Back in 2012 I was blown away by Spelunky, a slick yet simple roguelike platformer with colorful art that masked a brutally challenging experience. Every run begins the same. Armed with four ropes, four bombs, and a trusty whip, I’m overwhelmed by flying bats, impaled on spikes, and blown away by over-protective shopkeepers.
I fell in love with Spelunky, rising to its increasingly demanding challenges through dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths. Spelunky was one of my favorite games of that generation. Playing the sequel, which recently released this year, was a no-brainer.
Then Hades came along.
Hades, like many modern roguelikes, is actually a “roguelite,” like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells. While featuring randomly generated levels, Hades bestows godly powers at every turn, while earning currency that can be spent on critical improvements and permanent upgrades in-between runs.
Spelunky 2 relishes in quick and unforgiving deaths, while Hades constantly pushes me to succeed, making each run more successful, and thus more satisfying, than the last. Despite my love for Spelunky, Hades has completely eclipsed the sequel as my death-filled adventuring.
To the Moon
Spelunky 2 stars the daughter of the hero from the first game. Her explorer parents have recently gone missing while searching through the caves of the moon, leaving the heroine to begin her own journey.
That’s about as much story as I’m going to get for awhile. Despite taking place on the moon, the level designs are almost the same as the original game, as I explore mines, jungles, and ice caves dodging familiar traps and enemies. In many ways Spelunky 2 feels like an expansion rather than a full sequel, which isn’t surprising considering how the original game became a hallmark of excellent game design.
Unfortunately for those of us who played the original game to death (pun intended), that sameness leads to a “been there, done that” feeling throughout the early hours. Once again I die dozens and dozens of times in the very first level alone. I painstakingly recall having to look before I leap, check for arrow-shooting statues, watch for spiders that hang from ceilings, and avoid lingering too long in any one level, lest the immortal ghost arrives to kill me.
Most of the new content will happily kill me as well, including burrowing molerats, rolling hedgehogs, and cursing witch doctors. Remembering how to play Spelunky is like riding a bike for the first time in years – except the bike is constantly trying to murder me.
The Land Down Under
While Spelunky is rooted in its traditionalist genre roots, Hades is a breath of fresh air. Hades stars Zagreus, the rebellious son of the titular god of the Underworld. Zagreus is on a mission to escape the underworld, which takes him through a series of biomes and arenas.
While Spelunky is primarily a deadly platforming adventure, Hades is all about isometric, real-time combat. From the beginning I can choose between several different weapons, which drastically alters how Zagreus fights, from a traditional sword to a throwing shield. Soon I’m unlocking close-range gloves, a long-range bow, and even a rapid-firing gun, granting a satisfying variety of playstyles.
After clearing a room of enemies, Zag is awarded several different bonuses, including gold (for purchasing temporary buffs at Charon’s shop), additional health, cthonic keys (for unlocking weapons and traits), and godly boons. Although Zagreus is alone in his exodus, he’s bolstered by the Greek gods, including Ares, Zeus, and Demeter, who appear as boons that grant various powers and abilities. These boons have several bonuses to choose from, such as Aphrodite charming enemies or Zeus firing out thunderbolts when I attack.
Rewards are randomly doled out in a steady pace, creating the perfect power creep for every run in Hades. The action starts out slow and easy, with simple enemies that are easy to dodge, while I gradually earn fancier and more advanced powers.
By the time I’ve hit the lava rivers of Asphodel, I’ve a pretty good handle on how best to use the powers I’ve acquired with the weapon I’ve chosen. Whereas in Spelunky, it’s a complete crapshoot whether I can nab a jetpack early, or run low on bombs and suffer a particularly challenging layout.
While far less common than Spelunky, death is still a natural end in Hades, sending Zagreus back to the house of Hades. Instead of immediately popping back in for another run, the game encourages me to slow down and talk to my fellow residents, like Hypno, Nyx, and Dusa. I learn more about their stories every time I speak with them, which is a joy thanks to Supergiant’s always incredible character art and voice acting. And of course, I always stop to pet best boy Cerberus.
While tooling around the house I can spend gemstones, keys, and darkness earned in the previous runs to unlock new buildings and decor, weapons and traits, and permanent upgrades to my stats. Upgrades such as Death Defiance cost hundreds of Darkness but the rewards are critical: free self-revivals when reaching zero hit points.
Even when failing in Hades, I’m growing stronger and stronger thanks to the persistent currency and upgrades. In Spelunky, it’s back to square one every single time. It’s fair to say that Spelunky 2 and Hades occupy different subgenres; Hades is an arena-brawler, not a platformer, after all. But after being encouraged by Hades’ incremental storytelling and empowered by permanent upgrades and abilities, it’s difficult to return to a world that delights in carelessly murdering me over and over again.