Downwell Goes the Distance for Fun and Style

By Ben Hamill - March 15 2016


As the number of people who own smartphones continues to grow, the number of games designed specifically for the small screen of the cellular phone continues to grow proportionately. And when demand for quality phone-based games goes up, the level of innovation goes up with it. Downwell, an independent game that has the look and feel of a throwback video game from the 1980s is a great example. There is nothing fundamentally original in the game, it’s purpose, or its graphics. But the combined effect of all of its elements is stunningly modern and profecient. It looks simple, but the simplicity is the key to the strong playing experience it offers. It even throws in a narrative that ties together the action effectively.

In some ways, Downwell could only have been created with the experience of decades of video games. At its most basic level, Downwell is a shooter game set inside a giant well that keeps getting deeper and deeper the lower you go. The game has the feel of a vertical world that continues to expand as you go deeper inside. To clear a path, the character you control shoots bullets downward. The bullets also allow you to escape from the swaths of spiders and other enemies that come out to try to stop you from going down further. There are also floating vitamin pills you can grab along the way that give you energy. You need as many of those as you can get to keep the power supply strong enough to keep going.

A Throwback That Captures the Modern Experience

Even the controls of Downwell strip the game down to its most basic levels. You can go right, left, or jump up. When you jump, you can release the flurry of bullets that either destroy the bit of ground beneath you or fight off a threat from an underground creature. That simplicity matches the look of the game, which is stark black, red, and white in color, and looks like it could have been created on a computer that predates the original Macintosh computers from the early 1980s. As the game progresses and the challenges start to grow, the enemies become larger and more powerful. The threats that appear in the early stages of the game can be stomped on. In later stages, those same threats require the firepower of bullets to get past.

But as the game progresses, you realize that the game was not actually created 30 years earlier. Some seemingly minor features reveal the modern nature of the game. Throughout the descent through the endless well, for example, there are numerous surfaces that appear to have cave-like openings. These are time bubbles, pausing the rest of the game while you go into a cave and draw out some useful treasure. The effect is essentially a respite from the quick pace of the descent down the well. It’s a smooth detail that points to the careful calculations carried out by the development team.

Heal Yourself with Medical Supplies Strewn Throughout the Well

Downwell also has a number of light touches throughout the game that point to a level of high sophistication. If the pace starts to pick up and you begin to sustain hits from the creatures in the well, you can heal yourself by grabbing some of the medical supplies that are dispersed though the playing area, particularly the well itself. There are also items that give you greater power, such as a knife and fork set that you can catch, and if you do, you can eat one of the creatures and gain energy. As you get deeper into the game, more surprising touches surface, revealing levels of play that didn’t initially match the primitive look of the game itself.

The ever-expanding nature of the well works perfectly when it comes to playing on mobile devices. The screen never needs to show much more than the general area inside the well where you are located at any given time. And since the controls are so basic, there is no limitation for the cellular phone keyboard compared to the controls of a PC based game. But the biggest innovation of Downwell is probably it’s most obvious. It manages to capture a fun and addictive playing experience that is both rewarding and challenging. And it does so without bowing to the pressures of the modern game culture, which seems more concerned with realism than with good old-fashioned fun. And that alone is a good reason to give Downwell a try.

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