Developers aiming to combine the look and feel of retro games with the benefits of modern consoles are hardly breaking new grounds. Most gaming systems have no shortage of pixelated platformers with mechanics heavily drawn from the most classic titles. The problem with the majority of these is that they focus so hard on reinventing the wheel rather than finding their own spark; the soul that made those games into the prototypical examples they are now.
Moppin, the developer of the Devolver Digital published Downwell, clearly started from the heart upwards when designing their ultra-stylish twitch platformer. Influenced by modern cult classics such as Super Crate Box and Super House of Dead Ninjas (themselves heavily shaped by revered titans like Mario Bros.) Downwell is an adrenaline-fueled Tour de Force from start to finish..
Your one goal sees you on an eternal plummet through the eponymous well, armed only with the ingenious Gunboots. These weapons not only allow you to fire from your feet (a huge boon given the vertical nature of the gameplay) but also act as a makeshift jetpack. Both features are vital to surviving even a few seconds in a malevolent gauntlet that seeks to end your run with every fibre of its being. Spikes line the floors while all manner of creatures seek you out; from bullet resistant turtles to phantoms that pass through solid walls. There’s rarely a moment to pause before a new beast locks you in its sights.
If this sounds straightforward and possibly even dull then that’s due to how hard it is to describe the furious pace that Downwell achieves in every moment. You alternate between flurries of bullets to frenetically bouncing from creature to creature, all in a matter of seconds. It can take superhuman reflexes to succeed, a level that many may find frustratingly beyond their reach but those that settle in the sweet spot are rewarded with the most deliciously refined chaos.
While this simplicity is key to perfecting the learning curve, Downwell is not without its nuances that refresh the gameplay when necessary. Gun modules strewn across semi-hidden alcoves offer a variety of attachments for your boots, ranging from a machine gun that subtly follows your movements to an all-penetrating laser with limited ammo capacity. Additionally, temporary upgrades granted at the end of each level alter the flow minutely enough to be beneficial without upsetting the keen reliance on skill.
For a game that largely employs roguelike mechanics, there’s a surprisingly expansive amount of content to unlock through extended play. Styles provide distinct flavours to your playthrough while palettes alter the colour schemes dramatically, generally with the aim to replicate a classic gaming system. The latter is somewhat of a double-edged sword at times as some arrangements make it incredibly difficult to discern certain hazards in the environment. Regardless, the clear effort to provide a sense of progression in a game essentially built on repetition is evidence of the care devoted to Downwell.
As you can most likely tell, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the delightful gameplay that makes up the subterranean shooter, but it’s not just the mechanics that make Downwell an instant cult classic. The authentic simplicity of the sprites and near monochromatic tones excel at keeping the focus on the field while still impressing in those rare moments you can afford to pause. Equally, the soundtrack responds to your actions with a convincing rasp while downbeat chiptunes play out a sombre dirge.
The whole product is painstakingly elegant, though it does require a level of finesse and a love of the genre to truly embrace it. What cements its place as a must-have purchase is its astonishingly modest price, far exceeding expectations of an ephemeral and casual experience. Somehow existing as an epic in bitesize proportions; Downwell is an odyssey condensed to its most fine details and polished near to the point of perfection.