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Community Article: Indie Insights - Downwell

Written by John Edwards

Back when movie tie-in games were much more popular, they released a game based on Ghostbusters II. It was quite an unusual game as it was split in to three distinct sections with different gameplay. There was a shoot 'em up where you controlled the flame from the Statue Of Liberty and an isometric final confrontation where you could die just from careless abseiling.

The first section, however, depicted Ray being lowered down a sewer shaft, fighting off various ghosts as he descended ever further to try and grab a sample of slime from the bottom. It was a very hard first level and the swaying of the dangling Ghostbuster would lead to failure more often than not. Downwell has a similar murky descent but is thankfully much easier to control and you'll probably get further than a third level, though you are unlikely to defeat Vigo The Carpathian.

The game is, as I'm sure you can tell from the screenshots, a very retro looking game, with chunky pixel art and a very minimalist colour palette. This is in Downwell's favour though as it means as you plummet down the shaft you can quickly tell what's safe and what will hurt at a speed that more complex graphics would prohibit. The default colour scheme features red, white and black, with further options unlocking as you play. Some of the available colours are frankly pretty awful to look at and I largely stick with the basic red.

Anything in Downwell which is white is fine for you to touch, anything red will hurt you. So when you see the Metroid like blobs in the first level you know you can drop on their tops, but don't jump up from under them. The spiky red snail things practically scream for you to keep your feet away from them. This simplicity keeps the game flowing speedily even when you encounter new enemies because you know at a glance where's safe.

Downwell has refreshingly simple controls: left/right and any button. For some reason your character has gun boots. These aren't Bayonetta-esque, unless the pixel graphics are hiding the sexiness. One press of your chosen button will see you jump, pressing again will fire your boots. How many shots you have depends on which weapon you've got equipped and each shot stops you falling briefly. It's a very intuitive system that you can pick up in seconds and it's amazing how much control you feel you have with just left, right and a single button.

Masterfully, Downwell needs you to land to reload your gun boots. This is instant as soon as you touch a surface and you can leap off and carry on attacking immediately. But it's not just the ground that will count for a reload and bouncing off an enemy will also resupply your weapon. The game encourages you to risk yourself further by making a combo of bouncing on successive enemies without touching the ground which gives you greater bonuses.

So you find yourself hurtling down procedurally generated caves, feet firing at enemies, bouncing from creature to creature in a frenetic blur of split second decisions. On top of that is a gem system that pays for items in shops you can find randomly. If you do particularly well and still have full health, additional replenishing will go towards increasing your maximum amount. In between levels you get a choice of power ups that can sway things in your favour. Even before plummeting in to the dark you can select a different play style that affects what upgrades, shops or weapons you might see.

Later levels add spikes that pop out of the ground if you linger or a descent in an abyss that means you constantly need to look out for air before you die in a watery grave. Downwell does a huge amount with very little. It even offers a Tate mode where you can rotate the Switch to portrait and fill the screen for your runs.

Downwell is a perfect little arcade game that is ideally suited for the pick up and play nature of the Switch. It has that compelling one more go feel that all arcade games should have. The controls are simple but the game rewards skillful play, making every new descent worthwhile.