It seems like whenever we post a game with pixel art, trolls come seeping out of the woodwork to leave comments about how “lazy" the developer is for using pixel art among with many other equally ridiculous arguments which typically involve the conclusion that pixel art is “easy." When looking at the attention to detail that went into Downwell ($2.99), it’s just kind of crazy to think that a developer would go to this level of retro nuance. Everything from the chip tune soundtrack to the dithered visual effect transitions to the faux-NES style slowdown that occurs is like a love letter to the roots of early gaming. Additionally, the gameplay is easily among the best arcade action platformers I’ve played on iOS, potentially ever.
In Downwell, as the title hints, you go down… a well. (Shocking!) The gameplay loop involves starting the game up, hopping down, and seeing how long you can survive on your (initially) limited amount of life. Collide with an enemy, run into spikes, or anything else that hurts you, you (obviously) lose life until you die. Once you die, you’re back to the top of the well jumping down again. The only thing that persists is the different visual styles and color palettes you unlock.
Just falling down a well would be a pretty boring game, but Downwell is spiced up in several really awesome ways- First off, what self respecting well jumper leaves home without their gun boots? Tapping the button on the bottom right side of the screen has you firing at whatever is below you, which can clear terrain, enemies, and generally clear the way. Additionally, it sends you jumping back up a bit. How your bullets spread, how many you can shoot before you need to reload, and how much a shot launches you in the air all gets modified by a surprisingly in-depth customization system.
On your way down the well, there will be little offshoots every once in a while on either side of the well. Going in one of them typically rewards some kind of power-up that restores some health and modifies your shots. Some power-ups give you a wide spread, others like the laser shoot a beam straight down. There’s shops along the way too, which you can spend the gems you collect in to buy more health, more shots for your gun, and other things.
Between each level you’re given the selection of one permanent power-up, which can also substantially change how you approach the game, particularly when you’ve accumulated enough of them that they’re complementing each other. (i.e. a gem magnet with a power-up that restores all your shots is pretty fun.) The way all these different elements mix together feels a lot like playing Spelunky, in that you’ll have runs where everything is going right, you’ve got the weapon you love, a great combo of persistent power-ups, then everything will just go pear shaped.
Dying never feels frustrating though, as the sessions are short enough that you don’t feel the soul-crushing defeat of losing tons of progress like a lot of permadeath-style games. (A B.S. death in Spelunky 4-3 put me off playing the game for months, for instance.) I suppose that story might change if you were just incredible at Downwell and can achieve similarly long play sessions, but, I doubt that will apply to the majority of the people who play this game.
Really my only complaint about Downwell is difficult to avoid in this kind of game: On the iPhone, the controls are on the bottom of the screen, and since the whole point of the game is going down, the area of the screen occupied by the controls is particularly vital- Especially as you go deeper and deeper and the challenge ramps up. There’s an option to hide the virtual buttons, which helps considerably, but I still feel like I run into situations where my thumbs are getting in the way of things I’d want to see coming- Like spikes, or bad guys, or whatever. I’d love to see an option to maybe move the controls to the top of the screen, or potentially even controlling left and right movement via tilting. Regardless, the game is so fun that this is little more than a minor quibble and won’t be an issue at all if you’re playing on the iPad, as the game is played in landscape mode with the controls on the side.
Put simply, Downwell is a game you need on your iPhone. The gameplay is incredible, the effort that went into faithfully reproducing a retro feel is unmatched, and it serves as the perfect rebuttal to any idiot trying to make an argument that pixel art is “lazy." I’ve been playing it absolutely non-stop since it came out last night, and I can’t recommend Downwell enough. Hell, while you’re at it, check out the game’s web site too, or give the soundtrack a listen both are just as rad.