doing better than you do.
Like previously stated, simple is the key word here. Because so much inspiration from the original Spelunker was baked into the game, the levels feel like they could have been in the original as well. Not subpar or bad, but nothing groundbreaking either. I feel like the developers had a very standard level editor and used it to create every level, with every once in awhile introducing a new minor concept into mix.
Overall Spelunker Party! is a solid entry in the series and a fun multiplayer game if you have the right people to "appreciate" its "charms". The item upgrade progression will have you spelunking for treasure to unlock more abilities, and there are plenty of levels ranging in difficulty to choose from. The online components are a nice bonus, as well as having detachable Joy-Cons right at your finger tips. While the level designs can feel uninspiring, and the gameplay can feel completely unforgiving, Spelunker Party! executes creating an acceptable cooperative platforming game, but nothing really more than that.