Spelunky has always been ahead of the curve. Nowadays, tons of independent developers look to classics for inspiration and incorporate roguelike mechanics into their works; Spelunky did it years ago.
And now it's a little ahead of the curve again: Spelunky has hit PlayStation Vita in advance of the coming onslaught of indie conversions for the platform. And while that's nice enough on its own, the real revelation here is just how well Spelunky works on Vita.
With its high difficulty level and simple play mechanics, Spelunky lends itself to quick sessions of play. Until you get the hang of the action, your sessions are likely to top off at around the five-minute mark (though if you're reckless enough, they can be over in a matter of seconds). Spelunky draws on Tim Martin's classic Spelunker, a ridiculously difficult game that found surprising life as a cult favorite in Japan, all the way down to the indestructible ghost that homes in on you if you muck around too long in a given stage. At the same time, it incorporates permanent death, total item loss, and random level generation: All concepts borrowed from the roguelike genre, and all carefully calculated to make a hard game even more challenging.
Difficulty for difficulty's sake can make for a poor experience, but in Spelunky it all simply clicks. The brevity of each play session calls back to the old, old days of portable games (e.g. the Game Boy era) where handhelds were meant to provide quick diversions rather than the expansive adventures and RPGs they tend to host today. By and large, mobile games have overtaken portables in this capacity, but Spelunky proves the combination still works perfectly. Play for five minutes, die within inches of your next goal, grit your teeth and put the system to sleep in irritation, pick it back up again a few minutes later to give it just one more try (because you just know this time it's going to work out, despite several dozen previous failures).
Likewise, the fundamental design philosophy at work behind Spelunky feels pleasantly old-school as well. The more you play, the better you get. Through repetition and effort, you steadily become a more skilled player, and over time you manage to delve a little further into the game's world. Oh, you won't reach new levels of success with each effort; there's too much randomness, too many unexpected hazards for that. For every great success you'll encounter half a dozen annoying setbacks. But each time, you learn a little something about the game, whether it's the way monsters get caught in spiderwebs or the physics of bombs. No, the spike shoes that let you stomp monsters more effectively provide no protection against carnivorous plants. You have to fail in Spelunky in order to learn, and that's fine, because every time you screw up you lose only a few minutes' progress.
Along the way, you can ease your pain somewhat by helping a miner dig shortcuts to advanced areas. The miner's requests grow more arcane and difficult to fulfill each time, though, and ultimately these are your only perks. There's no leveling up, no permanent inventory, no carried over skills from one game to the next, no microtransaction "win" buttons. In order to succeed in Spelunky, you have to advance via your own merits. This is not a game designed to let you win if you just keep playing, and that makes each minor victory -- or a true victory (something that admittedly continues to elude me) -- all the more satisfying. When you reach a new area, you can take pride in knowing you earned that progress through your own efforts.
The move to Vita also allows a useful adjustment to the game's multiplayer mode -- each player can move independently around the area rather than having to share a single screen with their competitors -- but honestly the competitive play feels superfluous. The meat of Spelunky comes from its endlessly varied, endlessly difficult single-play mode, and that feels more at home on Vita than on any other platform the game has graced to date.
Essentially the same game as last year's Xbox 360 rendition, Spelunky takes on a new and better life on Vita. Its tragically brief play sessions fit perfectly in a portable format. Just don't throw your system in anger, OK?