In the original Spelunky, every run is different, but it’s also always the same. Your objective never changes; enemy behaviour is always predictable. In the 100 hours I’ve spent with the first game, my skills, mistakes, and choices are what make every run unique and exciting. Spelunky 2 keeps the original’s winning combination of change and constants, but adds new enemies, traps, and secrets.
Spelunky 2 releases tomorrow for PlayStation 4, with a Steam release coming September 29. Structurally, it’s similar to its predecessor: you choose a character and guide them deeper through a series of themed underground levels whose layouts change each run, getting as far as you can before permadeath sends you back to the start. There are enemies to face and environmental hazards to dodge, ropes and bombs to help you navigate, gold and gems to collect and spend at the occasional shop, and pets to rescue for extra health. Spelunky 2 is set on the moon, according to the opening narration, but I haven’t seen much of the effects of that in my playthroughs of the game’s first two areas, which are an area called “dwelling” that looks similar to Spelunky’s starting mines, and a jungle area reminiscent of the first game’s second level. There are a few tweaks to the basic formula, such as online multiplayer and a hub area where the characters you’ve unlocked hang out, but from what I’ve seen so far, Spelunky 2 is, at its core, basically more Spelunky. This is excellent news: More Spelunky is exactly what I hoped Spelunky 2 would be.
One of the great pleasures of Spelunky is that, once you’ve seen something once, you always know how it works. Arrow traps will always trigger when you drop in front of them; bats will always move in their bizarrely terrifying diagonal; shopkeepers will always get pissed if you steal their stuff. The delight comes from how these things work together, how your actions will set off a chain reaction or how a new layout will make an enemy or hazard you usually breeze past a thrilling challenge. Spelunky 2 felt instantly familiar to me, while still making me curious how each run would go and what strange adventures I’d have in its levels.
Instead of changing what makes Spelunky so great, Spelunky 2 adds more to it. Spelunky’s first level was relatively sparsely populated, but here it’s full of enemies old and new. There are still spiders, and bats, and cavemen, but there are also horned lizards who’ll roll over you and burrowing moles whose paths you have to keep track of lest they spring up and damage you. I’ve seen the game’s ghost way more this time around, for reasons I won’t spoil. There are rideable animals, which have their own combat abilities: I bought a dog that belches fireballs in one run, and in another run I tried to tame a wild turkey only to have it run me straight into some spikes as I struggled to control it. The game’s world feels more full of life; all these variables make things more difficult, but also expand the stories you’ll come away with.
After two straight days of playing, I have not risen to Spelunky 2’s challenges. I’ve failed over and over, sometimes within seconds of starting. Every failure is my own fault: some consequence I didn’t think through, some careless mistake I made at the wrong moment, some risky move I couldn’t pull off. In one run, a horned lizard rolled at me; I jumped over him, but he smashed into the shopkeeper and killed him. This was bad — all future shopkeepers would try to kill me — but also good, because I could snag the pickaxe that lets you chop through the game’s geometry. I blithely set about pickaxing my way through everything, feeling pretty good about myself, until I destroyed a clod of dirt without thinking about the stone block above it. I smushed myself, inches from the exit to the jungle level. I stared at the death screen in a combination of horror and delight. My death was so stupid, but so fair, that there was nothing to do but laugh it off and try again.
Fucking up in Spelunky 2 teaches you what not to do, but it can also uncover exciting new strategies. Happy accidents are just as common as mistakes: Once, I accidentally blew up a turkey I was trying to rescue, only to find that this was in fact a good thing. In another run, I threw a rock at a caveman, only for him to catch it, making me wonder what else I could make him catch. The game’s combination of known patterns in new configurations means that even though I want to see the game’s later levels, my lack of progress never frustrates me. No matter how many times I play level 1-1 (a lot), it never gets old.
There are more hidden areas to explore in Spelunky 2, doorways that lead to caves full of treasure or rooms I haven’t figured out how or why I should access. There are bigger secrets at work too: I’ve unlocked a shortcut in the hub with branching paths, one to the jungles and one to a volcanic level that taunts me with how quickly it shuts me down. I’ve gotten several skull keys but never lived long enough to find out what they unlock. There are a ton of hidden passages, as well as occasional challenge rooms I’ve yet to master. The Udjat Eye is back, but I have no idea if it leads to the same outcome as in the first game. As with the first game, some levels have mysterious sayings: a warning of beating drums, for instance, means a level contains a giant porcupine who rolls through the level like the first game’s boulder. Another warning keeps telling me of “echoes,” but I’ve yet to figure out what it means. The first Spelunky was famously full of complicated side tasks and rituals to unlock its secret levels. I can see the hints of those here, but I can’t unravel them on my own.
Sometimes it’s cool to be a games journalist because you get to play games early, but playing Spelunky 2 before everyone else makes me feel like it’s missing something. The first game’s secrets were uncovered by the community working together; there was more inside it than any one player could master. By the time I came to that game, most of it had been mapped out in forums and YouTube videos, but now I get to get in on the ground floor for Spelunky 2, discovering alongside everyone else. The game feels huge and uncharted, and it’s not just because I keep making dumb mistakes and dying in the early levels. I’m excited for other players to start finding its eggplants and figuring out its paths to Hell, uncovering and connecting its secrets into a narrative that’s so much more than simply platforming through levels whipping bats. I didn’t need more Spelunky — I have plenty of the first game still to play — but I’m so excited to have it.