Downwell Logo, Downwell website 2016
Developer: Ojiro Fumoto
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android, PC
Genre: Rougelike Platformer
Played on PlayStation Vita
Arcade games focus on the essence of a video game, one or two good mechanics that create everything else. Pac Man eats dots on a screen, Tetris aligns blocks together to destroy them and Asteroids is shooting and avoiding incoming asteroids. Downwell was created by Ojiro Fumoto who was inspired by a quote from video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto.
“A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.” Shigeru Miyamoto Interviewed by Eurogamer.net, 31 March 2010
Downwell takes the philosophy of this quote to its logical extreme and has the simplicity of its contemporary’s, but is deceptively skilled based. Downwell will be remembered as the modern arcade game because of the incredible amount of depth, skill and player choice provided from just two game mechanics.
In Downwell, the player goes down randomly generated levels to the bottom of a well. They encounter enemies, rooms with power ups and a perilous threat at the bottom. Downwell’s excellence comes from how the two actions of jumping and shooting do more than what is expected of them.
Shooting makes the player slightly hover in the air, destroys blockades, creates gems from defeated enemies and has different attack attributes depending on what power up is obtained. Jumping and stomping on enemies without landing builds a combo, landing on the ground or enemies refills the player’s ammo count and landing on the ground stops the combo and rewards gems, ammo and health depending on how high the player’s combo is. The rewards and risks from these multipurpose mechanics direct the player to play at full speed.
This is expanded with randomly generated power ups at the end of a level that add beneficial abilities, such as collecting gems refilling ammo and creating a blast by stomping on enemies. Rooms the player encounters during their descent offer a break from the fast action and have power ups that change the attributes of the shooting attack and give health or ammo. When enough gems are collected, the player enters a gem high that increases the power of their attack, but withers out if the player can’t maintain a constant flow of gems.
This rapid fire decision making is possible because of the art style. Hazards are pure red, enemies indicate they can be jumped on by being predominantly white with a hint of red, walkable and jumpable objects being white and a black background to make colour stand out.
This makes Downwell have the qualities of iconic arcade games such as Pac Man, but has a layer of mechanical sophistication that is easy to understand, but difficult and engaging to master. When a game like Pac Man is understood, it doesn’t offer a way of adjusting difficulty to suit the player’s mastery and understanding of its mechanics. It only offers more challenge by making enemies faster and more unpredictable. Downwell uses randomly generated power ups that increases the player’s defence or attack capabilities and the player is able to decide on what is best for their skill and situation depending on what they have on hand.
After the end of a playthrough, the player unlocks palette swaps and player styles after collecting a set number of gems. Player styles give unique player native abilities that can make future playthroughs easier or harder depending on their skill level. Palette swaps change the primary colours of the game’s art style. Some palette swaps such as Dirtsnow make reading what’s happening on screen more difficult because of the background colour being different from black.
A problem with power ups is that power ups at the end of a stage are randomly generated. This means the player can’t really customise what playstyle they want and have to replay the game again and again until the right combination is generated. The game could have capitalised on allowing the player to start with a select number of power ups and offer challenges that are unique to the specific power ups the player chooses at the start. While these trappings do not ruin Downwell, it eventually makes repeated long term playthroughs tedious because the player can’t have an optimal loadout from the start.
Designing a game around one or two game mechanics is an effective way of making one. Downwell is evidence of what happens when just one or two mechanics are developed to their full potential, with gameplay that offers an enjoyable learning curve and depth. Downwell is a short game. While hard mode and palette swaps offer a bit more for the player to achieve, the main game can be finished in fifteen to twenty minutes. This is both Downwell’s strength and weakness, because it makes it an excellent game to pick up and easily get into without a substantial time commitment. But for a player who wants a substantial amount of content and can’t meet that need from replaying and mastering a game’s gameplay, Downwell isn’t going to convince them.
But Downwell has an understanding of how systems and mechanics influence player behaviour that is more sophisticated than most iconic arcade games. Arcade games such as Asteroids and Pac Man had to find the most easily understandable way for people to interact in a virtual space. This meant gameplay had to be about moving around a space and getting a high score.
It made them easily approachable and players would try everything to reach a new high score. But this meant challenge could only increase by making enemies more aggressive, faster and in greater waves. Downwell’s challenge is changeable for the player’s skill. The native abilities from player styles can give more health at the start or make the jump have more float. The player can also decide to take the risk of building a large combo so they restore their health when landing on the ground or build up their gem count to spend on health and ammo items. The skill involved in Downwell comes from how the player survives by making deliberate and intuitive decisions and using the strengths and drawbacks of power ups the player has to decide on at the end of a stage.
It results in a game that is as approachable and fun to play as Asteroids and Pac Man, but has a layer of mechanical mastery that keeps it continuously engaging. After the optimal way to play most arcade games is mastered, it’s gameplay is static and predictable. Downwell is a modernisation of the arcade game because even when the optimal way is mastered, there are still equally valid gameplay choices that are better suited for different levels of skill. It’s creator Ojiro Fumoto wanted to show how solving multiple problems with one solution creates powerful player choice and elegant intuitive design. By following the philosophy of a quote from one of the game industry’s most influential designers, Downwell has solved the arcade game’s issue of static approaches to the problems it presents by using rewards and benefits for jumping and shooting at problems.
- Phenomenal player decisions and skill from two basic inputs
- One of the best games iOS and Android has to offer
- Player styles allow players of different skill levels to find their optimal way of playing
- Wickedly smooth and responsive controls complement the frantic gameplay
- Very easy to pick up and get into
- The overall length is suitable for it’s gameplay, even if it is incredibly short
- Not much to achieve besides beating Hard mode and unlocking palettes
- No attempt to capitalise on starting a game with a number of end stage power ups
- Certain palette swaps make observing what’s happening more difficult
- Difficult to recommend to people who want substantial content in their games