“Downwell” won The Jimquisition’s Game of the Year award in 2015. (Courtesy of Moppin)
“Downwell,” created by Moppin in 2015, is a game of great simplicity. From its dichromatic pixelated visuals, to its three button controls, to its sparse sound design, it is a very minimalistic game. Every element and every minor piece are carefully designed to fit together in the overall experience.
The premise is simple: get to the bottom of each 2D level, then beat the boss at the end of the game. Each level is randomly generated and death starts the player back at the beginning of the game. As the player navigates through the levels they can walk left, right, jump and use the jump button while in midair to shoot below themselves.
They have a limited number of shots before they have to either touch the ground or bounce off of an enemy to refill their shots. This simple mechanic creates a lot of interesting nuances to the game, especially when combined with the straightforward combo mechanic. If the player can kill enough enemies without touching the ground, then they can get a bonus in the form of extra money for shops, a small boost to maximum ammo, and finally healing some damage.
It becomes quite the challenge to rack up long combos while avoiding the ground as well as bouncing on enemies to keep ammo up. This is perhaps one of the best examples of how the game is able to get maximum use out of simple mechanics.
The game also makes excellent use of verticality. Each level is quite narrow, so the emphasis is heavily placed on moving downwards. The player’s ability to jump up is also limited, as it is essentially impossible to move back up after going down even small distances. It is also only possible to shoot down, so enemies from above become a serious threat to the player. This encourages a fast pace of gameplay as it is too unsafe to stick around for long and risk being attacked by enemies from above.
The game also has some interesting ways that it handles player progression. At the end of each level, three permanent upgrades are presented. These can range from a drone that fires when the player does, to a magnet that pulls in money from afar, to damaging bullet casings that fly sideways when the player shoots. The upgrades tend to encourage slightly different strategies but never change the core gameplay too heavily.
Frequently within levels, there are also items which change the way the player’s gun works. One turns it into a piercing laser that takes a lot of ammo, another turns it into a high speed machine gun with many small ammo shots, and there are many more beyond that.
Each of the weapon swaps also either provides a small amount of healing or an ammo upgrade, so the player must switch weapons frequently or lose out on extra healing and upgrades. This encourages the player to change their playstyle frequently or miss out on a lot of bonuses.
There are also shops in the game, but they are not too interesting. All enemies drop money and the money can be spent at shops for healing, weapon upgrades and max health upgrades.
The game may have very robust and simple mechanics, but there is not much to talk about aesthetically. While nothing really looks unappealing, the enemies’ and environment’s designs are rather bland. Enemies range from simple turtles, to hopping skulls, to formless blobs. The music in the game is fairly catchy, but is nothing particularly special. It may not be noticed most of the time, as it takes a clear backseat to the game’s mechanics.
“Downwell” is a game with very specific goals. It aims to deliver fast-paced, combo focused arcade action and sacrifices any other ambitions. It delivers on this central element and offers quick bursts of fun gameplay. The game as a whole takes perhaps half an hour to beat, but it will take many tries before a successful run.
It only costs $3, so at that price it is delivering a lot of game per dollar. It is also available on mobile, PS4 and PC.