I played Downwell, a game so clearly designed for mobile devices, hunched over my laptop for hours on end, watching as my little gunboots-wearing fellow descended into the deepest recesses of the planet, dying over and over and over again.
Repetition is often a fundamental and pretty unavoidable part of most games. Good games make that repetition bearable; truly great ones manage to trick your brain into thinking you’re do something new within that repetitious loop, like the variety of tactical options that Metal Gear Solid V gives you to complete your objectives, which can be boiled down to “capture the enemy base” for pretty much the entire game. Downwell is interesting because it owns its repetition and simplicity and soars—or falls with style, I guess—because of that.
In Downwell you’re either falling or taking the briefest interlude from falling to buy power-ups, like a balloon that makes you fall slower and deals damage to enemies when popped, or collect gems from rocks and slain enemies that are used to purchase said power-ups. When it comes to enemies, bats and frogs and the like, you can stomp, shoot or avoid most of them. Staying out of their way is usually the best plan since some of them have spikes that can damage you when you try to stomp them. However, Downwell isn’t really a game about tactics as much as it is about reaction time and knowing what to do when you’ve only just glimpsed an enemy at the edge of the screen. If you have to think about what you’re going to do, you’re gonna take damage. Get hit enough times, you’re greeted with a Game Over screen.
You’re going to see that screen a lot. Like Spelunky, Downwell demands that you learn all its elements by heart if you expect to do well, especially since each run is procedurally generated so you have to become intimate with enemies’ attack patterns rather than the layout of levels. The game avoids frustration because everything comes together so pleasantly that each playthrough, as brief as they are, never really feels like a chore. The music and ZX Spectrum-esque aesthetic is fantastic, and the power-ups, though they don’t actually have that big of an effect on how you play until you get enough of them that they start stacking, are fun to experiment with. The various power-ups that replace your boot bullets with lasers or shotgun blasts are particularly entertaining and especially helpful when it comes time to blow through some rocks blocking your descent.
Even though I played the PC version of the game, I can easily see how this would be hard to put down when played on a tablet. I couldn’t force myself to stop playing until my spine made some ungodly cracking sound when I sat back to stretch. It’s a game that’s made to be restarted several times over within a single session, goading you into playing and getting a higher score to unlock items. In that way, it’s like a lot of F2P mobile games that try to get you hopelessly addicted to them so you think you should buy the in-game items with real money. However, Downwell has no microtransactions. It’s just pure, arcade- fun that takes the few elements it has—falling, buying items, navigating/combating enemies—and uses them in the best way possible to sink its hooks into you.
Most purposely difficult games that have arrived in the wake of Super Meat Boy, Spelunky and Dark Souls are embodiments of a failure to understand that there’s more to those games than just how hard they are, often making the only thing enjoyable about them the fleeting sense of achievement you get when you finally overcome a poorly-designed obstacle through luck or trial and error. Downwell, with its velocity and elegant simplicity, does not make that mistake. It’s a difficult game, certainly, but it’s also a generous one, likely providing its player with great heaps of joy for a ludicrously small time investment.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.