Sometimes a video game is like a razor blade. Only millimeters thick, yet sharpened to a fine edge sharp enough to draw blood if you're not paying attention. Once you learn that truth, such a game requires your total attention lest you wind up bleeding a lot. Spelunky comes to the Xbox 360, sharp enough to etch itself into your memory, time and time again. And even though you'll wind up raw from its rough scrapings of your mind and reflexes, you won't be able to stop playing.
The indie game created by Derek Yu seems innocent at first, with a cartoony art style and warbly electro-retro soundtrack that both harken back to the SNES era. But almost as soon as you start playing, you realize just how ascetic and cruel the whole experience will be.
There are no save points in Spelunky. No infinite amount of time to explore the bizarre wonders of its underworld. As in old-school platformers Pitfall or Montezuma's Revenge, you play as an intrepid explorer digging for gold and glory. You start out with four hearts for health, four bombs to blast through the environment with and four ropes to help you reach higher places.
Every section of the game is chopped up into four levels, and in each of those, you're zipping through each stage as fast as you can before an indestructible ghost chases you down to explode you to death. Death is permanent and you start back at the first stage of a section when you die, with none of your accumulated loot. Eventually, you can unlock shortcuts to each of the game's areas.
Mossmouth's archeological adventure adheres to a roguelike design philosophy, where the elements of a game get randomly jumbled up each time the player engages with it. So, where you enter and exit a stage, the placement of shops and treasures, and the number and size of enemy creatures all change every time you play.
Despite the time limit and austerity of resources, there's a mix of tensions that makes each slice of Spelunky delicious. Your greedy need to rack up as much booty as possible will be countered by the amount of danger surrounding a stack of gold nuggets or a treasure chest. Likewise, you'll weigh the benefits of using a bomb to rescue the cute characters who can replenish your health against the conservation of inventory.
However, no matter how carefully you play, you're going to die a lot in Spelunky. But that's a good thing. Because each death is a small node of learning that increases your sensory awareness of the game. If you smash a pot only to get killed by the snake hiding inside, next time you'll know to throw the pot against a wall so you can see what's inside at a distance. Get shot by enough arrow traps and you'll know to look for items that you can drop in front of them to trigger their attacks before you need to pass.
The diabolical randomness of the world that constantly kills you can also be turned to your advantage. If you accidentally cause an trap to attack a shopkeeper, then he'll go plum crazy, whip out a shotgun and jump all over the level to try to blast you to death. (Same thing happen if you try to save some cash by stealing from him.) But his vigilante chaos can also kill the nasties laying in wait for you, too.
These challenges get amplified in co-op play, too, as up to four players scramble to grab the best loot and weapons yet still work enough to finish a level. You can choose to smash open a coffin and resurrect a dead partner, or leave him as a ghost to hog all the spoils for yourself.
Altruism has no place in the frantic Deathmatch mode, though. You simply need to outlive the other opponents to win a round, but all the whip-cracking, item-grabbing and bomb-throwing mayhem will challenge you to focus intensively for quick bursts of time.
Focus. On everything. All at once. Or you die. That's the consistent thread running through Spelunky. It's like a brain-training game that's trying to give your intuition a work out. This indie title exemplifies the risk/reward gamble that so many games shy away from nowadays, forcing players to submit to the pointy cogs of its logic to get the most out of its ever-changing torture. You'll die, all right, but you get to be re-incarnated as something smarter. It's a risky promise, but one that will keep you coming back to Spelunky over and over again