In my first few hours with Spelunky 2, my mind kept drifting to Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. As someone who's been playing Spelunky on and off since the Xbox Live Arcade release in 2012, the sequel's immediate leap in difficulty threw me off in much the same way. Just as the first moments of playing the notoriously tough Lost Levels can come as a shock to anyone expecting it to play like Super Mario Bros., Spelunky 2 kicks things off by subverting hard-set ideas of how Spelunky works.
Now, after hundreds of deaths and—I'm a bit shocked to say—seeing the credits roll, comparing Spelunky 2 with the Lost Levels doesn't seem as apt. For one, while Spelunky 2 builds upon its predecessor's super-tight roguelike platforming and reuses a lot of the same places, enemies, and items, it's incredibly expansive in terms of scope and ambition. Also, though I do think some choices will lead many to conclude that Spelunky 2 is harder than what came before it, I need to remind myself that dying over and over again was core to my early experience with the previous game too.
Back then, I was learning Spelunky's rules. Spelunky 2, by contrast, has me unlearning those rules because of its new quirks and deeper mysteries. My early, ill-fated cave runs had me thinking of Mario's tricky poison mushrooms, but after dying, dying again, and dying some more, my mind's less hung up on difficulty and back to buzzing about Spelunky in a way that it hasn't in years.
Derek Yu, Spelunky's creator and founder of Mossmouth, has pulled off something miraculous here with co-developers BlitWorks. Spelunky 2 is one of those rare sequels with the confidence to change things in ways that will probably be a bit off-putting to many fans of Spelunky and the 2008 freeware game Spelunky Classic before it. Jarring as these changes can be, though, a lot of the design choices made in Spelunky 2 have the ultimate effect of making it feel new again, bringing back feelings of overwhelming challenge coupled with thrilling discovery.
The core fundamentals of Spelunky are, for the most part, unchanged in the sequel. Players begin with four health, four bombs, four climbing ropes, and a whip at their disposal. From there, Spelunky 2 has you forge a path through randomly generated levels built from different tile, trap, and enemy sets for each world. Along the way, players can find or buy helpful items, like a freeze ray or a backpack that boosts the power of weapons and bombs. Items can be taken from level to level and world to world, but if you die and restart, nothing stays with you beyond any unlockable characters you've found along the way.
In the tutorial, one thing that will immediately leap out to returning spelunkers is how fast the sequel is. Running is now enabled by default, with walking bound to a button. You can swap that back in the controls settings if you like, but the tweak actually prompted a change in my play style I desperately needed.
If you're not light on your feet, the first levels in Spelunky 2 will punish you for it. Once again starting out in a series of mines, I found familiar enemies like bats, spiders, and snakes. These foes haven't changed all that much, though I did find myself either needing to adapt to their different behavior or to changes made to Spelunky 2's whip (worry not, whipping behind your head is still possible). Some early enemies are far faster than I anticipated, however. Moles and horned toads will dart at players quickly, and god help you in your early runs if the randomly generated levels throw groups of them at you.
Thanks to Spelunky 2's expanded and interlocking systems, it also feels like runs can deteriorate a lot faster than before. Paradoxically, that encourages careful play while also pushing players to keep moving lest something go very, very wrong wherever you happen to be standing.
One new item that's instantly soured many of my runs is the Ghost Pot. As before, there are lots of jars and pots strewn around Spelunky's levels that can include gold, jewels, or the occasional enemy. Each level is also guaranteed to have one Ghost Pot—the first time I broke one open, I was delighted to find a diamond inside. It also summoned the Ghost, a seemingly invincible enemy that will stalk and kill players if they take more than a few minutes to complete a level. I've had a few runs come to an abrupt end because I fired a shotgun off-screen, only to realize I broke one of those pots and brought damnation upon myself.
With these new additions, there's still that satisfying journey from first perceiving something as useless or as a threat to later understanding its purpose. Now I can have a horned toad bowl into another enemy, or carefully save a Ghost Pot until I reach a level's exit, busting it open to grab the diamond just before I leave.
