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!