Spelunky is, by many accounts, a nearly perfect game. When it was released on Xbox 360 in 2012, it was the ideal combination of finely tuned game mechanics, precise controls, an extensive amount of things to discover (in more ways than one), and essentially infinite replayability and appeal. It was the epitome of the “just one more run” game, and it captured the hearts and minds of players across every platform it came to over the years (which is basically everything), developing a rich competitive scene and a wide audience on streaming sites like Twitch. The true beauty of Spelunky may be that despite its relatively steep difficulty and learning curves, it has broad appeal and is extremely approachable, for both players and viewers alike. Spelunky captured some of the best aspects of watching talented speedrunners play through older Mario games from the NES and the SNES, with the sense that some new and amazing previously unknown aspect of the game might always be just a few moments away. And so it persisted for many years, well past the lifespan of most game releases.
You would be forgiven for wondering whether Spelunky even needs a sequel. I remember the public reaction to the announcement of Spelunky 2 being mixed equally between excitement and puzzlement. “Wow, cool, more Spelunky! This is great! But actually, the first one already got so much right… how could they improve on it?” Or at least that’s the line of thinking I’m assuming a lot of folks had based on my own reaction and conversations with friends. It’s not a baseless one, either. While the core campaign of Spelunky was a challenge worth completing in its own right, there was plenty more to do afterwards. Secret levels accessible through a very specific sequence of actions, leading to a totally different (and much harder) final boss encounter; completing the Speedlunky achievement (beating the entire game in under 8 minutes), competing against your friends on the leaderboards on daily seeds, and of course just seeing what else you could learn and do. There is enough to do in Spelunky that by the time you’ve finished it all, you could very well be ready to close the book on it. So, yeah, how could it be possible to add to, improve upon, or change Spelunky in a meaningful way?
It’s a hard question to wrestle with, perhaps a harder one still for Spelunky‘s creator, Derek Yu, but as it turns out there is still plenty of room to experiment with Spelunky‘s formula and create wholly new experiences within the existing framework. It would have been pretty easy to go in the direction of “New Setting! New Levels! New Everything!” and do the typical game sequel thing of trying to go bigger and better in every way in the interest of self-justification, but Spelunky 2 is smarter than that. It knows what worked so well and why it would be a fool’s errand to change things around too much, or to go too big (and thus likely ruin the things that make Spelunky so special). Instead, Spelunky 2 is all about taking what’s familiar and adding more to the rules that govern its world, playing on your expectations and what you think you know about Spelunky and surprising you with new elements you didn’t see coming.
To clarify, Spelunky 2 doesn’t play you for an idiot by punishing you for using what you already know, which would be kind of cruel and almost certainly frustrating. Instead, it expands upon the familiar and brings new twists to add depth and diversify play strategies. So while you might still follow a familiar path through mines, jungles, ice caves, and many settings you’ll recognize from the first game, things will always feel different at every step of the way. There are loads of new enemies with new behaviors, new items to get, new concepts to play with (rideable mounts!?), and plenty of new subtleties to experiment with. And before you get too comfortable, there are plenty of totally new areas and unfamiliar things to see and do, all new mind-bending meta puzzles to solve, and new challenges for hardcore players to repeatedly beat their heads against. It’s a deceptively big game, in much the same way that Spelunky was, but with even more to dig into this time around.
All of the art in Spelunky 2 looks fantastic, in keeping with its history, but the updated sprites and artwork for enemies, characters, and environments are all lovely, detailed, and (perhaps most importantly) instantly “readable” at first glance. Spelunky 2 often is a game about speed, and I’ve found that the new artwork in Spelunky 2, while very faithful faithful to the series aesthetic, is much more easy for my brain to scan and then parse what’s happening on screen. Colors are vibrant, effects are beautiful and add light and eye candy to scenes, and for everything happening on screen at any given time, it’s easy to just immediately see and understand all of it. There are still traps and surprises and lurking enemies to watch for, and you’ll still make dumb mistakes and lose a run because you weren’t paying close enough attention to the spider waiting to pounce on you and take your last hit point, but it feels like you’re much more likely and able to spot trouble before it finds you, and less like the game is waiting to pull a fast one on you. There are also some welcome adjustments to other parts of the game like removing tropes like the damsel in distress in favor of pets, defaulting to always running (because you should always be running anyway), and a much more diverse cast of characters to choose from.
If I had to guess at the design ethos of Spelunky 2, I’d say it’s “everything you loved about Spelunky, now with even more to lose yourself in and play with.” It’s not necessarily “BIGGER, BETTER, FASTER SPELUNKY!” so much as just… more of it. Lots and lots more of it. It makes a lot of sense, and in many ways Spelunky 2 follows in the footsteps of some very successful and long running franchises in the way that it builds upon what it already has and finds ways to push the formula and expand it, and creates new environments to test those experiments out in. It’s honestly the ideal iteration on Spelunky, and it’s perfect for Spelunky players who have been left to wonder what to put their time into after consuming every last crumb the original game had to offer. It’s like meeting up with an old friend after a few years and learning about all of the new things they’ve been up to. You know exactly what Spelunky 2 is, and you’ll still be surprised by everything it has to show you.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes