Spelunky 2 review: perfection – Polygon

Derek Yu made the perfect video game in 2008. He’s had to live with it ever since.

First came Spelunky, a pixelated PC adventure released for free on a video game forum for friends and peers. It plants you in the boots of a diminutive Indiana Jones-type explorer who rappels through a series of cavernous stages cluttered with traps, baddies, and treacherous falls, using little more than bombs, ropes, and whatever the occasional shopkeeper will sell him. A splash of math and creativity generated the game’s stages procedurally, which is a fancy way to say that no two runs through Spelunky will be exactly the same. Some big-name designers and some little-name critics dubbed it a mini-masterpiece.

Yu expanded on perfection in 2012 with the help of a small squad, creating Spelunky HD, a prettier revision and expansion of the original game; it was released on Xbox 360, and eventually elsewhere. Yu and the team added multiplayer, along with a daily online leaderboard. Released alongside the rise of video game livestreaming, the HD edition found a fiercely dedicated fandom of video makers, who mined it for secrets. Then came toys, T-shirts, and countless fawning reviews, including my own.

Yu published Spelunky the book in 2016, explaining how he made the “perfect game” in an autobiography-slash-design-document. It read like closure.

It’s not like Yu has been unproductive in the 12 years since Spelunky debuted. He co-designed a card game, and has been gradually co-developing something akin to a video game mixtape. He became a husband, a father, and something of an elder statesman in the indie video game world, his work inspiring countless other games, books, and podcasts. But for better and worse, he’d created Spelunky, and most of us had one question for him even if we were too afraid to ask it out loud: “What’s next?”

The answer, as you know by now, is Spelunky 2, which launches Sept. 15 on PlayStation 4 and arrives on Windows PC later this month. You’ve been patient with my table setting, so I’ll tell you know up top: I adore this game. If you’re a fan of the original, I expect you’ll fall in love, too.

But how the hell do you make a sequel to a perfect game? My best answer, 20 hours deep, is that you don’t.

In Spelunky 2, our hero considers buying a compass.

Image: Mossmouth/Blitworks via Polygon

Spelunky may never be finished

Spelunky 2 isn’t a sequel — or, at least, I wouldn’t use that term. It’s something different, like so many modern games that blur the lines between remaster, reboot, remake, and reimagining. It warrants new words.

Spelunky 2’s early stages resemble the original Spelunky, just a little prettier. Imagine someone using tracing paper to re-create a favorite painting, adding their own flourishes and revisions. Once again, you begin in a cave full of spiders, skeletons, bats, and golden idols that egg you on to set to set off their lethal traps. Except now, things are ever so different.

Yellow lizards roll across the room like that big ball chasing Indy, and agitated moles cut through the ground like the tremors in, you know, Tremors. Step on a dirt surface containing a pack of moles, and the sharp-toothed critters pop up for a bite, turning the familiar terrain into something reminiscent of “the floor is lava,” with our hero leaping from one floating platform to another.

The opening stages (and, in time, the entire game) feel familiar but deadlier — like Yu redesigned Spelunky specifically to punish those of us who’d grown complacent after eight years of speedruns, accustomed to shredding through them like Bill Murray skipping through the back half of Groundhog Day. Your muscle memory is weaponized against you.

In Spelunky 2, our hero considers rolling the dice for a parachute.

Image: Mossmouth/Blitworks via Polygon

Like its predecessor, Spelunky 2 operates like a miniature clockwork universe, with every creature, trap, and object serving a purpose, and every action on screen causing an appropriate reaction. For newcomers, it is daunting and difficult. This isn’t a game you beat on your first try. Or your hundredth.

The goal of Spelunky isn’t to beat the game, anyway. The goal is to understand its world. You discover how to use everything in the room and, in turn, how to survive it. Each session ideally lasts a little longer than the last. Five minutes. Six minutes. Then 15 minutes. You make progress, die, lose every upgrade and item, then restart with nothing more than what you learned along the way. An inspired Twitter follower recently showed me his technique for documenting success, inputting the stage where he died into a spreadsheet and creating a chart. Slowly, the line trends upward.

The biggest advantage in Spelunky is sight: You’re always able to see threats above and below you. So now, Yu & co. take that advantage away. For this go-round, the team has found ways to conceal entire swaths of each stage. Throughout the levels, you will now find doors, many of them locked, that lead to additional treasure, enemies, traps, and secrets so sprawling that they become new stages entirely.

