Spelunker HD Deluxe Review – Cave of Blunders

    Title: Spelunker HD Deluxe
    Developer: Tozai Games
    Release Date: August 6, 2021
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: ININ Games
    Genre: Adventure

Spelunker isn’t to be confused with Spelunky, the latter which quickly rose to fame in 2008 as a modern indie classic and even saw a sequel towards the end of 2020. Not surprisingly, Spelunky was largely influenced by the original 1983 Spelunker but managed to surpass it in terms of the core gameplay loop.

In short, if you’re still confused, Spelunky is a much more approachable series for modern players, but Spelunker isn’t without its merits. Oh, and if you wanted to add something to your vocabulary, the word itself means someone who explores caves for fun, which just so happens to be what you do in this game… except the “fun” part is debatable.

Spelunker HD Deluxe is largely based on the PlayStation 3 release from almost a decade ago, but this time it’s all prepped up for modern consoles. The new release isn’t a huge change as an experience, but it adds new modes and makes some minor improvements in graphics and presentation. If anything, the point of this so-called Deluxe edition is to simply make the game available on newer platforms.

It’s worth noting that most of the new modes and features, and even the key artwork, place a strong emphasis on online multiplayer. Sadly, even a few days removed from launch, the servers are a complete ghost town. Still, there are offline multiplayer options, that is if you can even find enough people, let alone those who would actually be interested in playing Spelunker. As it stands, you’ll be playing Spelunker HD Deluxe as a solo experience, but at least there are online rankings and even detailed statistics tracking to keep things interesting.

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As a game, Spelunker HD Deluxe plays like the PS3 release, which is mainly based on the 1985 arcade version of the game. In short, not a lot has changed, and this works both against and in its favor. Even back in the ’80s, Spelunker wasn’t exactly a must-have hit, and it’s worth appreciating how every game from the golden age doesn’t automatically qualify as a timeless classic.

HD Deluxe allows you to switch between modern and classic graphical styles, with the latter primarily based on the NES version. Unfortunately, the default 3D graphics aren’t exactly impressive despite the so-called improvements, where the character models and animations appear dated. In addition, the graphics don’t quite lend themselves to the gameplay and level design, where certain textures are so confusing that it can take a few mistakes to get used to things. If anything, the retro graphics are probably more practical given how clean and straightforward the presentation is, although you can’t really measure the radius of bomb explosions in this mode.

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Inconsistent hit-detection and awkward mechanics are probably what make Spelunker such an unpleasant experience, both by modern and even classic gaming standards. It’s easy to mess up a jump, even when you swear you got it right, and it takes a while to figure out just how the hit detection even works. Basically, you want to minimize your jump distance as much as humanly possible.

The core movement is fast, but it feels awkward to control. The main abilities include some weird air gun that completely halts movement along with flares and bombs. While most retro games tend to be self-explanatory, it’s definitely worth reading up on how Spelunker actually works since it’s not quite clear. Still, the game is just such a cumbersome experience, no matter how much you get used to the wonky mechanics.

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The core level design and objective involves traveling deeper and deeper into a large interconnected cave, and it’s a pretty cool concept, but the awkward play mechanics don’t fit well with the level design, especially when things become needlessly frustrating.

There are keys to collect, various hazards, and traps to avoid, which even include bat droppings of all things, and every now and then, you’ll be chased by a ghost. You’ll need to watch and manage your air levels as you ascend through the cave. The progression is interesting, but more often than not, you’ll commit blunders without even intending to, especially due to the weird hit-detection of the jumping system.

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Despite these numerous flaws, Spelunker HD Deluxe still has that retro gaming pull of wanting to give it “one more try.” You do gradually learn each area, and your performance does improve with repeated runs. That in of itself will endear to those who enjoy the challenge of classic games. In particular, the endless mode is fun to revisit as it is faster-paced and far more rewarding.

On a side note, with things like lethal bat droppings, inconsistent hit-detection, awkward jumping, random ghosts, and general frustration in the level design, this might just be the perfect game for an episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd. I mean, just the bat droppings alone; it practically writes itself!

Still, Spelunker HD Deluxe isn’t exactly a preservation of a timeless classic. While it may have achieved some measure of success during its heyday and even saw an unexpected resurgence in Japan a decade ago, this is far from being in the same league as the Nintendo or Atari classics from that era. Instead, this is a series that needs a modern reboot instead of a remaster.

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Spelunker HD Deluxe doesn’t quite live up to its namesake, given how it is largely based on a release from over a decade ago, where the core game itself lacks the charm of the series by design. The awkward mechanics haven’t aged very well, but the premise of the level design and progression can be interesting and even rewarding at times. Unfortunately, the experience as a whole feels needlessly frustrating and dated, especially when you’re fighting against the controls for the most part.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!