One of the things that I love about Spelunky is how it tempered my perception of what 'challenging' really was over time. When I first picked up the game, even avoiding tame enemies like bats and snakes in the Mines felt difficult. Opening hours were spent treading painfully slowly to conserve my hearts, and successfully carrying a few damsels to the exit felt like I had a massive advantage, until I inevitably tumbled into a row of spikes and lost it all.
As I invested more time into it, I became more comfortable with my surroundings and preoccupied myself with new challenges. After dying to every enemy on every level over hundreds of hours, those pesky creatures were less of a concern. My reactions were trained to suit their attack patterns, and I felt confident that I could skim all the way to Olmec's Lair in most runs without breaking much of a sweat. More recently, the real challenge stemmed from shaving off seconds on the clock to hit the Speedlunky eight-minute threshold as consistently as possible.
After grinding through everything Spelunky had to offer, I was convinced that I was well-prepared for its sequel. To my surprise, I was very much mistaken. As Shaun outlines in his Spelunky 2 review, "only the dedicated are going to finish this game". To be honest, only the dedicated will manage to see beyond the Dwelling—the first four levels that replace Spelunky's opening Mines world—in their early playthroughs.
Where Spelunky has a steady difficulty curve that starts off hard, slightly increases in its Jungle levels, and then dips to give players a bit of a rest in its Ice Caves, Spelunky 2's 1-1 drops players at the foot of a steep incline. The Dwelling sets the difficulty high immediately, to the point where I'd argue that its subsequent Jungle and Volcana zones provide players with a much-needed breather. Some of its enemies' abilities feel similar to something you'd see in Spelunky's much later Temple levels. While this sounds daunting, it's actually the perfect way to greet returning players.
Spelunky 2 may revisit familiar worlds, and even contain similar secrets, but it's opening areas have been revamped into even more dangerous playgrounds, teeming with new things that'll kill you. Bats, spiders, snakes, and skeletons have all returned, and it still feels embarrassing to take damage from them. However, new critters have taken residence underground and they aren't anywhere near as tame.
Cave Moles burrow through the levels, popping up every now and then to nab one of your hearts, or disrupt your plans of befriending a Cave Turkey. Run into two of these at the same time and you'll be praying that the next Shopkeeper has Spike Shoes in stock (even more than usual). I've mashed the 'instant restart' button countless times after losing most of my health to a couple of moles double-teaming me. Then there's Horned Lizards. These pests can deplete your entire bank of hearts in a matter of seconds with their death rolls. Accidentally venture too close to them and they'll turn into a spiky ball that launches straight at you. Once you're stunned, they can even continue to roll into you, sending you straight back to the first level. Even after thirty hours, I still find myself tensing up when they're close by.
One thing that the Dwelling really improves upon, compared to Spelunky's Mines, is offering the player more to do within the levels. Sure, you could just speed to the exits for the fastest time, but you'd be missing out on the new mini-challenges. For example, there's Yang, who's looking for two stray Cave Turkeys, which players can return to his pen in exchange for a key. The rewards may not always feel worth it, but taming the turkey mounts and riding them through the level let me experiment with their double-jump abilities. While riding them, your character's whip is replaced by their headbutt attack, which forced me to interact with enemies differently. They also come in handy when you're low on health, but I'll leave that one for you to discover.
Spelunky 2 is packed with new areas and secrets to uncover, but it also takes extra care to weave in frequent moments of deja vu that'll make its fans smile. In the Dwelling alone there are new rooms to explore, challenges to complete, and even a mini-boss stomping around at the end of 1-4. Don't feel bad if you spend a little longer here than you expected though, if you can make it through the Dwelling, you're fully prepared to take on the rest of the game.