These days, it's common practice for retro or hardcore gamers to lament about the current state of videogames. They claim that most triple-A titles just aren't as difficult as they once were, and that unnecessary hand holding has become more and more prominent with each passing day. These people have clearly not played Spelunkers HD; a new arrival for the PlayStation 3's PSN Store.
Originally released back in 1983 for the Atari, and then later for arcades, Commodore 64 and eventually the NES; Spelunker had players traversing hazardous caves in the typical search for glorious treasure. This HD remake operates in pretty much the same manner, albeit with a fresh coat of paint slapped on for good measure. Navigation will once again consist of leading your courageous miner through 100 levels (broken down into worlds of ten), slowly making your way down various caves whilst collecting all important keys that allow entry to the next stage.
While it sounds like fun and games, your journey through these darkened lands is never an easy one. Much like the original Spelunker, Tozai, Inc. have set a plethora of death traps that would even make Jigsaw proud, so trust us when we say you will die - a lot. Toxic bat droppings, frequently occurring ghosts, giant octopuses and more are just some of the ways you can meet your demise in Spelunker HD, and it's here that the games major criticism comes into play. Simply put, it's just TOO hard.
Difficulty in videogames is a hard art to master and Spelunker HD arguably fails. As a player, you will be repeatedly punished for even the simplest of missteps. Drop mere centimeters off a platform for example, and what should ordinarily be a casual drop to safety will see you upturned, head first - dead. Similarly, jump too eagerly from rope to rope and you will quite easily launch yourself into a killer abyss. That's not the mention all the surprise traps that will force you into trial and error styled gameplay as you memorise each level's layout - all whilst trying to get to the end before a not-so-convenient timer runs out.
After a few hours have been sunk and wasted, the whole experience almost begins to resemble getting punched in the nether-regions, over and over again. You know it's coming, and you know it will be painful, but you can't do a thing to stop it.
While there are items designed to help aid you in your quest, such as flares to avoid bats and bombs to destroy impeding rocks or scare away creatures of the night; these are useful merely as brief deterrents to allow a safer passage rather than permanent solutions. Spelunker also tries to offset the challenge slightly with a rope assist option, but it's like being stuck in a house with a masked killer and being given a knife when he has a battle axe.
What makes the experience all the more frustrating is that once your lives are depleted, you will not only be thrust to the start of the level, but the start of the 10 level section you are in. It's a mechanic that is understandable for a game of this nature; but when lives are cycled through with such regularity, what started as a challenge, quickly leads to utter frustration and rage quits. Ultimately, when you are forced to implement your own save and quit strategy every time you strike upon the faintest hint of success in order to progress - it fast becomes a prime example of game design gone horribly wrong.
The visual upgrade, while welcomed, is nothing overly breathtaking. Textures, character and level designs are kept fairly simple, but as a whole they do the job and help animate the dangerous labyrinth of death. For fans of the original there is also the option to play the game with the original graphic stylings. It's a nice implementation, but sadly can not be changed back and forth on the fly which may disappoint some. It's all backed up by a retro, 8-bit inspired score that although becomes background noise as you focus on directing your miner to safety, can become repetitive on your umpteenth retry.
Aside from the regular 100 levels to dig into, co-operative and competitive online/split-screen multiplayer has also been added into the mix. It's here that you and up to five friends online, or three locally can choose to either explore ravenous caves together or take part in a brutal speed run to the finish. They're fun little additions and definitely help add some extra longevity and bang to your buck. Plus, for some, it may even become the preferred mode of choice, due in part to the ability to revive deceased team mates.
While this might sound like one long tirade, the thing is, Spelunkers HD is not actually a 'bad' game. On the contrary, once you develop a good rhythm for each level, proceedings actually transform into a fairly enjoyable romp. There are some solid mechanics behind the scenes and the level design is varied enough to keep your journey chugging along across the worlds; especially with new environmental additions constantly added in to help keep your spelunking fresh.
It's just that the unnecessarily brutal nature of the game's difficulty tarnishes the overall experience, and ultimately destroys much of the potential it could have otherwise harnessed. Games as a medium have evolved past the old school 'super hardcore' mentality of yesteryear, and for the most part, are all the better for it. While Spelunker has been updated for a new generation to experience, it core elements seem to still be stuck in 1983.