Easily missed amid the packed rows of indie games at this year's PAX East, Downwell is a surprisingly charming gem of a game, a title roughed out in a week after the inexperienced developer made a dozen "really shitty games."
"I had always wanted to make video games ever since I was little, but had given up on the idea early on because I thought programming was a thing that only the smartest people in the world could perform, and back then I hated maths," Japanese developer Ojiro Fumoto told Polygon in an email interview. "But upon reaching fourth year at a university where I was studying things I wasn't even interested in (I went to a music university where I studied opera singing), I started to think about what I really wanted to do. That's when I decided to give my lifelong dream I had long given up on a chance.
"As of this writing, it was almost exactly an year ago that I made this decision and started learning how to use Game Maker: Studio. After reading the 'game-a-week' article written by Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, I went on to do that for 12 weeks and made 12 really shitty games."
In his article, Ismail talks about the importance of gaining game design experience by forcing oneself to create a game a week, no matter how good or bad.
And it was Ismail who excitedly brought me over to Fumoto's easy-to-miss booth at PAX East earlier this month to introduce me to Downwell and the game's creator. Ismail called the game one of the three best at the show.
Here's Fumoto's explanation of the game:
"The game is called Downwell, it's a game about going down a well, wearing guns for shoes," he told Polygon. "The main character is equipped with the Gunboots, with which he/she can shoot downwards while airborne. Shooting also slows down the speed of descent, letting the player hover around a bit for as long as the battery charge lasts.
"The game has you descending down this seemingly infinite well, fighting creatures that inhabit it. Sometimes there will be shops down the well where you can spend the gems you collected through your journey to buy helpful items. The well is randomly generated every time, and after reaching the end of each level the player is given one upgrade from a selection of three. Upgrades include things like an ability to eat enemy dead bodies to gain health, super hot bullet casings that hurts enemies, and a laser sight whose only purpose is to look cool."
The game's elementary graphics and sound and exceptionally responsive controls make Downwell hard to put down and even harder to forget. It looks like an old Game Boy title, but plays like Spelunky.
Spelunky is actually one of the inspirations for the game, Fumoto said. His original idea was to make a Spelunky-like game for mobile. Initially, he said, he made a really basic 2D platformer and then kept adding upgrades to it, like double jump.
"Eventually I came up with the item called the Gunboots, and it turned out this item was way too fun to use, so I remade the game based around that one mechanic," he said.
That was on his thirteenth week and thirteenth game.
"I made a prototype for what became the current Downwell," he said. "I felt that the prototype had potential unlike any of the 12 other shitty ones I made, and so I decided to put more than a week into it.
"I have been developing Downwell for around 8 months now."
The response to the game has been a bit overwhelming for Fumoto so far.
"The game received an IGF student award nomination, and the feedback I've received at both GDC and PAX East has been all very positive," he said. "I was honestly not confident that the game would be received well, but everyone seemed to love it! I was super glad."
When I asked Fumoto for a video of some gameplay, he told me he didn't have any and sent an early build of the game to me instead. (You can see one of my play sessions in the video above.)
"Right now, the 'indie' scene in Japan isn't very active compared to that in the west."
There's a lot of interesting, though currently vague, elements to the game. For instance, you don't have to shoot enemies with your boots; you can stomp any of them, except the dark red ones. This also recharges your boots. Collecting a bunch of gems in a short period of time gives you a power boost, which you can only maintain by continuing to collect gems. You can also increase your total health by continuing to collect health when yours is maxed out.
I played the game with a keyboard, but you can also play it with a gamepad. At the show, Fumoto let me play the game on his iPhone and if anything, it highlighted the best aspects of the game and its controls.
Fumoto says he hopes to release the game around July for iOS, Android and computers. His hopes for the game aren't just powered by the desire to be successful, but also to provide more inspiration for Japan's fledgling indie scene.
"Right now, the 'indie' scene in Japan isn't very active compared to that in the West, and I feel like that's due to not many people in Japan trying to do it at all and thus the lack of an example the younger aspiring game developers could follow," he said. "I'm hoping that, through my efforts and hopefully success, the indie game community of Japan would grow bigger and have more cool new games come out of it."