I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. Partly due to a limited budget of money and time, but mostly it was disinterest in most that came out. No AAA game really caught my attention. I found Final Fantasy 7 Remake demo repetitive and tedious so I never picked up the full release and I refuse to support companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft, so that crossed out all their new games. Even the indie games I played this year didn’t excite me too much. Carrion was a fun little bite size romp and Hades was so close to being what I want for a roguelight with social mechanics, but sadly fell short. I felt I didn’t play enough games to make another top five list this year, but I wanted to talk about what is undoubtedly my favorite game of 2020: Spelunky 2.
My history with the series is weird. When I first got my PS4, one of the first games I picked up was the original Spelunky because it’s reputation was so strong. However, I found the difficulty completely impenetrable; I could hardly make it out of the caves. The difficulty in Spelunky 2 isn’t any easier (it may even be harder), but the game just feels better to play. There is less stiffness in the controls and you can toggle run to always be on so you don’t have to constantly hold down the trigger. There is one strange control aspect that returns in Spelunky 2 and that is carrying items.
In both games, carrying items is pretty clunky. To bring anything anywhere it has to be carried and only one thing can be carried at a time. This includes weapons, keys, and the pets, who will give you a health point if delivered to the level exit. This can lead to having to manage multiple items at one on levels that require multiple things to carry around, like the floor in the dwellings where you have to bring the key to the chest to unlock the Udjat eye. If you have a weapon on this floor and also want to carry the pet and the key at the same time, get ready for a juggling act of dropping and picking up items.
This clunkiness with carrying items is very obviously by design though. Since delivering pets to the exit is one of the only ways to get health, only being able to carry an item at a time forces the player to assess what is most important to grab and carry, leading to a sort of flow chart to be run down in the moment. This is because different throwable items have different attributes. Rocks only hit for one point of damage and never break while arrows hit for 2 points of damage, but break and become useless after hitting an tougher enemy like a caveman. So you are constantly going over a checklist in your head. Am I carrying an item that can be thrown as a weapon? If no, grab one. If yes, is there a better weapon or item I should be carrying. It’s these little moments of consideration, these moments of assessment that make Spelunky 2 such an engaging game to play aside from the platforming elements.
Like most every other roguelike, Spelunky 2 is a game of learning from mistakes and internalizing what needs to be done in the future. Every different biome has different enemies and challenges to consider. Enemies attack patterns and health need to be learned. Interactions between level elements have to be assessed when scouting out a safe path forward. And, the most frustrated of all, traps that can kill you with one hit need to be spotted and avoided.
There is at least one thing in every biome that will kill you instantly no matter how much health you have at the time. Spikes, bear traps, lava, moving blocks; all of these can end your run in a second. While it is definitely frustrating to build up a great run only to have it snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the instant death traps are necessary for the balance of the game. The game would become trivial with the right combination of items and having traps to constantly look out for keeps the game engaging. You have to always be looking ahead for upcoming traps to avoid, enemies to dodge, and treasure to grab that your mind will be racing a mile a minute while playing. Once you have the base gameplay down, then you can start hunting for secrets.
There are so many hidden things to find in Spelunky 2 from secret areas and paths to take throughout the game, items to collect, and new explorers to rescue. And, if you wish to discover the secret 7th world after the “final” boss, there is something that needs to be done on nearly every level and secrets that must be revealed and, quite literally, death to be defied. It’s while going after this secret world that the limited item carrying comes into play as the game’s way of balancing itself. At a few points, items will have to be carried between levels, meaning that if you get a powerful weapon, for example the shotgun, on an early level, you will have to eventually give it up. It’s a great tool for the game to balance itself. If you are just going for a main path ending, you don’t have to worry about giving anything up, but if you want to see the secret worlds and bosses, you have to sacrifice things.
Spelunky 2 is a game of checks and balances, of risk versus reward. Everything good you can get in the game comes with some drawbacks. The shotgun has knockback that can send you flying back off ledges or into spikes. Paste can help you stick bombs to enemies, but will also attach them to walls and ceilings if not aimed properly. The jetpack offers the best mobility in the game, but can easily explode, causing massive damage. With most other roguelikes, it can be very easy to become completely overpowered and become nearly impossible to be killed once you know what you are doing. Spelunky 2 is not like this at all. With the constant threat of instant death by traps and very good items having massive drawbacks, you have a game where full attention is required throughout an entire run. Good play is necessary and mistakes are harshly punished.
This is why I love the game so much. It manages to stay engaging through every different run, perfectly balanced so it is impossible to easily win a run, and it is simply fun. Puzzling out how to get a trapped pet or ghost pot to the end of level without killing or breaking them is fun. Discovering all the secrets and items is fun. The art style itself is just cute, charming, and fun. Many people considered the first Spelunky a perfect game; so much so that there were those wondering how they could improve it for a sequel when it was announced. I cannot speak for the first game due to lack of experience, as stated before, but Spelunky 2 is about as perfectly designed as a game can get in my opinion.