When you bring up “difficult games,” the first thing that comes to mind for many Japanese players isn’t Dark Souls, but the NES game Spelunker, thanks to the many ridiculous ways that the game’s hero can die very, very easily. This notoriety has given Spelunker a cult following big enough for developer Tozai Games and publisher Square-Enix to reimagine it on modern platforms–while implementing all the little idiosyncrasies that made Spelunker so infamous in the first place.
The game follows Spelunker, Spelunkette, and companions as they travel to the depths of the earth in search of a mysterious energy source that’s causing strange events across the globe. You and up to four friends, either on- or offline, go exploring in stages filled with hazards large and small (though size doesn’t really matter when everything kills you). These stages are divided up into several smaller sections, and everyone playing needs to reach the end of one section before they can move on to the next. Oftentimes, this involves collecting multiple colored keys to open doors blocking the way to the section gates. Other collectibles are scattered around the stages as well: Bombs and flares add to your ammo supply, gold lets you use various in-game features like excavating for items, and Litho-stones contain pieces of new gear that can boost the heroes’ stats and level up with use.
One thing Spelunker Party does particularly well: It recreates the myriad absurd ways that Spelunker can die an ignoble death. If you’re used to platforming heroes who can survive a fall of more than a foot, it’s going to take quite some time to get used to Spelunker dying after attempting jumps that any other action game protagonist would easily survive (and that’s not even taking into the account the absurd one-hit deaths from things like self-inflicted explosions and bat poop, either). But that’s the way Spelunker was, and that’s how Spelunker party is: true to its source in a way that some players will find charming, and others will find aggravating.
Thankfully, Spelunker Party’s level design takes these weakness into account. Yes, the stages are challenging–owed mostly to the limitations of the old-school mechanics– but they rarely cross the border into downright unfair territory, instead rewarding you for cautious play. They also have a fair bit of variety to them, and introduce new gameplay mechanics over time–some of which turn out far better than others (I really don’t think Spelunker needed expanded water physics or boss fights). Stages also tend to go quite long, which can be a terrifying prospect as a solo Spelunker: If you run out of the five lives you’re given on each stage attempt, you lose everything that you collected since you started the stage, and you must start the level over from scratch. This can get very frustrating once you reach the even-more-difficult later and optional levels.
Thankfully, there’s a way to offset this difficulty significantly, and that’s by playing with others either on- or offline. The addition of more people to play with transforms Spelunker Party into a cooperative platforming experience that’s far more fun than the solo mode. Local multiplayer allows for you to play split-screen with up to three other people in the same room. Communication is a big thing here, as you can coordinate exploration duties, help guide folks through difficult areas, and–most importantly–have a mutual laugh at the dumb deaths you all take.
Online play is similar, though lack of voice communication in the Switch version of the game hinders it. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the multiplayer is that you’re not automatically toast when you run out of lives; one your lives counter hits zero, you respawn at your last checkpoint with 30 seconds on a timer. If another player comes back to save you, you’re back in commission – but if time runs out, you’re out of the stage for good. The back-and-forth revival mechanics make the stages a lot easier to tackle, lead to tense situations, and even present moral quandaries–is it worth trying to backtrack through a space littered with hazards in 30 seconds to save another player, or do you simply mourn for the fallen and make haste to the exit with your loot? Is it worth constantly reviving a weak link in the group? That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
But while Spelunker Party is far more fun with others, finding friends who can put up with the rigid, old-fashioned game mechanics and grind might prove challenging. Much of Spelunker Party’s free-to-play lineage is still evident: While microtransactions are absent, the game pushes you to replay levels in order to earn money, boost scores and experience points (both for your player, companion animals, and individual pieces of gear), and collect Litho-stones. Perhaps most frustratingly, collected Litho-stones don’t grant loot immediately–they only represent pieces of items that are assembled over the course of playing and replaying levels. Even the game’s quest system seems purposely designed to waste as much of your time as possible; they function like achievements (collect X number of items, defeat ghosts, and so on), but you must manually select each one, and you can only take on a single such quest at a time when, ideally, the game should be automatically tracking this stuff from the outset and rewarding you as you go.
Spelunker Party is a bit of a hard sell. If you can get a bunch of old-school-minded players together as a group and are prepared to laugh at yourself (and others) over a bunch of stupid deaths, it’s a pretty great time. As a solo experience, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even if you like the absurdly strict mechanics, the grindy nature of the game and the overly long stages simply don’t lend themselves well to solo play. Spelunker Party, much like the original game it’s based on, can be a hard game to love, but if you’re prepared to dig deep with some friends, it can be a gem.