If there is a game out there, chances are someone’s probably made a “demake” of it – a version of the game designed to run on inferior hardware. The pioneer of this might have been Activision with their interpretation of Double Dragon for the Atari 2600, but fans have also made their own creations such as “Super Smash Land” or the “Left 4 Dead” demake. Downwell feels a lot like a demake of Spelunky, but it’s compelling in its own right.
Your goal is simply to get as far as you can. On PC, your only controls are to move left and right, and to jump and simultaneously shoot downward with your gun boots. This simple control scheme can be a little slippery at times however, and overshooting jumps is a surprisingly frequent occurrence. While I wasn’t able to test out how this works on iOS, I’d imagine it’s a similar interface with just three inputs, but with the added awkwardness of digital buttons on screen.
Enemies are hugely varied if not all that detailed. Put simply, red enemies require to be shot to kill them, while other enemies can be jumped on. They can fly, throw things at you, and of course walk around waiting for you to run into them. On their own, they’re not exactly intimidating, but the screen can fill up quickly if you’re dropping too fast.
Gaining gems is the main way to progress and they are in plentiful supply. Killing enemies grants you gems, while chaining kills can also net you a bonus and rooms on the side can sometimes contain gem stacks that can be shot at for a huge payload. You can then spend gems in shops for items to recover and expand health or increase your shot limit per jump/bounce.
Also found in side rooms are weapon caches that can not only grant you a new weapon such as the powerful laser or useful triple shot, but also recover health or up your shot limit. Playing around with these weapons makes the game far more enjoyable, but you can also gain perks after completing a level, such as causing explosions when stomping on foes, or hovering in mid-air a little jetpack that is used when your gun runs out of ammo.
Collecting Gems en masse has the added side effect of inducing either Gem Highs or Gem Sickness via an item. This makes your guns punchier and your movement tighter, but getting and maintaining your Gem High means you need to constantly collect gems, meaning riskier movements. It’s compelling to weave your way through levels, ploughing through enemies as you go along.
Like all games that borrow roguelike gameplay elements, once you die, it’s game over; you lose your progress and must start again. However your accumulated gems, including what you spent, are added to a bar that unlocks new colour palettes or new style of avatars that grant their own permanent perk. You’ll soon gravitate towards a favourite here, but they all have their use.
Some may find the visual style a little too far on the minimalist side – after all it looks like something that came out of the ZX Spectrum age – but after a few tumbles down the well, you are able to change your colour palette to one of several varieties, including homages to the Gameboy and the Virtual Boy. Some colour schemes weren’t very easy on the eyes, but thankfully you can switch on the fly. The music is tense, in all its 8-bit glory; proving catchy all the same.
For all the big games of the year, it’s surprising that a game that costs less than a big bottle of branded fizzy drink is as compelling as it is. Downwell may be one of my biggest surprises, found completely on a whim, but despite its simple appearance it’s a raw joy to play. If you can spare a handful of change and don’t mind the presentation, give this one a go.