My recent work at Ars Technica has mostly revolved around high-end gadgets like VR headsets, GPUs, and next-gen consoles. It’s fun stuff.
But while swimming through embargoed hardware and frantic news announcements, I keep coming back to a single video game well outside the “next-generation” mold.
Spelunky 2 is likely the most “dated” game I’ll slap the “Ars Approved” sticker onto in 2020. The adjective “dated” works in part because the game’s success builds largely, and loudly, upon the foundation of 2012’s 2D smash Spelunky HD… and that title builds upon the 16-bit genius of 2009’s freeware original. (Which you can still download! For free! Right next to its source code!)
A certain class of gamer will hear that “Spelunky 2 is everything good about Spelunky HD, only better” and wish to hear nothing more. That’s fair (especially for players who will hold out for the game’s launch on PC in two weeks, after its timed PlayStation 4 exclusivity runs out). The charm of Spelunky 2, like its predecessor, comes from how it cleverly shakes a cup full of gameplay and level-construction elements, dumps them onto a table, and shouts “Yahtzee!” as it surprises you again and again. (To be clear, in this game’s case, “Yahtzee” is a synonym for “You died!” You will die repeatedly in Spelunky 2.)
No spoilers yet, swear
Spelunky 2 [PS4, PC]
To that end, this article is a mostly spoiler-free exploration of what Spelunky 2 gets right as a sequel. Primarily, the good news comes in the form of what hasn’t changed.
If you’ve never Spelunky‘ed before, or if it’s been a while, here’s a refresher: the object of every game in the series is to progress from the top of a treasure-filled network of caves to the bottom. Like in Super Mario games, your side-scrolling, 2D hero has a snappy amount of speed and momentum for running and hopping. As an Indiana Jones-style twist on the genre, your default arsenal includes a whip, the ability to grab onto ledges, and a limited pool of explosive bombs and climbable ropes. All of these core systems still feel responsive as hell, and it’s crucial that the game feels so good to control, because you need to master its pixel-perfect leaps and dashes to survive its chaos.
Every Spelunky 2 level is procedurally generated by shuffling and remixing a massive selection of premade level parts. Every time you die, your progress rewinds to the top of the caves, at which point you’ll find the world beneath you has been newly remixed. By default, you can’t memorize an exact arrangement of monsters, traps, shopkeepers, items, treasure, and secrets, then you optimize your run accordingly. This fact—combined with how the game’s dangerous elements can wipe an entire run in an instant—forces players into Spelunky 2‘s brutal reality: get your act together, or perish.
After my first three hours playing Spelunky 2, I kept remarking to myself how surprised I was by seemingly new monsters, items, and tweaks… only to realize how much of that stuff was entirely unchanged from the previous game. I point this out because I’m amazed by how many Spelunky 2 moments feel incredibly fresh in 2020 without changing the good ideas found in the 2009 original.
Your default whip attack still has a clever amount of “behind your back” momentum. Bats still fly “directly” at your hero in obnoxiously curved lines, making them a surprising nuisance. The freeze ray is still a blast to use, especially when it lets you turn a dangerous foe into a useful block of climbable ice. Monkeys are still freaking jerks who exist entirely to rob and annoy you. AI-controlled “helpers” are still maniacs who do more harm than good. Stuff like that.
Mild spoilers begin here
Read More: Spelunky 2 game review: Roguelite perfection