Hardcore platformer and roguelike fans will look at Spelunky 2 and lick their lips. At first glance, this is the game they know well, having already sunk thousands of hours into the bright, cartoonish 2D indie, competing with their friends to record the fastest times and highest scores. They will assume that taking control of the titular, cave-dwelling spelunker will be a cinch, but they would be wrong. The reason? Spelunky 2’s tricksy second layer.
The secondary environment lying beneath the main procedurally-generated landscape is the most significant addition to Derek Yu’s popular roguelike. For a series that is loath to explain many of its features at the outset, the mysteriousness of the many hidden areas dotted across this subterranean world makes sense for the series. That said, this mechanic is partly intended to address some of the limitations of the original.
“In Spelunky 1 you can see familiar features in the levels even though they’re randomised,” creator Derek Yu says as he takes me through his GDC build of the game in co-op – although this will now be possible online. “I think people started to recognise certain kinds of formation and what that would mean, so that second layer really changes things up”.
Travelling through one of the subtly hidden gates that transport you to the other world below feels like I’m in a 2.5D experience, although you cannot see both at the same time. It makes you think about this ever-changing world differently. An item might be blocked off on the top layer, but a nifty bit of maneuvering on the second could allow to access it, making you feel extremely clever in the process. “It’s the same way you’d have a bridge you can walk over, but you can also go under it,” Yu explains.
A good example of this cropped up in my time with the game when an NPC tasks us with rescuing his missing turkey. It doesn’t take us long to find them, but they’re stuck in a hard-to-reach spot. Endeavouring to return to this side task later, Yu and I continue our spelunking and happen upon a darkened doorway to the second layer nearby which, when we returned to the surface, allowed us to access some treasure. This, it turns out, was the treasure our turkey-free NPC would have given us had we completed the job.
Yu assures me, however, that this may not necessarily be the last time we encounter turkey man in this run. It’s possible that we now might not benefit from having rescued his rafter later on. There are more NPCs like this dotted throughout Spelunky 2, following the success of the legendary Shopkeeper, who would notoriously pursue you with a shotgun if you stole from him.
For Yu, this is his way of telling a tale that works for the series. “The point of this is to increase the feeling of dynamism and to make the world feel more rich,” Yu tells me. “It also gives people more personal stories. That’s in the Spelunky sense, as opposed to a set linear narrative.” In the case of the NPC we encountered, we could attack, help, or just ignore him. The first game changed the map each time, now this is more the case with the story, too.
This in turn makes the question of difficulty a curious one. Yu admits that he wants Spelunky 2 to be a more welcoming place for newcomers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the sequel is any less gruelling. For a start, there are now branching paths to complement the constant flow of micro decisions you’ll make in any given moment; some may be harder than in Spelunky 1, but others are easier. Yu says “I really want new players to have a better time playing Spelunky 2 because I know a lot of people bounced off Spelunky 1.”
At the same time, Yu even found the game harder as he prepared to show off the game at GDC 2019: “With Spelunky 2 I’m not necessarily going for harder. I was actually testing the demo myself for this show and it did actually feel a little harder to me.” Much of that will be down to the new features the game throws at you, but, really, Spelunky 2 is a game about choices; some will make the game harder in relation to the prequel, others will make your life easier.
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In other words there’s more to Spelunky 2 than meets the eye. It might look familiar but now Yu has taken underground exploration to a new level, quite literally. The game will feel familiar to returning players, but along with the new layer, branching paths, and more NPCs with whom you’ll make more memories that’ll feel entirely your own, there are better liquid physics, mounts, and more. In many ways, this sequel proves that you should never judge Spelunky 2 by its cover.