We humans, with our giant noggins and opposable thumbs, have spent the better part of a century spitting directly in gravity’s face. But even with our sometimes extreme resistance against it, gravity’s stoic power over us can never be conquered for long. It’s a love-hate relationship.
Something just as ubiquitous on this planet as gravity: guns! And boy do we love those. What if I told you someone out there has combined our insatiable rebellion against gravity with our insatiable love of ludicrous firearms? You’d call it impossible. I’d call it Japanese indie game developer Moppin’s Downwell.
Downwell is what happens when Little Timmy falls down a well, only he brought a pair of spiffy gunboots with him and doesn’t need Lassie’s help. There is a vibrant energy in the chaos that unfolds once you drift into the top of Stage 1-1. The minimalist control scheme tells you everything you need to know about continuing down this rabbit hole, and nothing more. The fact that the big square button allows you to jump and shoot is an example in a sizeable list of lessons you have to come by through the rigors of playing.
Don’t let the retro chic visuals, chiptune soundtrack, and randomly generated world fool you into thinking this is just another denizen of the digital game underverse that’s wandered too close to the light. Downwell is both better than most of its peers and smarter in a number of ways, thanks mostly to how it subverts the preloaded expectations of every genre it blends into its kinetic gameplay.
It’s a platformer, complete with four multi-staged Worlds and a big, bad boss at the end. But unlike most platformers, which task you to move from right to left or climb to the safety of the sun and avoid slipping into the great unknown below, Downwell asks us to fall. Climbing is wasteful, often dangerous, thanks to the colorful creatures that float around in this dangerous well. They give chase restlessly, so passing them without killing them only makes it harder to deal with them when they catch up to you. Going backwards should only be done when visiting shops or picking up gems and power ups.
It’s a shooter, complete with Contra-like weapon pick ups (which double as ammo boosts/health) and Risk of Rain-style character upgrades. Yet, in order to achieve greater combos and score bonuses, you can’t simply shoot every monster you see. Since bullets are limited and require your feet to touch the floor to reload them, and combos end as soon as you stop moving/killing, skillful play becomes a hectic balance between using recoil to control your descent and using the heads of certain enemies as mobile reloading tables. At your most flashy, you’re a 2nd Amendment Mario Brother.
With every death comes progress. A running tally of a total cumulative points is being kept, with new unlockables available after periodic thresholds. Most of them change the color palette of the game, which can affect how conspicuous an enemy looks before you engage it. “Styles” change the way your character behaves, or how rare certain pickups will be. The experimentation and customization involved at every layer of this game is surprising.
Downwell is fun, but it is not easy. Learning when to switch your Puncher boots for Lasers, take the Jetpack over the Gun Drone, or do it all in a shade of visceral Virtual Boy Red requires an investment of time. You will fall down the well. You will die. You will live again, smarter and wiser, and even if you don’t ever see the final boss, you will undoubtedly find it very difficult not to love the tactile charm Downwell radiates from its pixelated depths.
Jarrett Green is a freelance tech and video game writer. He mains Ryu, and isn’t ashamed to say it.
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