Spelunker (NES)

Game Review

Spelunker Review

Europe PAL Version

Posted by Marcel van Duyn

Go back to your cave and stay there

Ask a few western gamers about Spelunker and it's likely that barely any of them will have heard of the game, despite it being originally developed by an American company. Ask Japanese gamers, though, and it's a completely different story — the game is very well known to them and is joked about online all the time, though not for particularly good reasons; yet it's appeared on the Wii U Virtual Console and 3DS equivalent in double-quick time, even if it doesn't seem like a title in great demand.

You take on the role of an explorer attempting to make his way to the bottom of a cave said to house a legendary treasure. Unfortunately it's not smooth sailing, because everything is out to stop you — bats, gas / steam leaks, rocks, crevices and more all stand in your way and have to be avoided or taken care of with fireworks, bombs and other items in order to advance. There's also plenty of platforming and rope climbing, which you'd better do fast — taking your time too much causes a deadly ghost to appear that will slowly home in on you and will have to repelled by spending some of your valuable oxygen.

The hero, unfortunately, also seems to be a relative of Mario in the original Donkey Kong, as the slightest fall will kill him. In fact, he's even weaker than Mario in his first appearance, because he'll actually die before touching the ground if the fall is high enough — yes, he simply drops dead in mid-air! As such, you're forced to use the plethora of small floating platforms to descend what seem like completely harmless drops.

Unfortunately, they're not there nearly enough — most descents must be made with the use of conveniently placed ropes and ladders, which are probably the biggest stealers of your extra lives. To leap off them, you have to move left or right and then jump, but as there is very little wiggling room while on a rope or ladder, this means you must hit jump a split second after starting to move, or you'll just drop straight off and die. Even when you feel your timing is absolutely perfect, you'll still frequently suffer an undeserved death at the hands of these things. And of course, since merely falling two inches will kill your intrepid hero, you can expect just about everything else in the cave to kill him as well — so don't touch anything!

Although the whole game takes place in one cave, it is still divided into levels of some sort, in each, you'll have to locate the door keys to open the doors to the next area. Every time you make it to the end of the last area, you're able to replay the game with a slightly higher difficulty level. That sounds kind of neat, but in reality, not much changes — the major adjustment is more of an annoyance, as starting from the third successive playthrough, the door keys start to be invisible and require increasingly annoying methods to collect. Luckily, at least they're always in the same spots they were in before! You can use restore points to set yourself a save state to go on a tougher run whenever you feel like it, if you're looking for a bit of a challenge on the morning commute.

The graphics in the game are kind of basic, without much variety, but special mention must go to the music. A very short, endlessly repeating loop which can get quite annoying after a while, it's memorable nonetheless — just about every Japanese gamer seems to know it.


Spelunker is popular for all the wrong reasons, with an absurdly weak protagonist, clumsy platforming and sometimes unresponsive controls, especially when trying to jump off ropes and ladders. The game is also quite short, and the successive playthroughs don't quite mix things up enough to be worth the time. If you'd like to try and be brave and attempt to figure out what the Japanese find so amusing about the game, be our guest — you can try it out on Wii U or 3DS, after all — but don't say we didn't warn you!

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User Comments (32)



SuperiorTech said:

I'm guessing enough people bought it for the Wii so they figured they'd release it for 3DS to make more money. I would rather have Kirby's Dreamland 2 or Super Mario Bros. 3 which were released in Japan FOREVER ago. Come on, Nintendo.



KnightRider666 said:

@cmk8: This game is awesome. that's why!

I completely disagree with the review score of 3/10. Short or not, I've NEVER beaten this game! Yet like flies attracted to crap, I kept coming back to try this again and again... Loved to hate this game as a kid because of its difficulty level. The saved states are a god sent. I would give this game at least a 6/10, maybe even a 7/10. Don't hate, NintendoLife. Appreciate!



Airola said:

When you learn how this game's insane controls work, it's not too bad. The atmosphere is really good. The title music is great.

I have a really odd fascination towards this game, and I don't mean any kind of ironic approach towards the badness.

It just is better than what most reviews make it out to be. Easily at least 6/10.



NintendoCat14 said:

I would complain about the fact this is on VC instead of Mario 3, but I'm so proud of NoA for releasing EarthBound, I'll shut up this time. But next time I will strike with RAGE.



Chris720 said:

For a title called Spelunker, you'd think the 'hero' would be able to survive falls quite easily... not die in mid-air! How weak is this guy that he dies from falling on to air?!

I bet the Japanese love it because it's so absurdly stupid... or easy.



