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Downwell is the best game I've played in 2015

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What happens when Spelunky goes down...

Downwell, which was designed and developed by Tokyo’s Ojiro Fumoto and published by Devolver,  is the best game I’ve played in 2015.

Downwell released to the public this week, on iOS and Steam. I’m fortunate enough to have been one of its beta testers, and I’ve been playing the game for most of this year. At this point I play the game each and every day, setting my own "daily challenges" for myself. I am totally hooked.

And gosh, there is so much to talk about: how this is Ojiro’s first major game release, and how he’s only 23 years old; the current state of indie development in Tokyo; designing an unforgiving action game for smartphones and virtual buttons; the game’s red-white-and-black color palette, which is both stylish and practical; Ojiro’s adorable pixel art; how indie heroes like Rami Ismail and Derek Yu are influencing a new generation of game designers around the world.

But for now I want to focus on the nitty-gritty workings of the underlying game system. God is in the detail, and it’s precisely those details that make Downwell so rewarding.

Spoilers ahead! If you want to discover Downwell for yourself, you should play it before reading on.

Some quick notes: Some of the analysis below draws from conversations I’ve had with Ojiro himself, and also with game designer and fellow beta tester and game designer Zach Gage. You should follow both of them on Twitter. I’ve also only played Downwell on my iPhone 6. This is not an official review, and I cannot speak to the game experience on other platforms.

Shooty Boots

Downwell is a brutal roguelike shooter rendered in a minimal-color retro style. The overarching idea is straightforward. You navigate your way down a deep well, avoiding enemies and other traps. You can jump and, if you press the jump button again in midair, your gun boots fire downwards. The gun boots are the key element here, as they let you attack enemies, destroy blocks and maneuver in air.

downwell gif 1

For fun, you can call the game "Shooty Boots." It plays kind of like Cave Story, but is procedurally generated à la Spelunky. It’s also faster-paced and more demanding than either of those two.

Spelunky is an inevitable comparison here, and indeed Downwell was directly influenced by it. "I was super into Spelunky at the time and I wished there was a game like that on smartphones," Ojiro told me. Like Spelunky, Downwell consists of four main worlds and a final boss. Like Spelunky, the level geometry and enemy placement is procedurally generated each playthrough. Like Spelunky, you collect currency, in this case gems, that can be used to buy power-ups at randomly placed shops.

And like Spelunky, the game is unforgiving. You start with only four health, so every mistake you make is a Big Deal. It’s the kind of game in which you learn by dying repeatedly and go on to conquer through practice, perseverance and nimble fingers.

What interests me most, however, are the ways in which Downwell ultimately deviates from and, in some regards, improves on Spelunky’s now-familiar formula.

Gravity Well

First and foremost, Downwell is faster and more frenetic than Spelunky. Because Spelunky levels are arranged as a large square, that game requires as much lateral movement as it does vertical movement. In Downwell, you’re trapped in one narrow chamber, and as such the downward push of gravity is relentless. There are exhilarating and panicked moments when you find yourself midair and out of gun boot charge, falling fast and unable to levitate while desperately looking for a safe place to land.

Effectively, Downwell eschews the exploratory flavor of Spelunky for nonstop action. On a good run, caught up in the flow of jumping on enemies, avoiding traps, and maneuvering midair, you’ll feel like an actual goddamn ninja. With practice, you’ll even be able to wall jump, a useful trick for avoiding enemies and extending jump combos.

To wall jump you need to have full gun boot charge. On contact with a wall, jump and move in the direction away from the wall.

Downwell gif 2

To compensate for the added demands of its faster pacing, Downwell is more forgiving about health. It’s easier to obtain health power-ups, and there are no insta-kills; it is only possible to lose one health at a time. Still, I find that Downwell, even more than Spelunky, requires razor sharp focus. Moment to moment, there is just more going on. It’s all too easy to let one or two mistakes rattle your confidence.

Downwell is gleefully aware of its cognitive workload and uses clever enemy design to force split-second decisions. One particularly evil example is the large skulls in World Two. They’re relatively harmless if you just jump on or avoid them.

But shoot them and they turn red and angry, chasing you through the level. A trigger-happy strategy suddenly becomes a liability; the game is essentially asking you to be more discerning about when you shoot and when you don’t. Is that an enemy can I safely jump on? Can I shoot it? These evaluations aren’t trivial when you’re falling or worrying about spike traps.

Difficult Choices

Still, there’s more to Downwell than just fast reflexes and quick thinking.

