Given a choice between adventuring alongside an experienced caver or a vertically challenged, overweight plumber, logic would lead most of us to opt for the company of the former. Surely someone accustomed to handling the intense, claustrophobic pressure of the underground and navigating the unforgiving rugged surfaces therein, would make for a better addition to the party than a semi-literate manual labourer from Southern Europe. Not according to the bizarre world of video games. Many moons ago, Nintendo introduced gamers to a working-class chap named Mario, clad in dungarees and in desperate need of a growth spurt. Underneath this humble exterior, though, creator Shigeru Miyamoto had kindly blessed his ‘ordinary’ hero with the strength, stamina and agility an arduous platforming quest demanded. Conversely, the deceitful gentlemen behind the original Spelunker decided to dupe their audience into believing their game’s protagonist would be a hardened professional who‘d seen it all before. Somehow they omitted to mention that the character would be so out of condition he could barely jump without fatally stubbing a toe, had an irrational fear of spiders and worms and would probably have his work cut out surviving a medium-strength cold. On top of that, they insisted on sending him off into some of the trickiest caverns known to man. It’s little surprise really that only one of these franchises went on to have a real impact on the medium.
Anyway, last year PS3 owners were invited to sample first-hand the ineptitude of gaming’s most ill-equipped adventurer in Spelunker HD. Despite several warnings in my review, the game must have been met with a warm enough reception to convince those responsible there is a definite market for this sickening torture-ware. Here we are then, 12 months later, and the PSN store is now proudly stocking a set of additional levels (inexplicably known as Championship Mode). You won’t be surprised to hear, Tozai Games have made no attempt to redress the series’ formula and their central character is still as pathetically frail as ever (imagine the superhero Daredevil minus his extra-sensory powers and having misplaced his white stick and you’re roughly halfway there). To be fair though, these downloads are clearly targeted squarely at fans of the series and the developers would doubtless argue that their hero’s limitations are the source of the franchise’s insane difficulty and, in turn, are responsible for the games’ unique flavour. They’re right. These games are pretty much unlike anything else on the market in terms of their soul-destroying challenge, but in truth that isn’t as great an accolade as the developers seem to think.
It’s a bit like the guest at the party who stands quietly nibbling canapés in the corner. Folks have told you he’s got a great sense of humour and you decide to saunter across and introduce yourself. Maybe he can bring some fun to the evening. Before you’ve quite delivered your greeting, the guest has slapped you in the face twice (in the name of physical comedy) and made some disparaging remarks about your mother’s appearance. “Give him a chance,” an inner voice whispers to you, “It’s just bravado. Underneath the cold exterior he’s probably a really nice bloke.” Ten minutes later after he’s mocked your education, belittled your career, threatened to steal your wife and smashed a wine glass over your skull, you begin to realise even if he can sometimes make you laugh with a deadly one-liner, is it worth the hurt? Yes, there might be something witty and clever buried deep within the recesses of his psyche, but is it that profitable to stick around and uncover it?
Similarly there’s only so many times a game can kill you for the slightest mistake (jumping down a gently sloping surface, standing in the vague vicinity of a little puff of air, or having a drop of water fall on your shoe) before you question whether any possible pleasure you can derive from completing it could magically atone for the misery involved in doing so. Games should always present a challenge of course, but surely that should not come at the expense of the enjoyment and entertainment they are supposed to be providing. There needs to be a balance. Players need to be looked after, encouraged, supported. To achieve this a game must have a carefully considered difficulty curve; there must be stretches where the quest is easier and the obstacles more forgiving. This allows the player to receive the necessary refreshment of spirit to continue and persist for the darker, tougher areas ahead. Spelunker has never understood these concepts and, if anything, these latest levels show the developers are moving in the wrong direction.
Admittedly players have more lives at their disposal this time around, but in truth that just adds to the feelings of anger and frustration as the game repeatedly snatches them from your grasp. It’s almost as if Tozai have no conception of how difficult the levels actually are. They seem to think nothing of asking players to simultaneously hurdle a couple of snakes, jump up an icy ramp, dodge a swinging metal ball and sidestep four or five crazed diving eagles. Now and again the obstacles are manageable and you can appreciate the craft in their conception, but for the most part you’re forced to spectacularly fail umpteen times before you stagger past the latest section. Don’t get me wrong, it feels great when you do it, but five seconds euphoria can’t negate 5 hours of suffering. As was the case last year with the main game, I had to undertake the dark practice of repeatedly “Saving and Quitting” to stem the number of lives being hemorrhaged and obviously the repeated stop, start nature of such ‘cheating’ only adds to the overall discomfort.
It must be noted that the online multiplayer definitely has potential. Perhaps it’s because you’re not suffering alone or it might be the opportunity to watch your fellow gamers make a hash of things, but for some reason working cooperatively definitely lessens the annoyance of that obnoxious death melody and the sight of your corpse slumping limply to the ground. It can take time to actually find a game, but the camaraderie that stems from watching each others’ back and working in tandem (e.g. one player sending up a flare as his colleague scampers past the disappearing bats) is genuinely satisfying and almost worth the wait. Hopefully if the series does continue, Tozai will switch their focus onto multiplayer and concentrate on creating levels that better exploit the teamwork dynamic.
Overall then, these downloads are more of the same. No amazing new ideas (though that bird who guards the keys isn’t without merit), no change of emphasis, just one incredibly inadequate caver and a bucket load of frustration and failure expertly concealing the odd moment of satisfaction. Take my advice and leave this unwelcome guest to his canapés. There must be a plucky Italian about here somewhere.
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