Once again, we are graced, blessed with a system that allows for super-easy screenshots. God, you should've heard the squeals of excitement when the Gaming Hell staff got their hands on a Playstation 4 and realised they could set the Share button to take shots on just a tap. So much hooping and hollering! Anyway, of importance for this game is that Spelunker Collection was released on both Playstation 3 and PS Vita. Our review was conducted on both, with a mild bias towards the Playstation 3 version, but all our screenshots come from the Vita port, as that's the one that lets you take screenies. Click to embolden them.
Before you in the gargantuan underground maze, atop a small pedestal, lies the chronicle of the world's weakest game character.
His name is Spelunker, and the artefact is Spelunker Collection, one of the strangest M2 collections you'll ever play.
I guess we need a history lesson, one that Tozai Games' official Spelunker website is more than happy to provide. Created by Tim Martin and originally released on Atari's family of 8-bit consoles in 1983 before a trip to the Commodore 64 in 1984 and a NES port courtesy of Irem in 1985, Spelunker certainly predates fellow exploratory platformer Jet Set Willy by a year and possibly Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (both 1983, but I'll be damned if I can find a specific release date for Spelunker), and is an early example of a large, scrolling gameworld, where as the intrepid explorer Spelunker you must find the legendary treasure at the bottom of a huge-by-80s-standards cavern system, keeping your air supply healthy and avoiding geysers, bats and ghosts that lurk within... However, when you mention Spelunker, you're less likely to get talking about the original home computer game, and far more likely to stir up memories of the NES version, one of the most well-known kusoge, or 'shit games' in history. Not a term I like to bandy about lightly, but the NES Spelunker is one of the most iconic kusoge out there, mostly due to its hilariously weak protagonist who dies after the tiniest of falls.
While perhaps not quite as fascinatingly opaque as fellow kusoge Atlantis no Nazo, Spelunker for the NES is as interesting as it is intimidating, what with its almost methodical if rigid controls, something that current license-holder Tozai Games seem to have embraced. Despite the march of progress, both Spelunker HD and Spelunker World have the same fragile protagonist and (mostly) the same controls (although he no longer blunders off the sides of ropes) and, arguably, Spelunker World nails the feel that the original Spelunker probably wanted, that of a methodical, precision-focused exploration game. A few years before the release of Spelunker World, Tozai Games decided to give the original game a fresh new release, and so teamed up with miracle-makers M2 to create this PS3 and PS Vita collection only released in Japan, as a way of celebrating cruelty in video game form. Now, a whole new generation can look on in utter bafflement and frustration as their intrepid Spelunker dies from falling from a height that the rest of the world would just shrug off!
So, Spelunker Collection gathers together four Spelunker games, surprisingly only one of which has ever seen a rerelease elsewhere beforehand. They are Spelunker (Atari 800, 1983), Spelunker (NES, 1985), Spelunker (Arcade, 1986) and Spelunker II 23 Keys (Arcade, 1986). This is not quite a definitive collection- the later Commodore 64 and MSX ports of Spelunker aren't here, and neither is the NES-only sequel Spelunker II: Yuusha e no Chousen (officially translated as Challenges for the Brave). Presumably the other ports were not included to avoid redundancy, and Yuusha e no Chousen is such a vastly different game from the others that it wouldn't fit in at all. I would have liked to see it included anyway, but Tozai Games seem to have an understanding that it'd be the traditional-style Spelunkers people would be after. As a bonus, two new challenge variations of the NES Spelunker are included- one to see how many points you can score on one life, and one to see how fast you can make it through the game with infinite lives.
Seeing as there's only four games on here, we can take our time and look at them in more detail.
So, let's have a look at the 'original' game first- the Atari 800 version.