The decision to layer new environments onto one another is devious, one plane concealing the dangers lurking inside another. But it works, and I think that’s because Spelunky 2 gets at the core pleasure of video games: the giving and taking of power. A good game makes us feel like a god, but a great game reminds us we’re human.

In Spelunky 2, our hero holds a magical key while looking for a secret passage.

Image: Mossmouth/Blitworks via Polygon

I was skeptical of the caves within the caves when I saw them in the first trailer for Spelunky 2. They looked overcomplicated and annoying, adding too much to a series known for its simplicity and visual efficiency. But I’ve come to love them and how they invite me to go deeper into the game, knowingly stopping my progress, knowingly risking everything for nothing more than discovery. And the stages within stages are a metaphor made literal of Yu’s design with each entry in the Spelunky canon, layering and layering and layering and layering.

With each version — the freeware original, Spelunky HD, Spelunky 2 — you come across all the familiar things, now slightly different or puckishly inverted. Here is the shopkeeper with all the usual wares for sale. More bombs, and more ropes. The compass that points you to the end of each level, and the pickax that helps you carve a shortcut.

But now, depending on what’s in stock, you can also buy a handful of new items, like the Power Pack, which upgrades your whip into a flaming whip and your bombs into bigger bombs. Or, the shopkeeper is replaced by a woman selling tickets to a challenge room, filled with traps and cash. Or, neither is in the level. Instead, you find The Walrus Lady enticing you to roll dice to win a prize guarded by a sizzling, purple plasma beam.

All of these additions to Spelunky provide new ways to hurtle through the world, bringing their own benefits and problems. An example: Throughout the game you can find mounts, like a demon dog that spits fire and a turkey that double-jumps and floats safely to the ground.

I’m a fan of the turkey, which headbutts your enemies once it’s been tamed. The turkey comes with options. You can return the turkey to its owner to receive a key to one of the aforementioned locked doors; you can ride the turkey to another stage; or you can burn the turkey with a flaming whip, cooking it into a Thanksgiving-style dish that rewards you with a little health. Fair warning, though: If you roast the turkey in front of said turkey’s owner, he will straight-up murder you. Understandably so!

The further you progress in Spelunky 2, the more its connection to its predecessors warps into something strange. You find two exits at the end of the preliminary caves, one leading to a familiar jungle and another toward a lava-soaked crag. Later, a familiar boss reappears, but less challenging than before, more of a silly joke. Spelunky notoriously contained secret levels that led to a secret boss, and they show up again, but familiar totems serve new purposes and take you in surreal new directions.

In Spelunky 2, our hero discovers a sword in a stone.

Image: Mossmouth/Blitworks via Polygon

I confess that, for these reasons, I have not beaten Spelunky 2. I have reached the mainline “final” boss, and I know how to defeat them. I just can’t help but get distracted by all the other directions in which I can go. If I see a mysterious door or grab an unfamiliar item, if I come across a helpful ally or a risky bonus challenge, I’m going to risk it all. Partly because I want to discover this world, and partly because I don’t want to finish this game.

I know that the game doesn’t end when it “ends.” I can play competitive multiplayer, which is chaos made flesh. And I am utterly smitten with the online co-op, which, unlike in the previous Spelunky, makes the game more manageable, especially for first-timers. But the act of discovery and completion itself? That only comes once.

Or does it?

In Spelunky 2, our hero has found himself trapped in a pit of lava.

Image: Mossmouth/Blitworks via Polygon

I called Spelunky the game of the 2010s in an essay I wrote last year. “Spelunky is the closest that video games have come to perfection in this decade — or any decade,” I said then. “Its flaws and bugs aren’t problems; they’re brushstrokes, evidence that this little slice of the divine was in fact made by humans.”

To expand on that, Yu’s approach to Spelunky as a living project reminds me of J.M.W. Turner, a provocateur of the English Romantic painters. Turner would notoriously hang his paintings at competitions, then continue to tweak and revise the work in the middle of the public viewing. Already beautiful landscapes somehow became even more vibrant and striking. Days later, he could return to a masterpiece and discover yet another piece of profundity with a few additional strokes.

You know when you finish a movie or book or game you love, and you wish you could experience it again for the first time? That’s what it has felt like to play Spelunky 2. I get to play my favorite game for the first time all over again.

This isn’t a sequel. It’s yet another chance to play Spelunky with fresh eyes; everything is just a little different, another stroke that proves perfection is imperfect. Even the best can get better.

Spelunky 2 will be released Sept. 15 on PlayStation 4 and Sept. 29 on Windows PC. The game was played on PC using a download code provided by Mossmouth. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.