Back when Spelunker Party was known as Spelunker World, a free to play game with microtransactions for PS4 and PS Vita, I sadly never got to experience the multiplayer aspect of the game as the userbase had already died out. With the game being repackaged as a full downloadable title on the Nintendo Switch, I once again set off into Spelunker Party’s menacing caves – this time with a friend by my side.
The story for Spelunker Party is pretty basic. Spelunkette wakes up from a nearby meteorite crash at night, only to find that monsters are becoming active inside the caves. Spelunkette drags her pal Spelunker into exploring the underground depths, and off you players go! The real meat of the game comes from its many, many arcade platforming stages, where you need to make it to the goal alive with as much treasure as possible.
With the game on the Switch, the game is perfect for couch co-op in the way you’d imagine. While there are no contextual tag actions that would strictly require two or more players, there are quite a few switches that can be jumped on to help a struggling teammate along, or to create platforms for the second player to reach. Furthermore, players can give a downed player at zero lives an extra one by walking up to them, which is very helpful provided you can reach them within 30 seconds. You can also set the room to have friendly fire on, if you really want to break your friendships.
Spelunker Party shines especially bright in these offline co-op sessions, where you can easily tip off the other players as to where you need to figure out co-op spots, or share the endless sources of amusement and frustration that stems from the Spelunker crew’s meagre physical abilities. Each player has their own little area of the screen to explore in, but you can see other people’s gameplay at the same time, a feature not present in World, and which helps the cooperative element a fair amount. I found it was a good idea to just stay at checkpoints and send an ally with one life remaining to go explore – if they die, they would respawn at the checkpoint downed and could be revived straight away, turning them into a human-controlled kamikaze unit à la 2P Tails in the Sonic series.
Turning to online multiplayer later on, I was surprised to see that all four screens were still shown together. Having no voice chat, the only form of communication is a set of rudimentary emotes, which heavily reminded me of The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes. Other than playing with people of a more varying of skill though, including straggling Japanese players who have stayed on since their release date of April 2017, online multiplayer is just a decent substitute for when you really need somebody to help get a particular treasure in the stage, and not as essential to the experience.
Spelunker Party’s multiplayer woes start with players being kicked back to the map screen. Players in a multiplayer room are only allowed to choose stages that are immediately connected to the stage just completed. Despite doing its job in limiting the amount of available choices, when you reach the end of a fork in the map, players are actively encouraged to leave the party lest they play every stage on the way back to the branch in paths. This limitation is also carried over to offline rooms as well, meaning you need to reset back to single player in order to freely choose the stage you want.
Secondly, offline players outside of Player 1 cannot level up their gear at all, even though gear is shared. Leveling up gear lets players increase the effects, and to see the gear my friend was wearing stay at Level 1 after five stages broke my heart. As Player 1, I was constantly swapping out sets in order to level them up for 2P.
Finally, I thoroughly recommend playing in docked mode. The screens split up in handheld/tabletop mode in the same way as in docked mode, but with the reduced screen size everything is squeezed together and requires lots of squinting. Those looking for multiplayer spelunking on the go may be disappointed by the result, but the option is still there.
So what does this mean for the multiplayer? It’s a very competent experience that is a delight to play offline and online – however there are some confusing game design choices which can hurt the flow of going in and out of stages. You’re also probably better off playing on the TV.
Food for thought:
1. There are four characters in the game, and gear can be specific to one character only, which exacerbates the problem of leveling up.
2. Needing to save your teammate(s) can lead to some tense but hilarious scenarios when put in tandem with the difficult nature of Spelunker Party’s stages. When it all works out, it feels great.
3. Getting MVP and the NICE award (where you vote for a different player) doesn’t seem to do anything for you, as far as I know. It’s just there to congratulate or encourage players, and it works.
Spelunker Party is available on the Nintendo eShop for Nintendo Switch, and for Steam on PC.