‘Towerfall: Ascension’ is the best party game for casual and experienced gamers alike

April 16, 2021

Years before releasing the critically acclaimed “Celeste,” Matt Makes Games produced what the company’s official website describes as “an archery combat platformer.” This wacky concept was originally called “Towerfall,” and the game has since bloomed into a feature-rich, totally addictive couch multiplayer experience that rivals the likes of “Super Smash Brothers” and “Overcooked” for king of the dorm. Its slick movement system offers boundless competitive depth that is contrasted by an intuitive, arrow-flinging combat that even a toddler could grasp. The game’s pixelated graphics are nostalgic yet robust, a new-age invocation of the SNES days that conveys everything it needs to and little more. Prepare to lose hours of your life making pincushions of up to six of your friends as you dive and slide through a gauntlet of competitive maps, or team up to fight monsters and bosses in a challenging but triumph-inducing cooperative mode. “Towerfall” is one of those rare packages that just never stops giving.

First and foremost, “Towerfall” is a wide ranging and accessible experience. Originally released in 2013 as a launch title on the infamous Ouya console, the game saw two expansions and finally a complete edition known as “Towerfall: Ascension” (2016) by which point the game had been ported to most other platforms. The Nintendo Switch has been my apartment’s device of choice for the ease of sharing joy cons, but the game is also available on Xbox, PS4 and PC. The controls are very simple, involving little more than a joystick for aiming and moving around, a jump button, a shoot button and a shoulder button for dodging. Non-technical players need not fear that their lack of aim will place them at a significant disadvantage as the game features a baked-in aim assist that forces even veteran players to be wary of standing downrange of an enemy’s shot. A plethora of additional options (including handicaps and shields) allow players to attune the game’s accessibility to almost any prefered level of play.

The dodge-and-shoot gameplay itself is contained within a single screen. In a style reminiscent of arcade games like the original Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong, the players are plopped into a box loaded with platforms and barriers. Equipped with only a handful of arrows, competing players must leap over ledges and bounce off walls to chase down opponents and avoid enemy fire themselves. The arrows will either find their mark with a satisfying thunk that pins the opponent’s avatar to the ground or otherwise embed themselves in a wall to be picked up again. Losing all of your arrows at once puts you at a significant disadvantage, but even an unarmed player can be threatening. Jumping on an opponent’s head will crush them Koopa-style, so even close combat can be rewarding if dangerous. Especially skilled players can even catch arrows in mid-flight, a technique that is endlessly fun to practice and fail at. If a player leaves the edge of the map, they will magically loop around to the other side of the screen, and this spatial quirk applies to arrows too.

The game invites chaotic strategy and rapid iteration, especially when more than two players are involved. Players can spontaneously team up and backstab one another while trying to pin down an especially dangerous opponent. Unlucky players without any arrows to their name will frantically flee the fray while clinging to ledges and dodge behind walls to bait out ammo. The tide can turn in an instant, however, and savvy players will always find ways to improve upon their gameplay. Sometimes, players will have no choice but to face off and fan their bows cowboy-style. I suspect that the game is so addictive because of its speed: once all but one player remains, a quick replay of the winning blow is played (often hilarious, tense or epic) and the next match begins immediately afterwards. The game doesn’t waste time on excessive loading screens or option selection windows between rounds. You are pretty much constantly pushing buttons, constantly chasing, shooting or fleeing. The action flies as quickly as the arrows themselves, drawing a sharp contrast to the floaty, neutral-heavy gameplay of the latest Smash game.

In “Super Smash Brothers,” players will often disable items and hazards in order to achieve a balanced playing field, but “Towerfall’s” extras are too fun to surrender. Alongside chests of items (invisibility, speed boosts, shields), each map comes with a special arrow type. The bomb arrows blast the map to bits, the drill arrows burrow through platforms and walls to strike unwary foes and lightning arrows arc around corners at blinding speeds. Alternative game modes like King of the Hill can also be enabled to shake things up. My friends and I love to enable the ghost feature that allows killed players to resurrect as ghosts and seek vengeance upon the yet-living! The extra content never seems to end, as unlockable maps and new characters can pop up at any time. Once, upon concluding a long deathmatch, the game did not immediately transition to the victory screen as usual. Instead, an opponent materialized and the triumphant player had to battle him in order to unlock the character. It is very embarrassing to lose these sudden confrontations, but the allure of never quite knowing when a secret will appear propels even more obsessive gameplay.

When the group tires of competing, the co-op mode awaits. Team up to slay waves of demons and cultists. Revive one another and try not to be wiped out entirely by the intense boss fights. Strangely enough, the coop mode can be more salt-inducing than the competitive mode. When you are the last player standing between a low-health boss and party collapse, the pressure becomes back-breaking. Victory, however, is always sweeter with a team behind you. And when you have your fill of co-op, you can go right back to killing each other. It’s the perfect party loop.

“Towerfall: Ascension” is about as indie as they come, so I was shocked when I noticed another group of Brandeisians playing it in a neighboring Mod. The game doesn’t have the lustrous graphics of a big name title, but it probably boasts more content and polish than anything you could buy for $60. There is even a single player mode, so lonely players can continue to fight monsters and train in timed obstacle courses in their spare time. The platforming that makes “Towerfall” so addictive is the basis for “Celeste’s” platforming, so it’s certified solid. If your roommates have been itching for some non-Nintendo action, get yourself a copy and just dive in. The game will speak for itself.

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