Demo Dissection | Spelunker Party!

I like to think that I have a pretty firm grasp of general video game history, but I’m always quickly reminded that’s not actually the case the moment I find something that’s not within my sphere of influence. It’s far larger that most would give it credit for, and while it’s humbling for a moment when I realize I actually know nothing, I’m always eager to learn more.

Spelunker Party! is based on an Atari game from 1983 simply called Spelunker in which you took a miner through a platforming adventure in a cavern to collect gems and such while monitoring an air supply. There was a glut of software on the system in general and all I know are the old standbys, so I don’t have an affinity or really any knowledge of this game until I literally looked it up on Wikipedia for context just before writing this. However, having grown up in a family of actual miners, I do like the concept of exploring a cave with limited supplies trying to find riches while surviving the pitfalls of a treasure hunter. Consider me intrigued.

However, I soon discovered that’s where my enjoyment of Spelunker Party! kind of began and, as I soon found out, ended.

I knew something was amiss within moments of entering the first stage. There’s an unlit campfire on your way down your first tunnel that I assumed you could passively walk over. Instead, I was promptly bounced backwards and stopped in my tracks. Perhaps this is just a holdover from a bygone era I thought, so I hopped over it and continued on. I was then met with a vine hanging from the ceiling in which I erroneously fell of an edge to reach, which prompted me to lose a life even though I was within reaching distance of said vine and had only fallen perhaps a foot from the lip. Not sure what that was all about, I restarted close by, jumped to grab the vine this time and climbed up to a treasure. I apparently jumped from too high up at the next ledge and lost another life. To get past a rocky outcrop blocking my way, hieroglyphics informed me I could drop a bomb off to blow my way through. I did as I was told, but hadn’t walked far enough away from the blast radius and, you guessed it, died yet again.

I understand now that Spelunker Party! expects players to follow its strict regimen of rules that hearken back to the 80s. But I thought to myself: does this necessarily make the game fun? Specificity works well for games like Dark Souls and even the likely inspired-by Spelunky, but they work where Spelunker Party! fails because while their tenets are strict, they’re also fair. In this day and age one would expect that they could redeem themselves from falling into a chasm by at least reaching out to said vine. This game just arbitrary says “screw you” and has your explorer throw a tantrum after failing instead.

I didn’t expect to be swayed to the side of the fence that would have me actually pick the full game up, but curiosity about a historical nugget meant it was worth checking out. While there are ideas worth keeping from Spelunker, this game obviously decided to keep the baby with the bathwater making for an intentionally archaic experience that’s best left buried in the annals of history.