The Atari 800 game sets the basic template for the games to come, but if you're playing this after experiencing the NES title in particular, this is a very different beast- the task is the same, to get to the treasure at the bottom, but mechanically it's a little removed from its console cousin. Let's start with the basics, though, contrary to what would define Spelunker in later years, your mine explorer is a pretty hardy chap. He can survive falls from a fairly generous height, much more than his height, which means you're less likely to die from being a little off when alighting from moving platforms, and while he's a large target, ropes and ladders are quite wide too, allowing you plenty of wriggle room when it comes to jumping off them. This doesn't mean you can bounce around willy-nilly, and pits establish themselves as your greatest enemy from the off. A particularly mean trick is that your character won't stop moving if you hold the direction while the screen is flicking from the left to the right... And if there's a pit on the other side, you'll bumble into it (that'll teach you to learn bad habits from NES Spelunker). Additionally, the ground is much more uneven than later games, which can lead to flares getting snuffed out by the ceiling, botched jumps and, cruelly, making it likely you'll get stuck in corners of the cave, dooming you to wait for death. Speaking of, your energy meter is divided into chunks that chip away over time rather than pixel-by-pixel, which makes it harder to judge exactly how much time you have left before expiring. This ties in with the fact that ghosts are far more threatening here, sometimes appearing one after the other in later areas, and while they take about as much energy to kill as later games, the fact that when low on health you can't judge exactly how long you'll have makes them much more menacing.
By far the most striking element of Spelunker is that, especially for a game from this era, the map is huge! The caves are expansive and deep, filled with dead ends to waste your time and energy (but fill your score meter- the game doesn't loop like the NES game, so your score at the end is final) and even details you can't actually reach like geyser sections, and initially it's actually a little overwhelming. The key to survival is doing your best to note where the most important items like bombs and keys are and skipping everywhere else, but your first few attempts will inevitably lead you down dead ends and wave after wave of dead Spelunkers. However, you must persevere and check each path carefully, seeing as you can't complete the Ropes section without an extra key from the Elevator section (you can't backtrack) and starting the Falls section without a bomb traps you. Inevitably, my thoughts on the Atari 800 Spelunker are influenced greatly by the NES version and the games to come later, and at first I wasn't really expecting that much from it, figuring I'd get much more out of this collection from the arcade games. While it is more daunting and much easier to die from energy loss here, I actually enjoyed my time with this one, offering a similar challenge to the NES game but with its own quirks and foibles. Admittedly, being able to save and pick up where you left off in this set is a definite help with this one, given how rough it is, but considering its age and what it tries to do, you may be pleasantly surprised with the Atari 800 version. You may even find it easier to get to grips with than the NES game!
Speaking of... Let's have a look at the most famous game on the package, the NES Spelunker.
Playing the Atari 800 version puts this Irem conversion into perspective, and the size of the game highlights the limitations of the stock Nintendo console when stacked up against home computers of the time- it's important to note that Spelunker uses no memory mappers or anything fancy, it's as NES as you can get. The game is a lot smaller as a result- it's divided into four areas (with Falls and Chute smashed together, as well as Pyramid and Treasure) with some key parts being recreated such as the waterfall, the long section of ropes and the underground pyramids, but generally with bits cut, rejigged and streamlined. Honestly, I'd say that works in the game's favour- something highlighted by the time attack mode in this port is that NES Spelunker is a brisk game, and it can actually be quite enthralling to learn the fastest way to the bottom and execute that run really well!
To do that, of course, you have to get around the game's general sense of jank and roughness that even outdoes the original game. Spelunker cannot fall any further than his own height, his jump arcs are as committed as a cat is to sleeping on your lap, and ropes are now much thinner, meaning your timing must be precise in order to leap from one safely. These are, by far, the most famous and long-standing elements of the Spelunker experience, but looking at the Atari 800 original, you can see where at least some of these came from- the ropes were originally thicker, and the way you climb up them was never adjusted to compensate. Really, stuff like this feels like an accident, a series of overlooked details that combined to make a game that gained a reputation for cruelty. You can even add in a little influence from another infamously-mean game, The Tower of Druaga- power-ups can be found by jumping in certain spots, which can include helpful things like a double-points item, extra lives, invincibility, but it can also be the dreaded speed-up potion, which basically makes the game unplayable for 15 seconds or so. Sounds like a recipe for a really hateful little game, eh?
That being said... I kinda like Spelunker. Perhaps the way to phrase it is I appreciate Spelunker. It's mean, yes, for the reasons listed above. However, playing the game on this collection, especially after playing Spelunker World, gave me a greater appreciation of it. You can die very easily, but if nothing else it adheres, to the letter, to its own rules, and while the ropes are by far the most aggravating element of the controls, once you learn how to do them properly, it's actually quite fun to run through the game as fast as you can. It's a methodical platformer where you have to think before you jump, where precision is absolutely essential, and that's something I can really appreciate. It's this element of the design that got polished and fixed up for World, so if you want to play a game that's more refined, but in the same vein of being a vulnerable, fragile cave explorer, World may be the way to go (unless you want to look into the non-F2P version coming out for Switch). If you are feeling ready to put up with some unfortunate design choices, though, and are up for the challenge, you may get something out of Spelunker. You'll certainly get something out of this rerelease, mostly for the infinite lives mode- you can figure out the parts you're struggling with, then start to work on your time, and then start looking at the later loops of the game and do it for real. This is a game we'd like to talk about at length another time, but for now, I'd put this above the Atari 800 game for its briskness, if not its meanness, so it may be worth it!
