Wot I Think – Towerfall: Ascension

If we’re intent on having ungames and notgames, then we need the opposite category to classify those which seem especially comfortable in their own gameyness. These gamegames, supergames, hypergames might normally be called arcadey, but they’re not retro. They’re as modern as Call of Duty, as vital and current and new as Rust or DayZ, and Towerfall: Ascension could be the genre’s fig. 1.

Here is a long descriptive sentence. Towerfall: Ascension is a single-screen competitive and co-operative local-only multiplayer game for 1-4 people in which every player is armed with a bow and arrow, and in which your objective is to kill everyone else before they kill you by whittling down their lives or, in the new Quest mode, to work with your friends to kill waves of enemies across a series of increasingly difficult levels.

Conceptually, it’s unremarkable and easily described. In execution, it’s exquisite and has me chuffing on about ubergames, ultrogames, megagames. This is wot I think.

A lot of games aim to expand the vocabulary of videogames, stretching what the medium is capable of to find new experiences. Towerfall embraces the existing, most traditional vocabulary of videogames, with all its particular weirdness. It has screen wrap: enemies spawn in fixed locations and if you’re fighting the computer-controlled waves, begin to trickle down the screen, wrapping bottom to top like a persistent waterfall. It has gamey physics: you can wall jump and push against surfaces to slow your slide down them, and you have a significant amount of air control while falling. You can also use the dash maneuver to not only dodge, but to pluck fired arrows out of the air.

From these basic elements, a thousand little details spring forth.

If you fire an arrow and hit a flying eyeball, then the arrow lodges in that eyeball, the wings drop away, and the skewered meatball falls to the ground. If you fire an arrow and hit an enemy made of flame, the enemy vanishes and the arrow falls to ground, now on fire. These animations make the world feel physical and alive. They also introduce tactical considerations: if you fire at a flame enemy directly above you, there’s nothing for your arrow to embed inside and so when it falls back to earth, it’ll skewer you if you haven’t moved out of the way.

The quantity of animations in here is absurd. If you’re just on the periphery of an explosion, there’ll be a tail of fire clinging to the rim of your clothes. You only ever have one hit point and so if you’re alive, no real interaction has happened between you and the flames, but the animation helps sell the dramatic close call you just experienced.

I can even wax lyrical about the jumping animation.

When you leap in the air, your character’s shape elongates, giving the impression of momentum. There’s a kick of dust from the surface you just left and when you land again your character is briefly squashed, selling the solidity of the geometry. Everything in this world feels tactile and fun to touch. Like me. Every part of it has been lavished with attention.

Like me.

My friend Marsh Davies lauded the game’s quality based on the “Vlambeeriness of its feels,” and that puts it perfectly. Movies can be identified by their camera angles and lighting, their theme and mood, revealing themselves as recognisably Hitchcockian or Lynchian. Videogames can be similarly recognised based on the feels of their jump animation. Towerfall is Vlambeerian and that’s a high compliment. It’s a game in which you can relish every button press.

The second reason I can’t help but think Towerfall revels in its gameyness – its status as a plusgame, jumbogame, hungergame – is that from these elements and details players are able to pull tremendous finesse.

If you’re playing against three other people, it’s frantic and thrilling. If you’re playing against just one other person, it’ll initially seem slow, but eventually comes to feel deliberate and skilled. It’s the dash maneuver that best exemplifies this.

This GIF covers four seconds of time. The red enemy I’m fighting operates similarly to the player-controlled characters, in that he has a bow and arrow. In this situation, he begins without any arrows to fire at me. I fire one at him, which he catches.

He fires it back at me as I dash for the bottom right exit of the level, and I catch that same arrow back. I fall from the top of the screen, and my enemy doesn’t follow as he’s trying to reach two other arrows embedded in the ground. He sees me coming, turns to flee, and I pop him in the back.

Four seconds. One arrow. Three shots. This isn’t a particularly impressive set-up; it’s an early enemy, some basic skills, and you’ll be doing this within twenty minutes of playing the game. I need to stress, I’m not very good at Towerfall. But this incident still required quick timing to catch the arrows and spatial awareness to make use of the screen wrap. It still felt brilliant. You’ll do things cooler than this once a minute. You’ll do it against friends in the normal competitive mode and you’ll do it with friends while passing controllers around in the 1-2 player cooperative quest mode.

Towerfall wants you to be great, so it helps you out as much as you can. The last detail I’m in love with is the way your arrows home in on targets, just a little. Not so much that you lose a sense of responsibility for your shots, but enough that the quick eight-directional aiming still has you hitting more than missing. Enough that focus moves to positioning, dodging and out-smarting, instead of being forced to use the slower, more precise hold-to-aim shots. Given your finite supply of arrows – they’re persistent and can be collected and re-used – the game’s mechanics coalesce to prompt you to become simultaneously rapid and efficient.

I know this all sounds like hyper-specific wanking. Towerfall is a traditional pleasure, and it’s easy to see why it’s fun with friends or against the computer, because we’ve all played games like it before and can remember that they were fun. But there’s an extra level of beauty and elegance in Towerfall’s animations and mechanics, and it’s those that make Towerfall special.

Towerfall: Ascension is out March 11th and is available through Steam.


  1. LevelHeaded says:

    Local Co-op

    no ty

    • Gnoupi says:

      Local co-op, yes please.
      The lack of single player and coop was holding me out on this game. Now it’s back on my waitlist!
      (Mind you, I have nothing against local multiplayer FFA, but I usually lack the interested parties to play that)

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        You are definitely in the minority there though and tbh it’s going to hurt this game. It’s only viable if you have 3 friends in the same area and 3 controllers lying around to enjoy it fully. Seems weird to me, at least LAN support would help you play with your friends. Heck even PC gamers that share a flat/house are more used to sitting at their separate PC’s and playing LAN/Online games than all of them crowding around one PC, so it seems like a missed opportunity to me as the game looks like a really fun multiplayer game but I fear most people won’t be in a position to enjoy it fully.