One notable quirk is how the game packages power-ups together with weapon upgrades. You can find free health and charge power-ups tucked away in side rooms, but picking them up forces you to equip the weapon indicated by the letter labeling the power-up. Maybe you like your current Shotgun (S) weapon; too bad, because if you want that extra charge you’ll need to switch to the unwieldy Noppy (N) weapon.

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This leads to some difficult decisions, especially in the later levels. For example, the powerful Laser weapon, which uses a lot of charge, is hugely useful against the final boss, but is a major liability in freefall chambers of World Four. How badly do you need that extra health? What are the chances you’ll find another shop soon? Do you have enough charge to confidently maneuver with the Laser?

I love these kinds of moments, when a game forces you to choose the "least bad" option in a dire situation. The choice adds a dose of humor to the proceedings, as if the game itself is giving you the middle finger.

C-C-C-Combos

The crowning innovation of Downwell, however, is its jump-kill combo system. That might not be obvious to a novice player, but for experts combos are absolutely the heart and soul of the gameplay.

Kill an enemy — whether by jumping on or shooting it — and you’ll begin a combo tally. Kill five enemies in a row and the game will start displaying your tally as a little number over your head.

The challenge is that your combo resets whenever you hit the ground, whereas jumping on an enemy recharges your gun boots, giving you a window to maneuver to the next enemy. Keep jumping on enemies, one after another, and you can theoretically avoid the ground altogether.

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For the purposes of combo-maintenance, you can also safely land within the red forcefields of side rooms, and on some level scenery.

Combos are critically important because at high-enough tallies they’ll reward you with gems and health/charge power-ups. Stringing together a long combo just feels badass, anyway.

What’s so brilliant about the jump-kill combo system is that it gives the player an optional extra challenge to work towards, even in the easier levels. In Spelunky, World 1 becomes a bit of a snooze for an expert player, an obligatory warmup for the harder challenges ahead. In Downwell, by contrast, an expert player will try to maximize their combos from the very first level. The game remains engaging throughout, revealing additional complexity commensurate with the player’s developing skillset.

The combo system also spotlights the intricacy of Downwell’s level generation algorithm. Notice how the enemies and level elements — for example, the floating jellyfish in World One, or the wall torches in World Two — are spaced out in a rhythm designed specifically to facilitate combos. This is procedural content generation at its best, level generation tailored to the game’s core conceit.

Hard Mode

Downwell can also scale its difficulty in more explicit ways. As you play the game, you’ll unlock additional "styles" over time. Each style affects the game system in some way. Boulder Style, for example, gives you more HP at the cost of fewer upgrade options. My colleague Zach prefers Floaty Style, which tweaks how gravity accelerates you.

downwell gif 5

As for me, I’m currently working through the game in Handstand Style, a kind of handicap where you forego all upgrades for cheaper shop items. Now that I can beat Downwell in its default mode, I’m using Handstand Style to give myself an extra challenge.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once you beat the game you unlock Hardmode, a fiendish mode that brings more expensive shops and additional enemies, some of which chase you from above. The game also subverts your expectations and changes how some of the traps work. Let’s just say, prepare for some rude surprises in World Two.

After about a year of dedicated Spelunky play, I was able to conquer its secret Hell world. Ten months into Downwell, I’m not even close to vanquishing Hardmode. The skill ceiling of this game is surprisingly high. I’m excited about how these extra modes extend the lifespan of the game, and I’m even more excited to see expert streamers master them.

Conclusions

Listen, I understand that all these Spelunky comparisons are a bit unfair to both games. Spelunky was the product of years of iterative development. A fairer comparison might measure Downwell against Derek Yu’s original release, now known as Spelunky Classic. It makes me giddy just thinking about what a Downwell HD could look like, not that Ojiro should feel pressured to make a sequel!

The lasting genius of Spelunky, as I’ve written about before at length, is its heterogeneous, multifaceted game system that has allowed for emergent gameplay, weird glitches, and incredible feats.

Downwell, for better or worse, is something tighter and more focused. Over the past year I’ve witnessed Ojiro iterate on the game, gradually crafting it into its own unique thing. At the very least, I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a whirl. For my money, Downwell is a major achievement in game design, and an exciting development of the form. Ojiro should be proud indeed.

Douglas Wilson is a game developer and co-owner of Die Gute Fabrik. He's best known as the designer of Johann Sebastian Joust and the producer behind Sportsfriends. He's previously written about Spelunky for Polygon, which suggests that he might be obsessed with roguelike platformers.