Finally, an exploration of the two arcade titles, Spelunker and Spelunker II: 23 Keys.
The two games are very similar, far more so than the Atari 800 and NES ports, so we're lumping them together, discussing the differences where appropriate (weirdly enough, this approach would apply to another Irem arcade conversion of a home computer game- Lode Runner, which Irem made four instalments of). Just looking at screenshots, you might assume the arcade Spelunkers are just a fancier-looking retread of the original NES title. There is certainly a connection beyond the developer, as unused graphics in the NES game hint at mechanics such as proper falling and climbing ultimately cut from that version that show up here instead. However, both games play completely differently from their console forebears, in particular there no longer instant death for you fall from a cliff! Instead you'll just fall to the ground, and as long as you land on terra firma and don't run out of energy on your way down (trickier in Spelunker II, as your energy will drain rapidly while falling), you won't die. You can also now briefly hold a direction on a rope without falling off, giving you that bit of time to jump off (hold too long and you'll fall). Finally, if you just miss a platform, you can hold a direction and (eventually) clamber back up. Those all sound pretty reasonable changes, right? A fairer, more accessible Spelunker experience, wouldn't you say?
Ah, well, not really. We'll talk about the problems both these games have, then home in on the core problems of each individual game. To begin, while there's obviously a lot to be said about the original Spelunker in terms of playability, they at least felt fairly smooth controls-wise. Both the arcade Spelunkers feel a lot more jittery and janky, with really twitchy ground and jump movement, problems handling uneven surfaces and moving platforms (you'll often 'teleport' on top of a moving platform when moving between them), wonky collision detection, and overall the controls and physics just feel 'off'. The cavern designs don't often help, with a particularly nasty section in the first game where you have to jump between four fire-columns in a row- unlike the puffs of smoke from geysers in the console originals, these come from the floor itself, so combined with the twitchy movement and iffy collision detection you'll often just step on the damn things before you can jump. The home games are not walk in the park, but in those I at least feel I've got a bit more control over my Spelunker, something these arcade offerings really lack.
To get more specific, both the arcade Spelunkers add two major elements that drastically change the game for the worse- enemies, which is more of a problem in the first one, and secrets, which become a much bigger issue in the second game. Starting with enemies, and talking specifically about the first game, while the level layouts are roughly based on the console games, gone are the bats pooping on you from the other games (as are the flares- bombs only this time), replaced with dive-bombing flying creatures, giant worms, ogres, and faster, more vicious ghosts that appear after you hit invisible points on the stage. Replacing his phantom gun, the Spelunker now has a short-range fire blast to deal with these foes, and in rare cases can use bombs to destroy them outright. Now, adding enemies to the Spelunker formula isn't a terrible idea- Spelunker World did this quite successfully, with enemy worms and snakes that have to either be scared away or avoided- but their implementation is far more annoying here, mostly due to the fact that they're everywhere and two of the more annoying ones, the worms and fire-spewing rocks, can't be killed but only stunned... And they'll often stand in front of the enemies that can be killed (and take several hits to kill and fling projectiles at you). The fact that your character's movement is very awkward and abrupt and they can only have one bullet on-screen at a time makes it feel like a game where the enemies weren't really designed with the character's limitations in mind. If you thought the console Spelunkers were frustrating, the arcade Spelunker, with its focus on enemies, will show you the meaning of the word.
