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Spelunky review: Obtainer of rare antiquities, giver of aneurysms

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Spelunky, an Xbox Live Arcade revamp of a free PC indie game, straddles the line between insurmountable addiction and a precise extractor of self-hatred. Like other rare indie gems, such as Metanet's N series, Spelunky is equal parts diabolical and ingenious.

The concept is simple: explore worlds filled with treacherous obstacles while collecting treasures and attempting to survive. You start the game with a standard whip along with a few climbing ropes and bombs, which are used to carve out a path to the level's exit. Each randomly generated level is filled with traps, enemies, and environmental disasters awaiting your unnamed adventurer. Survival may be the primary goal, but Spelunky's secondary objective is to make players regret the follies of poor split-second decisions.

It's the kind of experience you hate yourself for loving, but love it you shall.

Gallery: Spelunky (XBLA) | 4 Photos

Every death – and trust that there will be many – can only be blamed on the player. Everything in the environment, from enemies to riches, work on a set of rules. Arrow-firing traps are littered throughout the world and always hit the first target that passes them, but they're easy to avoid by hurling a rock or a distressed damsel (or even a pug!) in the line of fire first. Randomly appearing shops offer a set of rotating items, but present the slightest aggression toward the owner and you're labeled as a terrorist, resulting in the shopkeeper going on a rampage every time he appears, until you die.

Death, incidentally, is permanent. Similar to rogue-like titles, collected ability-modifying items and treasures disappear once your character has succumbed to one of Spelunky's many dangers. As such, death can be devastating. So devastating that you might even consider ... oh, I don't know ... throwing your controller out a window, sending it careening swiftly toward Los Angeles traffic (maybe that's just me). The inclination to immediately restart and show the game who's boss, thankfully, saved me from enacting such real-world quick-time events. Still, Spelunky never gives you the upper hand, as the freshly generated worlds that await you after death may be riddled with even more perilous situations.

Spelunky is a fast-paced game that forces your movements to be methodical at every turn. It seems counter-intuitive, but it's a game that cries for player perfection. It's as though a psychological trigger – embedded deep within those with obsessive perfection compulsions – goes off every time you make a wrong move. And, like I said, it's you making the wrong moves. Spelunky's addictive nature comes from managing your tools effectively to prove to yourself (or the leaderboard, or the stupid jerk of a game) that you've learned your lessons from previous sessions.

A cooperative mode allows up to four players to explore multiple locations – caves, jungles, ice-covered areas and more. While the intention (and definition) of co-op play is to work as a team, it's more fun to grief your friends. Pick up your buddy's character and throw them into deadly spikes? You can do that! Be warned, though: he or she will return as a ghost, able to push you around the world with ghost breath (just the worst kind of breath). You should probably also avoid playing with loved ones, lest it open an ever-widening rift in your relationship.

There's also a Deathmatch mode where strategy is tantamount to controlling a sack full of angry cats. Four characters (which can include bots) attempt to kill each other in a wide variety of stages. Weapons and items from the single-player are found here to help you succeed, such as your standard adventure loadout (bombs, ropes), but there's also the devastating shotgun the shopkeeper loves to keep handy, a freezing gun that turns adversaries into ice cubes, climbing gloves that make any surface sticky, and much more. The combination of single-screen maps and frantic action makes every match chaotic – and over in the blink of an eye.

The major sore spot, however, is that none of those wonderful multiplayer experiences can be had online. You may be able to finagle your way into getting some friends to play Spelunky soon after it's released, but it's going to be harder to accomplish that feat down the line, once everyone realizes why their blood pressure has been spiking lately.

Based on its initial look and feel, Spelunky is a whimsical adventure. It's adorable and exciting, but its true, underlying plot to destroy your soul is what will keep you coming back. It offers a randomly generated world of fantastic possibilities, though all of them amount to what is essentially an infinite, irresistible quagmire. You'll love it while you hate it.

This review is based on the final Xbox Live Arcade version of Spelunky, provided by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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