Spelunky: best on Vita?

The PlayStation Vita port of Spelunky is finally here. Derek Yu publicised on his blog prior to release that players in co-op can now venture into different parts of the map while retaining full-screen visibility on their respective handhelds, but the most exciting development has to be the Vita’s sleep mode keeping a game of Spelunky seconds – as opposed to minutes – away. The game’s needlessly protracted start-up routine was the only blemish on an otherwise immaculately designed platformer. If you think of each button press separating you from gameplay as a strata that must be burrowed through, getting a Spelunky session underway on the Xbox 360 felt like its very own expedition to the center of the earth.

Hold controller guide button and wait for Xbox 360 to power on → Go to Recent → Click on Spelunky → Watch Spelunky guy wander through desert into a cave → Give Spelunky guy a second to light his torch on pretty title card → Watch weird stone statue sink into quicksand → Select ‘Play Game’ → Select ‘Adventure’ → Choose adventurer → Watch obligatory animation of your chosen character climbing slowly down a rope → Wait for a rope to fall from a shaft at top of screen and take bite of popcorn while enjoying a bit more downward rope-climbing → Walk across screen to go inside a cave entryway (or Tunnel Man shortcut) → Watch a weird tribal insignia spin around → SWEET GAMEPLAY AT LAST!

Imagine trying to undress your beloved in a fit of sudden ardour, only to discover he or she is wearing 17 layers of clothes and half a dozen overlapping chastity belts. Pretty effective way to spoil the mood, right? Spelunky’s parade of menus and title cards do precisely the same thing. The rope-descending animations, in particular, feel like the indie-game equivalent of firstperson shooters masking a load time behind a brief cutscene of several burly soldiers prying open a door. It’s probably safe to assume there’s no background loading underway in Spelunky’s case.

Once your play session gets rolling, however, failure is softened by the option to instantly restart, and all is forgiven. You’ve finally stepped onto the flow-state conveyer belt and hours start to slip by unnoticed. At the risk of getting axe-grindy, if a designer understands why instant restarts are so vital, it’s puzzling that he’d miss the imperative of tackling plain old starts in a similarly expeditious fashion?

This is partly why I could barely contain my excitement over the prospect of Spelunky on Vita. Since I don’t feel any obligation to power down handheld devices between each gaming session, the game’s taxing start-up ritual becomes a non-issue. Now when I want to play Spelunky, I can drop into a game whenever the mood strikes. I simply rouse the Vita from its slumber, unpause, and it’s time to affix a projectile sticky bomb to the scalp of a hopping-mad shopkeeper.

Shahid Ahmad, the head of Sony’s Strategic Content team in charge of securing releases for Sony platforms, frequently tweets the catchphrase “best on Vita” in reference to multi-platform games, such Hotline Miami and Thomas Was Alone, that debuted on PC but eventually migrated to Sony’s handsome portable console. So let’s get to the obvious question: does Spelunky live up to the hype of being best on Vita?

The answer is yes, albeit with a few caveats. There’s no way to adequately convey the pleasure of being able to take this game with you when you leave the house. Most rounds of Spelunky last just a few minutes. Death comes knocking with the frequency of a Mormon-missionary flash mob. You get hit by a bat and knocked back into a bed of spikes. An unnoticed spider falls on your head from above and saps you of your last point of health. You get bumped into a spike totem, which dispassionately impales you. An arrow trap shoots you. A charging boulder squashes you. You tumble in magma. You fall in a pool and become fish food for piranhas. Individual rounds tend to be short, which helps it fit quite flexibly into pockets of downtime.

Veteran Spelunky players shouldn’t expect any troubles adapting to the new D-pad and smaller face buttons. My very first run on the Vita progressed all the way to the exit door just before the Hell boss Yama. Sadly, I ran out of bombs and a blitzkrieging shopkeeper was pinned into a lethally narrow column of space by the exit. I flubbed the death-from-above spike-shoe stomp and he avenged all his deceased buddies by punching me into game-over oblivion. So close yet so very, very dead.

One drawback to portable Spelunky is that playing it outside in daylight can be bad for one’s health – in-game health at least. Case in point, those itsy-bitchy spiders in the mines that fall on your head when you walk beneath them suddenly become even more of a nuisance. They’re easy to miss because of their size, but also because they’re black against a dark background. On a handheld screen, even one with dimensions as generous as the Vita’s, they’re even smaller and easier to miss. But factor in just a tiny bit of screen glare and they might as well be wearing a Crysis nanosuit. They vanish into the mineshaft shadows.

Creator Derek Yu’s vivid, cartoonish artwork looks gorgeous on the sprawling Vita display. Then again, everything looks gorgeous on that display. The Vita is the little black dress of the videogame world. It makes games look glamorous.

The most notable deficiency of the Vita port involves a number of situation-specific framerate drops. Your movement in the ‘dead are restless’ Jungle levels gets noticeably sluggish, but that example is fairly benign compared to the Blighttown-reminiscent framerate killer that is the ice cavern’s yeti stage. Diminished responsiveness here makes the hardest ice-level variant considerably harder given the falling icicles and claustrophobic tiers you have to mine through to reach the exit. Definitely not the time you want controlling your spelunker to feel like stirring a jar of peanut butter. Regardless of what stage you’re in, the visitation of the ghost who attempts to punish you for dallying too long seems to adversely affect framerate.

Framerate drops are a depressing new reality for the Spelunky enthusiast, but it’s a more embarrassing snafu for the Vita on a platform level, which launched with no shortage of chest-thumping about its pocket-PS3 horsepower. Theoretically, if you have the power of a console that hosts Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, you don’t start limping when a 2D indie platformer throws a few extra ice blocks onscreen.

Just as Blighttown’s framerate woes couldn’t de-masterpiece Dark Souls, Spelunky on Vita is still every bit as Spelunkish as its PC and Xbox forebears. That is to say, it’s still one of the most charming, cohesive, devilish, systems-rich platformers to ever grace a digital storefront. And now you get to drift off to sleep at night with all that battery-depleted awesome recharging on your bedside table, readying itself for the next day’s dying.

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