Back in 2012, the gaming world was taken by storm by the announcement of the OUYA, a crowdfunded attempt at creating a major console platform geared specifically towards indies. Though we could easily write a thesis on all the reasons why the OUYA ended up being an enormous failure, the hardware did have some saving graces, such as the excellent TowerFall. TowerFall was a couch multiplayer favourite thanks to its fast-paced, arcade-like gameplay and surprising depth, and we’re happy to report that absolutely none of that magic has been lost in the transition to Switch; in fact, given the console's focus on local multiplayer, you could argue that it's the perfect home for the game.
TowerFall is a relatively simple game from the outset, best described as something of a cross between Super Smash Bros. and Balloon Fight. A standard match consists of up to six players each taking control of an archer, battling for supremacy in small, one-screen maps that have wraparound physics; if you drop through a hole on the bottom of the screen, for example, you’ll pop out at the equivalent location on the top. Killing another archer is a simple matter of either impaling them with one of your arrows or jumping on them like a goomba, but dexterous players can avoid elimination by usage of the dodge, which has the handy second function of catching all otherwise fatal arrows during the animation. Rounds typically last a little less than a minute, depending on how many players are involved, and once there’s a 'last man standing' situation (or none, if a sneaky last arrow found its mark), the next round starts on another map.
Though the core premise of a game of TowerFall is quite simple, there’s a considerable amount of strategy that goes into winning. For example, you have to retrieve arrows if you want more shots, so players that empty their quiver early on will be relatively defenceless compared to those who have played more defensively. Another example is how arrows can be shot through the sides of the map, meaning that a potentially risky shot may just manage to catch an unassuming opponent off guard. Every second of TowerFall is an elaborate dance, an intense and thrilling period of jostling for superior positioning while being constantly mindful of everything happening around you on-screen; make one mistake, and you’ll find yourself dead before you’re even aware the mistake was made.
TowerFall would be a fantastic game if it were just the standard three-arrow setup, but much of what makes this such a high pick for a local gaming session can be found in ‘Variants’, various parameters that can be set before each match to change the playstyle. There’s a large suite of power-ups and items to randomly spawned in battle, for example, like shields, running shoes, or explosive arrows, and getting these can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Rules can be changed from the outset, too, such as giving arrows greatly increased homing capabilities or allowing felled players to take revenge on their opponents post-mortem by controlling a ghost. There are dozens of options on offer in both categories, allowing for a nearly limitless amount of combinations and game types, and the ability to randomize the Variants for each match makes the experience feel fresh every time you play.
The maps add a notable element to mixing up the gameplay, too; although they all adhere to roughly the same overarching design principles, different stage gimmicks give each map its own personality, sometimes necessitating different strategy. For example, one map has Thwomp-like rock enemies crashing back and forth, while another has pits of green goop that limit your speed, jump, and dodge. It’s inevitable that some maps will become favoured over others, but the distinct gimmicks that characterize each map go a long way towards keeping the experience from getting too stale; they’re just different enough that each one feels unique, but not so much that one has to completely change their playstyle each time.
All of this combines to make for an experience that has a surprising amount of layers for such a simple arcade game. No two games are quite the same, not just because of how different each match can be due to Variants, but also that all-important luck factor that often determines the victor. Regardless of how thoroughly you may have mastered the mechanics, it’s quite likely that a random arrow may miss its intended target and bury itself in your back instead, or a misfired bomb arrow may blow up in your face. Matches are so quick and so organic that all involved players can hardly keep from howling and shouting at every major play that happens, whether it be a split-second dodge that decides a match win or a desired power-up being scooped by a quicker opponent. That constant promise that the next round will likely prove to be just as dynamic and surprising as the last round is what hooks the players, as personal vendettas and the relatively quick runtime of each match lead to someone demanding ‘just one more’ over and over.
Though TowerFall is best experienced with friends locally, there’s also some relatively in-depth single-player content to keep solo players interested. Quest mode acts as TowerFall's horde mode, seeing the player choosing a map and doing their best to hold their own through a fixed series of rounds against an onslaught of monsters and AI controlled archers. Dark World mode is similar, but instead sees the player battling through a series of levels to reach a boss fight at the end. Wrapping it all up is Trials mode, which challenges the player to find the quickest and most efficient route way to destroy a series of scarecrows placed on a map. Each of these modes does a great job of offering up supplementary content that helps one to hone their skills for when friends aren’t around, and though there’s plenty of challenge on offer here, it must be said that there isn’t a whole lot of depth, certainly not enough to justify buying the game if you’re not one to play with friends on the Switch much.
There’s something to be said, too, about the way in which TowerFall handles the concept of mystery, gradually introducing new maps, characters, powerups, and more as you put in more hours. Upon winning a match, for example, a victor may find themselves suddenly challenged by a new character controlled by AI, and defeating it unlocks that character for use. Or perhaps selecting the ‘random’ option on the map screen will see a brand-new location suddenly rise from the sea, ready for use. The way in which TowerFall introduces this new content to you, through a mixture of randomness and paying attention to subtle clues the game leaves, is something that isn’t done enough in games nowadays, capturing a certain sense of wonder as it makes the player think what else the game might be hiding, or what a new cryptic hint could mean. We would highly suggest you refrain from spoiling these unlocks and mysteries by looking them up on the internet, as the process of finding the content naturally has a certain kind of magic that can never be recaptured.
Now, what may come as a drawback to some players is the lack of online play, which does seem to be a bit of a strange omission for a game so heavily geared towards playing with multiple people. Indeed, the inclusion of online would’ve made for a more well-rounded package, but its absence isn’t something that necessarily detracts from the experience, as much of the enjoyment comes from playing with people you know, sitting in the same room as you. TowerFall feels like a complete experience as is, and it more than justifies the cost of admission, but those who prefer to play games online may be disappointed by the focus on local play.
Naturally, the Switch version of TowerFall is the definitive version to play, not just because of its portable nature and the split Joy-Con for multiplayer, but because there’s some extra content to sweeten the deal, too. Madeline — the starring character of the sublime Celeste — is now a playable character (along with her alter-ego, Badeline) and a handful of new Variants have been added to change up the gameplay further. Though this new content isn’t a game changer, it definitely does make this the most complete version of TowerFall to date, and coupling that with the portability of the Switch means that there’s never been a better way to play TowerFall.
Matching the stellar gameplay of TowerFall is the equally excellent presentation, particularly showing a keen attention to detail. Graphics are presented in a colourful 16-bit style that’s both functional and eye-catching, making for a visual experience that seldom becomes boring. Each map is memorable and detailed in its design, such as an undersea city encased in glass or a village of huts suspended on stilts in a rainforest, and little things like cracks in the undersea glass or torches flickering in the trees make for environments that feel organic. All of the action is backed by a triumphant soundtrack, leaning hard into soaring melodies and pounding percussion to get players pumped during each play session, expertly creating an air of excitement and intrigue.
TowerFall sets the standard for excellence in local multiplayer, creating a fun and endlessly replayable experience that’s sure to be a blast every time you play. Although the single-player content is a bit thinner than we’d like and the omission of online may be disappointing to some, we’d argue that there are few games that better exemplify the unique multiplayer strengths of the Switch. We’d give TowerFall a high recommendation to anyone looking for a great party game for their Switch; the easy to understand mechanics and near-bottomless depth will ensure that this one will be a house favourite for years to come.