Mk_II said:

reminds me of Manic Miner-style platforming. those were the days!



ajcismo said:

I'm with ya bro. I had this in its original form back in the day and spent many, many hours toiling away in frustration... Yet always coming back for more. That opening theme is still imbedded in my brain.
Its not a "classic" in my opinion, and buying it for both Wii U and 3DS isn't the best way to spend $10, but its worth a score of 5/10 to me for its difficulty, music and retro appeal.



WinterWarm said:

Ha, now everyone's trying to give it nostalgia! Haha! It was bad when it came out, just because it's old doesn't give it redeeming value.


Well, that DOES sound intriguing, but I'll still steer clear, anyway, have fun.



Dormouse said:

As a kid I played this game for hours. I remember it being a lot of fun... so i downloaed it when it released and its horrible. Yet for some reason I keep playing it. It's horribly awesome! I feel like if i can beat this game i can beat cancer, sorta thing.



Neram said:

What a waste of a Virtual Console release. Who thought re-releasing this was a good idea?



grumblegrumble said:

Hey now... kind of harsh for such a classic game. When I was a kid, and the NES was huge, and video rental shops started renting out games for 3-4.99 a whack, Spelunker was most often the one nobody wanted to rent, so I was stuck with it sometimes, and I really began to like it after awhile. With the advanced VC features and ability to create a restore point, this game should be much easier these days. I love the simple graphics and sound, takes me back to the good old days... I would give it at least a 4 or 5 out of 5 for difficulty alone.



Spideron said:

Used to LOVE this game on the C64 back in the days. Never got very far but always came back for more. Got the PSN-remake on PS3 with all extra DLC. It's a classic, alright.

And yeah, 3/10 is WAY too harsh!



GreatPlayer said:

If Donkey Kong 1 was about 6 out of 10 then how come Spelunker was much worse. when I was a kid I hate Donkey Kong also - it was a very primitive game and the control was clunky in that game.



unrandomsam said:

@Bazly I think any game when you first start playing it you should be dying all the time. People seem to like games where you can go from start to finish without ever really improving at playing it at all.

(And obviously for someone making games then that is good for you because you sell a new one each day - No way I could have afforded £40 a day as a child (Or got my parents to spend it)).



unrandomsam said:

@GreatPlayer The Arcade machine wasn't that clunky. Same with Popeye. It was the NES versions that sucked. The NES versions aren't the classics the Arcade versions are.



ReaperX30 said:

I also liked the game back on NES and was glad to see it in the Eshop. I'll get it eventually cause now money evades me. I do wish they would bring the similar title Spelunky that came out for the 360 and coming to Vita. It would be a perfect fit for the 3DS.



StarDust4Ever said:

Do we really need 4 separate reviews for Spelunker? Why is Nintendo still peddling this drivel? I'm guessing the game likely had abysmal sales on the original VC, and quite frankly it sucks, so why keep promoting it?



BulbasaurusRex said:

You guys who like this game for its excessive difficulty are the masochists of video gaming who can hadly conceive of any video games as being "too hard." The majority of us are more realistic, though. A legitimate challenge is one thing, but most people don't find it fun to keep dying over and over again only to make little to no progress with each life and then not even see half the game when we don't have the skills to go any farther. Difficultiy levels should be balanced enough to let most gamers have fun by making some decent progress between lives.



StarDust4Ever said:

@Nibelilt I'm not so sure real life sperlunking is that great either. I did some urban Spelunking a couple years ago with a bunch of my fellow college peers. We trucked out to a recreational area on the outskirts of town where there was a large rectangular corridor that dumped into a creek. From there, it was about a half mile journey till we saw the light of day again. Midway through there was a large fork which led to two round tunnels. Behind us over the exit tunnel there was red spray paint graffiti that said, "welcome to hell." I wanted to turn around right there but they convinced me to keep going. We took the right route. Towards the end we were crawling on hands and knees before we emerged behind my old dormitory. Then half the group wanted to go back in there again and explore the alternate left route that supposedly led underneath downtown. No thanks, as I was totally beat at that point. Not going back in there again. Done with Spelunking for me. I separated from the rest of the group and left off to the dorm to take a long hot shower...



Lobster said:

For some reason, this game just hits the "so bad it's good" vibe for many people. I've never played it but I know a few who have and they always talk about it this way. Maybe a sort of Stockholm Syndrome? After all, as @grumblegrumble pointed out, back in the (bad ol') good ol' days, we often were forced to rent the clunkers if we wanted a game to play over the weekend and didn't get to the video store fast enough!

I made a board game on a big sheet of paper of this game once.



Mok said:

Yeah, this shovelware at its finest. Nintendo and everyone else involved in its poor existence should be ashamed...

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