Something that remains more inscrutable to me are Spelunky 2's second layers to levels. Through certain passages, players can travel from a level's foreground into caves hidden deeper behind it, which can lead to random treasure or secrets. While I've managed to uncover a few notable areas and rewards, a lot of what I've found in the second level layer hasn't seemed worth the time—or the bombs and ropes—to get there. I find this a little bit disappointing. The random generation used to make Spelunky 2's levels feels like it's tilted toward hiding useful items and areas on the second layer instead of in the foreground, which has made it harder to know if I'm missing out on a good item. Gone, for instance, are the days of simply entering a level with a big, obvious snake pit and knowing that I can always find a pickaxe hidden in the bottom.
I also have some reservations about Spelunky 2's art style. Overall, it's a cleaner, crisper look than the HD Spelunky release before it, but some parts of the level tilesets can be either too busy or too bland. There are fewer repetitive visual elements between worlds, but there are also occasionally things I find difficult to parse. Some traps are extra deadly by virtue of how hard they are to notice. Then again, having a new obstacle or area quickly bite you in the ass is par for the course with Spelunky.
If you do feel the need to explore every nook and cranny in a run, something that will really throw you for a loop are Spelunky 2's branching paths. I don't want to give away too much, but it seems like players won't be able to visit every available area in a single run of Spelunky 2. That suggests that any "complete" run from the mines onward, hidden areas included or not, won't be beholden to taking the same path through the game's worlds.
I've seen things that are even suggestive of what Spelunky 2's answer to the famously difficult Eggplant run could be, and not knowing how it all comes together has actually been fantastic. I've lost count of how many clues and mysteries I've encountered that I have no clear use for or answers to, and it's all been extremely fun to discover. I hope all of that stuff does end up serving a purpose, especially the branched-off worlds that I've spent less time with.
While I've managed to see an ending, there are still places and items from the trailers for Spelunky 2 that I haven't encountered. I've only filled out part of the discovery journal, and yet I'm already at a point where I've gathered together so many threads and hints that it clearly eclipses the totality of what Spelunky had to offer. That's an exciting place to be, especially since I've mostly been playing using shortcuts to later worlds. Having shortcuts at my disposal now, when I don't know what a "full" Spelunky 2 run really entails, means I'm free to chase a bunch of silly ideas without dying hundreds of times in the mines along the way.
Shortcuts are as challenging to open up as ever, by the way. The last step of unlocking one shortcut gave me flashbacks to my early days with Spelunky in 2012, when I thought I'd simply never be able to finish a shortcut task, let alone finish the game. It wasn't until summer of the next year that I finally managed to beat Spelunky from the start all the way to the hidden Hell ending (apologies to my old housemates who grew tired of hearing the shopkeeper attack music along the way).
With the PC release coming soon after its debut on PS4, it may not be long until people have scoured the files to crack Spelunky 2's deepest secrets, but I have a feeling it could still take a long time for the average player to finish their first full run of the game. I'm just beginning to pursue mine, and I can't wait to see what the Spelunky community figures out through simply playing and experimenting with things in the days to come.
It's weird, actually—the community is so core to the Spelunky experience that I'm kind of anticipating the next few weeks and months as if Spelunky 2 were a live service game. Instead of updates, I'm looking forward to the discoveries that will be made and kinds of audacious runs that people will attempt. After being crushed, shot, burned, poisoned, bitten, and bludgeoned to death so many times now, I will relish seeing better players than me get humbled in the same ways.
Having moved past my difficulties and frustration with the early game, I have reached a point with Spelunky 2 where I can feel myself improving and having a laugh or ten with most of my runs. That's the mindset Spelunky 2 absolutely needed to inspire in order to be a successful sequel, and it has done so.
At first, I thought I could sum up Spelunky 2 as "Spelunky, but even harder." With the acknowledgement that there are still lots of elements I haven't seen, including some vexing secrets, I think I can safely say that "Spelunky, but even better" captures it well.
Spelunky 2 is an outstanding sequel. Derek Yu, BlitWorks, and the rest of the team behind it have assembled a game that adds to what made Spelunky great without trending toward bloat or changing too much of the essentials. In some minor ways, the level randomization and art style don't feel quite up-to-par, but the overall package is polished, compelling, and brimming with secrets. As ever, players will die over and over in pursuit of a successful run or even just an ounce of progress, which is the way it's meant to be. I'm excited to see what others uncover as they pick themselves up again and again to venture deeper into Spelunky 2's depths.