I get an email from the Bossman, Ramon Aranda, which reads, “Hey, you like retro games, right? We got a review code for Spelunker on the Wii U Virtual Console. You want it?”
I love retro gaming. “Heck yeah!” I reply back. “Hit me with that bad boy!”
And the gaming gods laughed and laughed and laughed.
I’ve played Spelunker for about a week now, and I’ll base my review off of what I have seen of the game so far, which, admittedly, is very little. Because for this whole week, I have not made it past the first level.
Let me repeat that: I have been trying to pass the first level for a week.
I am convinced that, much like the harbinger of ’80s torment, the Rubik’s Cube, someone, somewhere out there has figured out Spelunker, but that person is not, and never will be, me.
Spelunker has gained a notorious reputation around gamers, especially retro gamers. Released in 1983 for Atari’s 8-bit computers, the game was ported to various systems including the Commodore 64 and ultimately the NES in 1985. The title was produced by Brøderbund, the team that created Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Sounds like a winner to me. And the aim couldn’t be simpler: you explore a cave to search for treasure, and head to the bottom dodging peril while maintaining a fresh air supply. Sounds a bit like Indiana Jones stuff, right? Archaeology, exploration, treasure, danger, and derring-do and all that.
Make no mistake: your character is no Indiana Jones. He’s no Benjamin Franklin Gates, for the two who get that reference. He’s no Dr. Livingston. He’s not even Stanley on his best day.
Your characters dies from everything. EVERYTHING. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.
Touched by a ghost? Dead.
Touched by a bat? Dead.
Pooped on by a bat? Dead.
Fall down a pit? Dead.
Fall a few feet to the ledge below? Dead.
Fall off a rope or a ladder six inches to the ground? Dead.
Trip on a rock? Dead.
Touch some water? Dead.
Stub your toe? Dead.
Oh, and watch your oxygen supply, or else… yup… dead.
Look at all that death!
And the mechanics are infuriating. This is no fault of the Wii U; it merely replicated the horrid mechanics of the NES port. Any jump you make requires a running start, so hopefully you have the room to run and not trip over anything (or else you’re dead), make the precision jump while maintaining momentum (or else you fall to your death), and stick the landing before you run into something (which more than likely would kill you). It’s absolutely bananas.
When the ghost shows up, your character has to scare it away with an air gun, which sucks up more of your oxygen. More is available at locations throughout the cave, but it doesn’t respawn, and of course, is usually surrounded by up to six millimeters of death! I can’t stress this more: everything kills you.
According to Wikipedia, there’s five more levels. I haven’t seen a single one.
I will say this for the game, though: It has amassed a cult following, much like the so-bad-they’re-good movies from Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the so-bad-it’s-just-bad The Room (“Oh, hi Mark.”). The Game Over screen taunts you with your score match against an allegedly high score of 50,000, as if to say, “3,300? Is that all you got, you namby-pamby?” In fact, the whole reason this game got a second star was because much like that aforementioned Rubik’s Cube, after dying the 90th time and swearing off the game forever, the urge to figure out the damned thing burned inside me and I found myself picking up the Gamepad for more abuse.
The ’80s may be coming back strong, but there’s still a lot that generation needs to formally apologize for. Make sure to add Spelunker to that list, right next to women’s shoulder pads, the movie Hobgoblins, and Don Johnson singing.
Spelunker (1985, Brøderbund)
Platform: Wii U Virtual Console