        • Gnoupi says:

          I’ve just said that I don’t really have the 3 friends to play local multiplayer FFA. I do, however, have a spouse who enjoys coop games. So having local co-op or even single player is a plus for me, compared to the original game premise (local FFA only)

        • HybridHalo says:

          Yeah, alongside Nidhogg and Crawl – it feels like these are games designed for local-co op play that we’d normally associate with consoles of yesteryear rather than today’s PC or console markets, but I think the times they are a changing. I’m hoping that Steam Machines + Game streaming will re-open the tradition of local play for games like this.

          I’d love a MP function for towerfall, though it definitely falls into the “party game” category for me. I’m itching for the setup to be able to stream this seamlessly onto a projector.

          • Synesthesia says:

            Exactly this. It’s a design principle. Continuing the analogy of movie directors that Graham makes, let’s just respect them for what their are striving to do, not because the second plot point i sa bit early in the second act. It’s local coop. That’s it. Try it as it was designed to be played.

        • Urthman says:

          LAN support is the only thing that would make sense because this kind of game doesn’t work with the lag you’d get online.

        • Machinations says:

          There is no reason, except money, not to do both.

          The pronlem is, I am no longer a teenager having sleepovers. Local coop only means this game will not be purchased by me, and frankly its too bad. Not only does it look fun, but this decision will seriously hold b ack their sales.

    • Knufinke says:

      God, I love local multiplayer. Some of my best experiences in gaming where couch coop games. They are awesome and much too rare nowadays. Online gaming just isn’t the same, sorry.

      • Machinations says:

        I love it too. The problem is, like most core gamers, I am an adult, and local just is not an option for my circle of geographically dispersed and responsibilities-having friends.

    • secuda says:

      Hehe remember when people complained when there was none local.

  2. karthink says:

    “competitive and co-operative multiplayer game for 1-4 people”

    Local, online or both?

    • Gnoupi says:

      It’s local only.

      (Usual arguments in advance: it was meant as a couch coop console game, built this way, adding remote play would most likely require new skills to add to the dev team, and probably refactoring a lot of the code which wasn’t meant to work with remote entities. Not to mention managing to deliver a tight experience with lag compensation)

      • Machinations says:

        They should reconsider. This wont get one fifth the sales they would if online was an option. Cost, delay, whatever..without online this will not be a runaway hit.

  3. bill says:

    Has the internet just discovered GIFs again? Party like it’s 1998!

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      It seems to be a thing. I suspect it’s a combination of bandwidth becoming irrelevant and people being too lazy to click on video links that has made them popular again.

      • RedViv says:

        And why wait for billions of hours until Youtube thinks that possibly they might clear your video and get it up? Similar for most other platforms, I guess.

    • dfuse says:

      Also, for us desk drones, videos are usually blocked at work, so I prefer to watch GIFs.

    • SominiTheCommenter says:

      At least use link to gfycat.com

      • Premium User Badge

        Graham Smith says:

        I did, but the HTML5 versions were crashing Chrome. The GIFs here are still hosted at gyfcat however.

    • Sundaypostman says:

      Towerfall has an automatic gif creator built in. That’s why there are a ton of them around for this game.

  4. RedViv says:

    It’s gonna go on the work laptop, where it can apparently run perfectly, and then tons of fun will be had during breaks with cast and crew.

  5. Synesthesia says:

    “When you leap in the air, your character’s shape elongates, giving the impression of momentum. There’s a kick of dust from the surface you just left and when you land again your character is briefly squashed, selling the solidity of the geometry. Everything in this world feels tactile and fun to touch. Like me. Every part of it has been lavished with attention.”

    That’s pretty basic animation technique, though. It’s called stretch and squash. Every animator worth his salt will know about it. Many indie developers have awesome animation, specially those who make pixel art games.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Shadow says:

      It is pretty basic, but it’s far less common than one would expect.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      That’s just cause most games have terrible animation. Designers would do well to read The Illusion of Life and Williams’ Survival Kit for some pointers. You either need animators who understand design or designers who understand animation.

  6. Shadow says:

    Overall, Towerfall looks like a more beefed-up Samurai Gunn, and at 15 dollars, it’s definitely a better deal than Gunn.

    I’m lucky enough to have a group of gamer friends, so I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

  7. Moraven says:

    I really hope they port to the Wii U.

    Sony did back them for a PS4 port this month. But I only have 1 controller and 1 (well now 2 with Dead Nation) games that even have local multiplayer. I am not going to rush out to buy 3 more DualShock4s, same as most people did not rush out to buy a Ouya and more controllers (or the headaches of getting their own controllers to work).

    Now the Wii U, we have the GamePad, 4 WiiMote+. The most I have for any other system is 2 360 controllers for 360 or PC and 2 PS3 controllers.

    There was little reason to own more than 2 controllers on 360/PS3. Wii/Wii U is all about awesome 4 party local co op games. Towerfall would make it one more.

    • Jenks says:

      I have more party games on my 360 than Wii, but the vast majority are from XBLA.

  8. Radiant says:

    Is it mouse and keyboard or controller?
    How much does it cost?

  9. Michael Fogg says:

    An Ouya port?! Have you forgotten the face of your father?

  10. aldrenean says:

    Very excited for the sequel, patch, or community mod that makes this game online… I’ll have to skip this until then though, playing 3-5 times a year just isn’t worth it.

  11. alexjg42 says:

    Can anyone who has bought the game give their opinion on whether or not you think that the single player alone is worth the purchase?