Skip to main content

Spelunker: Is it the worst NES game?

Spelunker on the NES may be the worst video game I've ever played. It was originally released for the Atari computer in 1983 and then the Commodore 64 in '84, and it shows. By the time it came to the NES in 1987, it was very dated.

Spelunker is a platforming adventure game in which you explore a cave, picking up keys and other items. Proceeding to the next section of the cave (stage) requires getting the keys to open the red and blue doors. Hazards stand in the spelunker's way, such as rocks, ditches, and piles that shoot steam. Falling in a ditch or getting blasted with steam kills the spelunker instantly. He can pick up bombs and then use them (press ↓ and B) to blow up rocks obstructing his path. You have to run away or the explosion kills the spelunker, too!

There are only two enemies: bats that poop on the spelunker, which kills him, and a ghost that keeps showing up and giving chase. The ghost can be defeated with your gun, called the Phantom Blaster (press B). When hit, the ghost keeps coming as it slowly fades away, so if you don't shoot it from a sufficient distance, it will still get you. Also, the spelunker fires for several seconds, whether you want him to or not, and he can't move while firing! The bat can be defeated by picking up a flare and then using it (press B while holding ↑).

The game's true villain is the controls and the jumping/falling mechanic, specifically. This game has by far the worst controls I've ever used. Simply moving the spelunker back and forth or jumping over a stalagmite is fine, but whenever he has to climb up or down a rope or use moving platforms—which is frequently—his doom is nigh. The only way to safely alight from a rope is to jump off it. (Nevermind the fact that ropes don't work like that.) You have to press the direction you wish to go, then immediately hit A. If you push A too early or too late, he falls off the rope and dies. Jumping between moving platforms requires equally precise timing: if he falls too far, he spontaneously expires in mid-air! It's reminiscent of Mario's limited jumping in Donkey Kong, but worse—and Donkey Kong came out in 1981! I played Spelunker about twenty times, but each time I lost two or even all three lives just trying to jump, without ever clearing the first stage. It's frustrating to get near the end after many attempts, only to die on a rope for the hundredth time.

Even if the controls were workable, Spelunker would be disappointing, as moving a man around a cave picking up coins and money bags and jumping over ditches and stalagmites is not much fun. The fact that there are only four levels, which then loop, means there's little to enjoy in this game. The only goal is to rack up a high score, and the frustrating controls all but guarantee you won't succeed.

The only way to see this game in a favorable light is to compare it pre-NES games (or to don some thick nostalgia glasses). The graphics on the NES version are superior to those from the Atari computer and C64 versions, but no one in 1987 was still impressed by an NES game just looking better than old computer games! Furthermore, the game uses tiny sprites that, in my view at least, lack the usual 8-bit charm of early NES games. Also, the background music repeats on an endless ten-second loop, making the game even less tolerable. The only NES game I've played that may be worse than Spelunker is Urban Champion, but at least that lets you play against a friend!

Grade: F
Linked Reviews
"Spelunker is popular for all the wrong reasons, an absurdly weak protagonist, clumsy platforming and sometimes unresponsive controls, especially when trying to jump off ropes and ladders."
— Marcel van Duyn, Nintendo Life, 3/10

"Frustrating design intentionally and skillfully crafted to enrage players is what's on display here. The word for that is 'sadism.'"
— Karen Niemla, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 2.5/5

"Spelunker has a fairly negative reputation in the U.S., one that isn't really warranted. Like the best hard games, it can be punishingly difficult, but it's not unfair: it's merely a demanding taskmaster."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works


Popular posts from this blog

SimCity: The OG city simulator still rocks

When I ordered an Analogue Super Nt to begin collecting and playing SNES games, I knew which game I wanted to play first: SimCity. This game hasn't been rereleased since the Wii Virtual Console in 2006! Analogue Super NT SimCity was created by Will Wright as a PC game, published in 1989. Nintendo worked with Maxis to have it ported to the Super Nintendo for their new console's launch. The SNES version is a huge improvement over the original, with better graphics, pop-up advice screens from Dr. Wright, and, most importantly, gifts. But let's start at the beginning. SimCity was the first ever city-simulation video game. Your goal is to build up a city as successfully as you can. You can play however you like, as it is not possible to "beat" the game, but the main achievement is reaching a population of 500,000, at which point your city becomes a "megalopolis." The maps are fairly small (and some have a lot of water), so the only way to achieve this is to h

Rock n' Roll Racing: 30th anniversary

Although not marketed as a sequel, anyone who has played Blizzard's RPM Racing will recognize Rock n' Roll Racing as its successor. They are both isometric racing games with weapons, similar to Rare's classic R.C. Pro-Am on the NES, but Rock n' Roll Racing is the superior game by far. You can enjoy Rock n' Roll Racing solo or with a second player. At the beginning, you choose your racer from six colorful, punky characters: Tarquinn, Snake, Cyberhawk, Ivan, Katarina, or Jake. Each is good at two skills from among acceleration, top speed, cornering, and jumping. Olaf, from The Lost Vikings , is secretly available by holding down L, R, and SELECT while Tarquinn is selected. Olaf is busted because he's good at all four skills! Four characters race and attack one another's vehicles with lasers, missiles, and mines. You begin with only one laser shot per lap. Between races, you can purchase additional shots and upgrade your vehicle's armor, tires, shock abso

Mega Man X: 30th anniversary

Thirty years ago Mega Man X brought Capcom's beloved blue bomber into the 16-bit era, to great acclaim. In a creative twist, Mega Man X (called X for short) is a new robot, not the original Mega Man . As with Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV , and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past , Mega Man X uses the winning formula of remaking the original NES game but with more and better. Mega Man X, like his predecessor, faces eight robot masters, now called "Mavericks." Instead of "men," they are made in the image of animals: Chill Penguin, Storm Eagle, Launch Octopus, Spark Mandrill (a kind of monkey), Armored Armadillo, Sting Chameleon, Flame Mammoth, and Boomer Kuwanger (a Japanese stag beetle). An opening stage ends with X being defeated by the robot Vile, a henchman of Sigma, who wants to destroy humanity using something called "Reploids" (the Mavericks?). Fortunately, a "Maverick Hunter" robot named Zero jumps in to save X. He encourages