The second game tones the enemies down a little, with the stun-only adversaries removed (replaced with respawning jackals, Galaga-esque flying bug formations, but the ogres are replaced with griffins that do the same thing) but instead, the problems lie in the levels themselves- all-new designs, sure, but Irem really went all-out with trying to tape The Tower of Druaga's secrets. In the NES game, the items you found from the secret trip points aren't essential to your progress, but they can help if you know where they are. In both arcade games, however, those secrets have now become integral parts of the game design itself, with ropes and entryways being hidden until you step on a specific spot or do something like lay a bomb or fire at a wall. For the most part, these secrets aren't as obtuse as Druaga, but they absolutely slow the pace of the game for no reason other than "well, other games are doing this, we may as well too". To be fair to it, the first arcade game is relatively subdued in this regard, with only a few things hidden like this, but the second goes all-in on it, delighting in trapping you in little chambers with no escape until you figure out which wall to walk into or where to shoot or whatever they want you to do. I think the clearest I can illustrate this is, when stuck in the second game, I had to look up a longplay to see what to do, and promptly told the game to fuck off because the solution was that stupid. This may appeal to some, but it just comes off as really arbitrary and just adds frustration to the game. Also, if you were hoping for the mechanics getting changed up for this one, nah- the only real additions are the skateboard (used twice) and swimming (if you don't grab the oxygen tanks beforehand, you'll drown quickly).
It's a shame on both counts because, if you looked at the games as just a checklist of changes from the console games, you'd think they make the game a lot more palatable to a wider audience, remedying some of the stranger foibles of the originals! In fact, the main reason I picked this collection up, aside from the fact I knew the emulation would be spot-on, was because I'd never really tried these arcade games before and wanted to give them an earnest go. Weirdly, I had the exact opposite reaction to what I was expecting- I strongly disliked the arcade games, and actually had far more fun with the console games! I did wonder why these games were never ported before, but now I understand a little better- they weren't particularly great to begin with. Definitely the biggest letdown of the set.
Even for games like Spelunker, emulation experts M2 roll out the red carpet, and while not quite as robust as some of their Sega or Neo-Geo collections, their work with Spelunker remains the gold standard, so let's discuss the extras. Each game has resolution and screen display options, including borders, adding scanlines and a smoothing filter, and there are also two versions of each game- one with strictly no continues, factory settings and a leaderboard so you can see how you stack up against rival Spelunkers, and a 'free' mode that mercifully allows for saving and loading save states (and continues in the arcade games). There's also a gallery mode with various pieces of Spelunker artwork and lore to unlock like arcade instruction cards, design sheets, printouts of the source code (!) and even a message from designer Tim Martin as you play each game. The important thing is that the emulation is as spot-on as you'd expect from M2- in particular, the two arcade games have better sound emulation here than in MAME which doesn't correctly emulate the bassline at the time of writing. The only other thing to note is the set is mostly the same between PS3 and Vita. Content-wise, the only difference is they have different items in the gallery, so you'll both to see all the tidbits on display. I would give the nod to the PS3 version over the Vita if only because it's easier to see things on a bigger screen- mostly a problem with the tiny mounds you can trip over in the NES game, which almost blend into the floor on the smaller Vita screen. Sadly, no cross-buy or shared trophies for this one, though buying one nets you a discount on the other version, so bear that in mind.
So, yeah, this is a strange one, a difficult collection to assess. I imagine a lot of it is to do with my own personal Spelunker trajectory, playing the NES game casually then getting heavily into Spelunker World before investigating the other games on this collection. As a result, from my perspective you get a collection consisting of one fascinating if difficult computer game, one flawed yet oddly engrossing console game, and two heavily flawed arcade games that try and mix up that formula with frustrating results. If anything, perhaps it would've been best to include Spelunker II: Yuusha e no Chousen to mix things up! All this comes with the thorough emulation work provided by M2, which makes it even harder to evaluate. Obviously anyone with an interest in game history would benefit from this package, and the save/load options as well as the infinite lives mode makes the NES Spelunker in particular more palatable to a wider audience. It's just such a shame that the arcade games are such a letdown, I was quite looking forward to trying them out, but on the plus side, this set gave me a greater respect for both the original and NES iterations of the game. If you want to give NES Spelunker a chance, then this is the best way to play a flawed, frustrating, but fascinating cave-em-up. Just make sure you know what you're getting into!
For being all about the death of cave explorers, Spelunker Collection is awarded...
In a sentence, Spelunker Collection is... The optimal way to play Spelunker, for what that means to you..
As a little bonus, for another take on NES Spelunker, please watch Kusoge Theater!
This episode discusses three cavern-exploration kusoge, so alongside Spelunker there's Atlantis no Nazo and Super Pitfall.
Watch the other episodes too, they come highly recommended!
To have a game like Spelunker on this website... It's a little strange. Almost like we have a celebrity guest..
And hey, we actually talked about a NES game! That's even rarer to see around here.