Spelunking, now with Bullets!
Indie gaming’s infatuation with the retro 8-bit aesthetic is fascinating to me. It seems that numerous indie titles rely on this design choice, but why? Is it because it’s simple and cheap to implement? Is it an attempt to latch on to gamers who have fond memories of the days of retro gaming? Is it a design choice that’s becoming increasingly rooted in irony? While I can think of some titles that fit those categories, Downwell is a game that truly comes across as an 8-bit experience made for newer consoles. It was developed solely by Ojiro Fumoto – who goes by the developer name Moppin – in a mere matter of months. Originally released for Mobile Devices and Steam, the game has now found its way to Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita courtesy of Devolver Digital. The presentation and concept behind this critically well-received game is staggeringly simple. One night, your character is in a park, and decides to strap on their trusty gun boots and see how deep a nearby well goes. There is no prologue, no backstory, not even a real title screen in sight. You just start the game, ready to jump down the well with the title hovering overhead. It’s a brilliantly simple initial presentation and serves as a great first taste of what the game is all about.
The basis behind Downwell lies in it being a platformer, the catch being that there is no up. You can jump, but you can’t proceed back up once you’ve moved down in most cases. The only path here is down, down, down. The only other action available to you is to use the aforementioned Gunboots strapped to your feet. In mid-air, pressing the action button fires off your Gunboots, shooting whatever obstacle or critter happens to be in your way, as well as giving you a slight extension to your air time. This rolls in to an interesting play mechanic, as landing on a solid surface, whether it is a platform or enemy, reloads your Gunboots. Using this, you can keep building a combo. Some enemies can be stomped on Mario Bros. style, enabling you to bounce from enemy to enemy and accumulate gems from fallen enemies. These gems also appear from destroyed platforms and not only unlock special modes and abilities for your character, but also give your character a speed boost. Additionally, there are “alcoves” on certain sections of each level. Some of these hold gems and different ammo for your Gunboots, ranging from weapons like shotguns and lasers to machine guns, and item shops where you can use gems to refill your health and buy other items. Power-ups, such as additional life and additional ways to damage enemies, are unlocked in between levels, so character customization and playability is surprisingly varied in this game.
The intricacies behind Downwell’s seemingly simple layout don’t stop there. As mentioned earlier, there are a whole host of baddies looking to do you some damage within the depths of the well. Many of these creatures are simple enemies you can either stomp or shoot depending on how your approach them, but some require shooting rather than stomping, and some will hurt you if you try to give them the boot rather than shoot them. These enemies are indicated by a solid red sprite, rather than a white sprite with a red outline like all the other enemies have. It’s a simple touch, but fairly ingenious and easy to pick up on even without any prior instruction.
While Downwell is an incredibly easy game to pick up and learn, it is exceedingly difficult to master, and this might prove to be a source of frustration for new players. While there are only 4 stages comprised of 3 levels each, the fast pace of the game – combined with levels that are randomly generated – requires lightning-quick reflexes and some pretty sharp navigational skills. Players that stick out the learning curve and find themselves mastering the mechanics will see these frustrations alleviated, but there may be some cursing thrown around your first couple dives down into the well. Fortunately, the game is structured as such that your gems earned are saved and can be used to buy things such as different play modes to change things up a bit. Speaking of different modes, there are a plethora of options available to you, for example, different color modes. These are purely aesthetic, but the two that stuck out most to me were the Virtual Boy and Game Boy themes. Just like the real thing; the black and green of the Game Boy is pleasant to look at, while the Virtual Boy theme induces headaches fairly quickly. Of additional interest is the “Tate” (pronounced tah-tay, literally “Stand Up” in Japanese) Mode on the Vita version of the game. Using this mode, you can play the game with the screen flipped so it stands vertically. Though the buttons are customizable in this game, I did find that using this mode was more a novelty than anything else, as playing the Vita vertically is rather cumbersome. Still, it is a nice touch, and the added viewing area for the screen is welcome as well.
All in all, Downwell is an interesting and very fun nod to classic games and it shows through very well. The graphics and music fit the mood of the game nicely, and feel as though they belong to the era of the world they are trying to represent. If I sat someone down in front of a YouTube video and showed them footage from this game, I’d wager they’d guess it was for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I wouldn’t blame them, as this is the feeling I got from my first few moments with the title. It may be frustrating at first, but for such a simple game, Downwell is surprisingly deep, pun completely intended. If you’re looking for a game with some challenge to play on the go, I would definitely recommend picking this little gem up on the Vita. If you don’t currently own a Vita or are on the fence about buying one, you’ll be glad to know that Downwell supports Cross Buy, so purchasing the game for either the Playstation 4 or Vita entitles you to a download for both consoles. It’s not often an engaging Indie title makes its way out of Japan, as the Indie scene there is so small, so definitely give this one a look. Moppin would certainly appreciate it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Vita, iOS, PC ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Ojiro Fumoto ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 24, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $4.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review code provided by the publisher.