Spelunky 1 felt so precision engineered, so complete, so perfect, that the announcement of Spelunky 2 seemed like the reveal of a new wrist watch. If it had a fancier strap and more cogs, at best, I’d still just be hoping that it told me the correct time.
This is because, after twelve years of steady play, Spelunky’s systems feel less like something poked and prodded on a screen than tools I use to make myself feel a particular way. Procedurally generated levels, permadeath, predictable enemies; in combination, they can make me feel tense, excited, elated, but they were also comforting. In its daily challenge mode in particular, which offers a single chance per day to play the same set of generated levels as everyone else, Spelunky is my daily cup of coffee. I played it every day during lockdown.
I had forgotten what years of practice had stripped away from the experience of playing Spelunky. I needed moles to remind me.
(I’m going to discuss elements from World 1 of Spelunky, and some changes to the game’s structure that have been previously revealed via its marketing. I won’t talk about a lot of the new enemies and environments however, to keep spoilers to a minimum.)
Spelunky 2 is much more similar to Spelunky 1 than I imagined it would be. Despite taking place on the moon, with you assuming control of the daughter of the first game’s protagonist, you still descend into a world of procedurally generated biomes. You still use jumps, ropes and bombs to navigate your way through its deadly terrain. World 1 is still four levels of mines filled with bats, spiders, and cavemen, and as you progress you’ll encounter almost every creature, item and biome from the first game, a lot of it unchanged. What Spelunky 2 does is add new ideas into the existing structure of the game, in ways that initially seem small but which upend the whole experience of playing it.
Moles are the first example. Found on World 1, these creatures burrow through the dirt between your feet, periodically popping out somewhere near you to charge back and forth before diving back underground again. They will disturb your best laid plans, by disturbing your ability to make plans. Spelunky 1 had time pressure in the form of a ghost that would come along after around three minutes in any particular level, but three minutes is a long time. Spelunky 2’s moles are basically tiny ghosts that live in the ground. They’re a new challenge which breathes new life into all the old challenges around them.
This is an illustrative example of how Spelunky 2 twists the formula of the original game to huge effect, but there are other ways that sound more instantly exciting. Levels now regularly contain different kinds of animal mounts, for example, such as turkeys you can tame. These let you double-jump, float, and take damage on your behalf – which makes them sound enormously powerful in Spelunky’s often brutal, permadeath world. They also make you twice as tall, and any damage they take throws you, dazed, off their back. Not taking damage from the dart trap which struck you in mid-air is great, but it won’t stop you from falling into a pit of spikes and dying instantly. Later levels have different animals to tame, and each one offers huge rewards if only you can master their quirks.
There are also new characters to be encountered, like the first game’s shopkeepers. On world one, Yang wants you to gather turkeys and bring them to him, trading them for a key to his treasure. The treasure is randomised, and locked in another of Spelunky 2’s twists: every level now has two layers, with doors which take you to the world behind the world. It’s here you’ll find the beginnings of Spelunky 2’s many secrets.
Secrets form two purposes within the Spelunky machine. One is tangible: they offer mini-goals in your journey towards mastery. Spelunky doesn’t have permanent upgrades that persist between runs like many of the roguelikes and roguelites that followed in the original’s wake, but secrets are part of why it doesn’t need them. I’m nowhere near completing Spelunky 2 and I know on any given run that I’m not going to suddenly reach the end, but I can use the knowledge I’ve gained to inch a little bit closer towards one secret revelation or another.
The other benefit of secrets is ephemeral: a feeling of mystery. The vague sense that, down in Spelunky 2’s huge variety of levels, anything is possible. This feeling persisted in Spelunky 1 for me for years – from playing the original freeware release and not even knowing there was a World 2, until the community had wrung the final arcane logic from its item combinations. This is a feeling I hadn’t even realised I was missing from Spelunky 1 until Spelunky 2 rejuvenated it so perfectly. I know that it will be other, far more expert players who will ultimately discover Spelunky 2’s most deeply held secrets, but I still benefit from knowing that they’re there to be found.
Hopefully, it’ll take a while before those Spelunky wizards discover everything. Slowing their progress is the last major addition to Spelunky 2 that I think really works. Its levels now branch at certain points, making it impossible to see everything the game contains in a single run. At the end of World 1, you can visit two different versions of World 2. You can branch again at several other points. I see exciting new things on every run, and after 20 hours feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Of everything Spelunky 2 adds, the only thing I think doesn’t work ends up not mattering at all. In between runs, you can now return to camp – effectively the old game’s menu screen – which gradually expands with characters you discover on different runs. You can pull single lines of dialogue from each of them, and go into their bedrooms, but there’s nothing to be gleaned from doing so. The dialogue is flavour text that reveals nothing to you, and the gradually increasing number of bedrooms are all identical. The whole thing feels like an incomplete idea – the framework for a gradually revealing narrative that never materialises. This is particularly jarring given that Spelunky 2 is being released at the same time as Hades, another run-based game with a home base that absolutely nails its characters and story progression.
Like I say, I don’t think it matters. I don’t need Spelunky 2 to have a story. It doesn’t need the RPG elements of the many games that came after the first game. Spelunky 1 did a lot with a little, and Spelunky 2 does a lot with a lot. It remains better for its additions, and no less elegant. The variety in Spelunky 2 is a pure thrill.
That’s why I think Spelunky 2 has fully replaced Spelunky 1 for me. In playing it, I have been tense, I have been excited, I have been elated. I have also rediscovered the joys of being lost, uncertain, and surprised. Spelunky 2 makes Spelunky new again: a fancier strap, more cogs, a cuckoo popping out from a hidden compartment on the hour. The correct time, as delightful as the first time I learned to tell it.