Review: “Spelunker HD Deluxe” (PS4, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since tigers had sabers for teeth!

Today, we’re going to dig deep into Spelunker HD Deluxe for Nintendo Switch and PS4,* a modern reimagining of the 1983 Spelunker game by Timothy G. Martin… sort of.

Why “sort of”? Because Spelunker HD Deluxe actually takes more inspiration from the Nintendo NES release than it does from the Atari 8-bit original. Developed by Tozai, Spelunker HD Deluxe features four modes of play: Adventure, Competition (multiplayer), Championship, and Infinite Cave Neo.

Dive in

For most gamers, Adventure Mode will be the primary way to play Spelunker HD Deluxe, which is one hundred stages long and filled with subterranean enemies, traps, and treasures. At it’s core, Spelunker is a 2D action platformer where the player must collect a set number of keys before unlocking the path to the next stage, collecting as much loot as you can along the way.

Your cave-diving hero can jump, climb, set bombs, fire flares and shoot (?) ghosts who occasionally surface to make life more difficult. These ghosts can sometimes get huge, requiring multiple blasts to wipe them out, but they are far from the only hazards you’ll face when exploring the treasure-filled caves. Other enemies include snakes, spitting fish, guano-dropping bats (who screech like an alarm clock), millipedes, golems, and eventually, aliens.

If you look to your left, you’ll see a flying guano factory in the shape of a bat

There are plenty of natural hazards, too, including pits, spikes, steam spouts, columns of fire, and giant steel balls (*snick!*) swinging from the ceiling. What’s the toughest obstacle? Cave-ins? Massive multi-headed ghosts? Enormous subterranean octopi? Multi-headed, fire-breathing dogs? Nope. Birds. The birds suck. Once they spot you, they dart directly at you, and they are often very difficult to avoid. Why are there eagles 2000 feet underground in a cave, anyway?

Fortunately, you can use your bombs and flares to keep some of the enemies at bay, at least temporarily. But be careful, as both of your attacks can backfire and kill you too if you’re not giving yourself enough distance.

If Spelunker wasn’t tough enough already, there is also a time limit that you will have to contend with. Thankfully, the time resets when you reach checkpoints, but it’s still a pretty aggressive time limit, and you will doubtlessly lose a few lives to it throughout the game.

I have no clever caption for the water stage

Spelunk: (v) the practice of exploring caves

The spelunker himself controls pretty well, though some of the game’s retro design will take a lot of getting used to for the uninitiated. Not only can your character not change directions while jumping, but if he falls even the shortest of distances, he dies. It’s very hard to know if a fall will kill you. Hit the ceiling on a vertical jump? No problem. Hit it moving horizontally? It often kills you. This will be extremely annoying at first (it was to me, too). After 30 minutes of play and not progressing past the first few stages, I was almost ready to give it up and relinquish this review in favor of an “impressions” piece. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. Once you get in tune with the Spelunker’s rules, things start to click and you’ll have a much better time. A damn fun time.

It’s an ice stage (gnashes teeth)

If this all adds up to a tough game in your mind, you’re not wrong. Like its retro contemporaries, Spelunker is a difficult game. Fortunately, you can save your progress at any time, and every time you finish groups of ten stages, you can jump ahead at the title screen.

After every tenth stage benchmark, the aesthetics of the stages change, with new backgrounds and music. Of course, this usually brings new enemies and traps, too. There is a water stage, a fire stage, a dark stage with limited visibilty, and (unfortunately for some), an ice stage, complete with slippery surfaces, and so on. Despite being a hundred stages long, the Adventure Mode was always pretty fresh, and I never felt as though the game had run out of ideas.

It should be noted, however, that you have the option to play with either the updated 3D graphics or a throwback, 8-bit style similar to the original NES game, and I oddly found the latter to be a much more enjoyable experience. It is far easier to see hazards and platforms in classic mode, particularly with a simple black background. In the modernized 3D graphics, the stage has a rotating effect similar to parallax scrolling effect, but this makes it difficult to determine where exactly the edges of platforms are.

I also didn’t prefer many of the updated enemy designs, which look far more generic in 3D mode (the bats, in particular). Even the updated music didn’t resonate with me much more than the original chip tunes. The updated version of the game simply loses a lot of the charm and personality of the original. Sure, much of this comes down to personal taste and perhaps my own 80s nostalgia (though I don’t recall playing any version of Spelunker before this), but it’s disappointing to see so much effort put into updating the game, yet making it slightly worse in the process. At least the headlamp on your spelunker’s helmet provided a cool lighting effect.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the PlayStation 4 version of Spelunker HD Deluxe – as released – is a broken game. Somewhere around stage 95 or so, there is a glitched elevator that isn’t properly aligned with the environment, which resulted in the stage being unbeatable. Fortunately, this elevator glitch was quickly patched less than a week after release, but it’s never acceptable for a publisher to ship a broken game without calling it out. For what it’s worth, I only noticed this in the retro version of the stage, so I don’t know if the glitch is also present when you play with the HD graphics.

This elevator doesn’t properly align with the environment (this was patched later)

Achoo! – Stalactite

Of course, there are other game modes besides Adventure Mode that should be mentioned, too. Championship Mode is basically an ultra-difficult version of the game, featuring 100 new stages that will test the skills of even the most dedicated cave-diver. In Competition Mode, up to four players (six, if playing online) can venture into the caves together, where you can compete for who completes a stage the fastest. If you’re feeling sporting, you can also resuscitate fallen players if they get shellacked. Finally, there’s Infinite Cave Neo Mode, which features an endless, randomly generated cave where players can see how far they can get before running out of lives.

Before closing out my thoughts on Spelunker HD Deluxe, I have to mention that this “Deluxe” version is $24.99 via PSN. There is a previous version of the game titled Spelunker HD (no Deluxe) released for the PS3 in 2009, which was priced at just $9.99. I’m not sure if I’m missing anything, but the only thing that seems to set the two versions apart is the inclusion of the new Infinite Cave Neo Mode. Does that mode alone really warrant an extra $15? More likely, this is another example of game publishers slowly pushing for consumers to become more accustomed to increased prices for digital games; a trend I definitely don’t like.

Use flares to see invisible platforms

Ain’t no allegory in these caves…

Spelunker HD Deluxe is a unique blend of fun and frustration. I eventually had a great time with it, but it took a bit of time to put myself back in the 80s mindset of game design to get over some of the seemingly arbitrary deaths. Even so, it’s a difficult game, and there are definitely stages (the mid-50s for me) where you won’t have a very good time. It’s definitely not a game to pick up and play to “to unwind” after a hard day of work, that’s for sure.

However, if you are patient enough to learn the rules of the game, Spelunker HD Deluxe is indeed quite fun. Between Adventure and Championship Mode, there’s two hundred stages to trek through, the addition of a multiplayer mode is nice, and the Infinite Cave Neo Mode will provide a new challenge every time you play it. Just be sure you are able to download the latest patch to fix the elevator glitch late in the game, and if you’ve already played 2009’s Spelunker HD, I’d wait for a massive sale before considering this new Deluxe release, as you’re only getting the one new mode.

That is one big pile of lizard

*Disclosure: A PS4 copy of Spelunker HD Deluxe was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

Thanks for reading!

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