A video game, at its very core, serves up a set of rules that ultimately determine how we play and behave within its virtual world. Load up a game of, say, Sonic the Hedgehog, and this quickly becomes apparent: run straight up to the first loop-de-loop and the resulting outcome communicates all you need to know about the need to emphasise Sonic’s momentum thereafter.
While contemporary platformers revolve around similarly acrobat stars, Spelunker HD Deluxe transports us back to simpler times. Spelunker HD Deluxe, you see, is based on the cult classic Japanese Famicom version of Spelunker from the mid-1980s. And this was largely from a time where the rules in platforming games were far less lenient, their protagonists more than prone to breaking all their bones with a poorly judged leap.
Indeed, Spelunker HD Deluxe brings with it an entire grab bag of now-unconventional rules to get acquainted with, and how well you do so ultimately determines whether you make peace with the game or not. As its name heavily suggests, the game revolves around a spelunker’s escapades around dangerous, unexplored locales, such as mines, ice caverns and pyramids. As tantalising as these may appear, it’s also insistent upon you playing it safe almost every step of the way.
Fail to jump over the tiniest of gaps and you die. Fall from a height greater than your own, realistically stunted jump, and you’ll die. Jump across to a rope further than your jump and you – of course – die.
Most of the challenge here comes from forgetting the more lenient rules from the last three decades of platformers. This remake’s level designers are, of course, fully aware of this, doing their best to encourage you to mess up by placing that one platform a bit too high off the ground, or peppering a bunch of stalactites just after a hop-off point from a canoe ride.
Caution is the name of the game, then, and each themed area, split into ten stages, sees the potency of the traps around you steadily increase. One example in the early mines area of the game sees you easily outrun a giant rolling boulder, only to encounter several at once a few stages later, forcing you to jump between ropes to escape sudden death. Halfway into the game you have to deal with cavern-shaking Earthquakes.
Stages slowly become more labyrinthine as you progress through these areas, too. While your path to the goal never really goes beyond key collecting, the route you take through a level becomes increasingly important when considering your spelunker’s limited oxygen level.
Problems begin to arise, however, when you consider the game’s extremely rigid platforming in tandem with a reliance on specific memorisation to avoid death. As mentioned before, each area contains ten stages, and all ten must be cleared before you can move on to the next. So it’s extremely likely that you’ll be replaying the same earlier stages over and over to get to where you last died.
Now there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with the act of having to replay stages – it’s a great way to test your consistency. The problem lies in how Spelunker HD Deluxe’s almost mechanical, rigid platforming offers little in the way of player expression. A puzzle-like approach to getting through stages compounds this, since far more often than not there’s only one best way through each section of a level, leaving you replaying stages in exactly the same way each time. Dull to say the least.
Well, almost. You see, while the spelunking in each new area tends to feel stale and unexciting in the long run, the cooperative multiplayer options included here do a decent job at mixing things up. Because keys are placed at different branches within each map, teaming up to try and clear a level simultaneously instead breeds some unpredictable outcomes…depending on who you’re playing with of course. It’s a worthy addition that works as well here as it does in the multiplayer-focused Spelunker Party.
Unfortunately the presentation here somehow manages to be worse than the 1985 Famicom original. But perhaps that was always going to be the case with a game carrying the HD moniker in its title, because its source material already looks just fine at 240p resolution. While the new 3D graphics aren’t as offensively ugly as they were in the original release of Spelunker HD on PlayStation 3, it’s the classic graphics mode that disappoints.
It’s simply too blocky and inconsistent. There’s no scanlines filter, so you’re left with huge blocks of giant pixels everywhere, unflatteringly blown up to 1080p instead of resolving a more detailed 240p image. Some sprites are amateurishly higher resolution than others. Scaling and rotation effects are used, and applied in high definition, clashing with the low-resolution Famicom-era sprites themselves.
The game, running on Unity Engine, features notable load times, an unstable framerate and a noticeable amount of input latency, making your ability to pull off some harder jumps less reliable. Simply put, it doesn’t look or feel authentic enough to its Famicom inspiration despite Tozai Games’ ambitions to recreate and expand upon it here with new traps and larger stages.
While Spelunker HD’s long-term challenge is rooted in the same rote memorisation as its Famicom inspiration, it still remains thrilling to force yourself to unlearn the last three decades of lenient platformer rules. But this game also doesn’t exist in a bubble, and M2’s delightful Spelunker Collection on PS3 and PS Vita arguably did this already, offering the original Famicom game – among other Spelunker classics – complete with much more authentic presentation to boot. And yet despite its flaws, this remake still has the ability to engross.
Spelunker HD Deluxe is out now on Switch.