One of indie gaming’s most celebrated classics finally gets a sequel and it’s just as challenging, and rewarding, as the original.
It’s probably not widely recognised by most gamers but amongst indie developers, sequels are viewed as something of a cursed concept. Unlike mainstream games, indie sequels have a reputation for never doing as well in sales as the original, even when they’re just as critically acclaimed. There are various theories for why, including the idea that novelty and originality is much more important for indie games than AAA titles. That makes us worry what will happen to Spelunky 2, as while it isn’t very different form the original, it is still one of the best games of the year.
It’s been 12 years since the original game was first released on PC, and eight since it made its way to consoles (back when Xbox Live Arcade was still a thing). A 2D platformer with roguelike elements, many British gamers will immediately see a visual similarity with old Amiga and Atari ST game Rick Dangerous.
We’ve still not seen any definitive evidence that creator Derek Yu was influenced by the game – which seems unlikely as he’s American – and instead 8-bit title Spelunker and the more recent La-Mulana are probably the primary inspirations. Which if you know your games all points to one thing: an ultra-hard 2D platformer set in underground caverns. Or at least that’s the surface level description of Spelunky 2, but one that doesn’t get to the heart of why it’s such a great game.
There are two obvious reasons why there hasn’t been a sequel until now: the first being that the original was only created by a tiny handful of people and the second, the fact that it already perfectly achieved what the game had set out to do. This is perhaps one of the other reasons indie sequels don’t tend to do so well, as developers aren’t tied to an arbitrary release date and so the finished product tends to be a lot closer to their original concept.
There’s no getting away from the fact: Spelunky 2 is a punishingly difficult game, even more so than its predecessor. Not only in terms of the moment-to-moment gameplay but the fact that when you die you start right back at the beginning and the whole game map regenerates into something new – so unlike other archly difficult games such as Dark Souls, there’s not even a chance to learn the layout.
As old school as it might be in other ways Spelunky 2 is not interested in rote memorisation. You’re not collecting experience in the form of abstract numbers on a stat screen but instead via your own mastery of the controls and understanding of the gameplay mechanics and enemies. The more you play the more you grasp the game’s logic and what sort of obstacles to expect, so that every new procedurally generated stage becomes a new puzzle to look forward to and solve.
Technically all you’re trying to do is get to the exit, but how you do so is entirely up to you. You can try and excavate a direct path with bombs (everything in Spelunky 2 is highly destructible), clear out all the enemies first with any of the wide range of weapons (you start with a whip by default, given you’re an Indiana Jones wannabe), take the risk of trying to wrangle one of the new animal mounts, or search for hidden treasure using a variety of special tools.
Even if you did see the same level twice you’d never play it the same way anyway, especially now there are separate layers within each stage, which often hide the most desirable bounty but are, of course, the most dangerous places to navigate. That’s on top of new branching pathways that make it impossible to explore everywhere on a single playthrough, as you choose between new environments like a jungle and volcano.
Playing Spelunky 2 you have to constantly balance risk and reward, with the knowledge that if you die you’ll lose essentially everything – with the only things that are kept between runs being newly unlocked characters. Although you can also unlock shortcuts to circumvent the earlier stages, once you know what you’re doing.
Unlike the first game you’re always running by default, and have to press a button to walk, which doesn’t mean you can’t play the game at the same pace as before but is clearly there to encourage you to be a lot more nimble when it comes to enemies and triggering traps, as the former are also faster than they used to be. And that includes the ghost that appears after three minutes and hunts you down until you complete the level.
When it comes to other improvements, Spelunky 2 tightens up the controls, which used to be a bit imprecise in terms of grabbing onto ledges and picking the right item to use in a hurry. There are also expanded options for the four-player multiplayer. This is still impractical for co-op but the competitive arena battles are a lot larger scale now and much more entertaining as a result.
In terms of flaws, the game’s new graphical style is more attractive than the original but it can sometimes seem a bit too busy, which not only comes across as rather garish but makes some traps unnecessarily difficult to spot. The new liquid simulation system, where water and lava flows realistically, is excellent though and adds a whole new raft of calculations to your strategies for tackling a level.
It should be said though that the game is not necessarily being perverse with the difficulty and some elements have been made easier, such as being able to kill turkeys for health and making darker stages easier to navigate. Firm but fair has always been Spelunky’s attitude and that’s still true with the sequel.
Roguelike gameplay has become increasingly mainstream since the years following Spelunky’s release, with the amount of punishment for death seeing a general decrease over time. Spelunky 2 is a return to the old ways but what’s interesting about it is not the punishment for failure but the personal rewards for success.
Spelunky 2 is a true sandbox game, with a relatively simple set of rules – in terms of your abilities and those of the enemies and traps – and you’re left entirely to your own devices in how you manipulate them to your advantage. Spelunky 2 is all about exploration and dealing with the unexpected; it is in every way the opposite of linear big-budget games where the only way to win is to play as the developer tells you. Spelunky 2 is proof that it’s almost always more fun to do things your way.
Spelunky 2 review summary
In Short: An excellent sequel to one of indie gaming’s most enduring stars, that changes just enough to keep things interesting without losing the magic of the original.
Pros: Perfectly balanced game mechanics and abilities, with some of the best emergent gameplay ever. New fluid simulation, branching paths, and stage layers work great – as does improved multiplayer.
Cons: Art style can be a bit too garish at time, making traps and other important items hard to spot. A lot of the enemies and items are the same as the original, with only minimal changes.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Mossmouth and BlitWorks
Release Date: 15th September 2020 (PC – 29/9)
Age Rating: 16
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