TowerFall Ascension, that former OUYA exclusive and recent Steam arrival, gets so much of the big stuff right: intuitive controls and mechanics, fathoms-deep gameplay achieved without undue complexity, all that. But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how right the game gets something small: unlockables.
I used to have a ritual for when I bought a new multiplayer game, and especially a new fighting game: I’d start by unlocking everything. The unlocks that required lonely singleplayer grinding, I’d grind through. The unlocks that required multiplayer stat-pumping, I’d cheat by messing with the match settings as best I could and playing through sham fights over and over, two or three or four controllers sitting on a table in front of me.
It just felt right. I vividly remember doing this with Soul Calibur II, and with Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl. It was a weird, compulsive, antisocial way to begin playing games that were meant to be played socially, and that I myself would in fact play socially—once I’d ritually prepared to do so, that is.
Games have largely moved away from the opulent unlockathons of old—sometimes because those unlockables are unethically repurposed as paid DLC, but just as often because designers have come to see unlockables less as gameplay-lengthening value-adds and more as tedious homework.
When it comes to unlockables, TowerFall balances social and antisocial play better than just about any game I can think of. Some of its secrets require powering through the singleplayer-only Trials Mode, deciphering game-wide puzzles, and progressing in the new co-op-optional Quest mode. Other secrets are designed to be stumbled upon naturally, through multiplayer.
Happening on a new character or stage through sheer, undirected messing around feels fantastic, as does solitary, intentional puzzle-grinding. TowerFall rewards me for playing it the way it clearly wants to be played, and for playing it the dumb ritual way that I like to initially play games of multiplayer combat.
It reminds me that game design has grown up a bit. Sometimes more than I have.