In a 1996 interview, Shigeru Miyamoto explained that, while creating Super Mario 64, he “wanted to make a game where just moving Mario around was fun.” Anyone who has played the classic Nintendo 64 title will agree that the team was successful in their goal. In fact, prior to developing any levels, Myamoto spent months working specifically on Mario’s movement including changing his center of gravity, refining his animation, and overall, making Mario feel fun to play long before the player even reaches the first level. “We get the fundamentals solid first, then do as much with that core concept as our time and ambition will allow” Miyamoto went on to explain. This focus on refining a single mechanic to perfection is seen less and less as big budget games are expected to have massive open worlds and infinite gameplay options. The benefit to using this strategy, however, is in creating a game that is simple, but easy to learn, while allowing the player to interact with the world in a huge variety of ways.
In an odd mashup between tranquil, calming atmosphere and fast-paced reflexive challenges, Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a charming and fun timed obstacle course, similar to the motocross title, Trials. You must complete challenges by barreling down inclines, careening off ledges, and narrowly avoiding trees and rocks in order to shave precious seconds off your final time. In an age when most of us are social distancing or self-isolating, Lonely Mountains: Downhill could not have been released for console at a better time.
Visually, the game features low-poly graphics and vibrant textures. The different environments and terrains are all unique and beautiful and I personally spent a lot of my time just exploring the different paths and taking in the atmosphere. The ambient sound effects, like the wind and the birds, make the mountains feel like real world locations, as opposed to handcrafted levels. The dynamic sounds of the terrain crunching beneath your tires makes you feel as though your bike is actually interacting with the world, instead of just moving through it. Featuring four distinct maps, each with four interconnected trails, Downhill offers 16 unique levels, each with their own challenges and secrets.
A lot of time and effort went into designing the character movement of Lonely Mountains: Downhill. The game includes an extremely limited moveset and the only controls available to the player are steering, pedaling, braking, and sprinting, but, used together, these moves offer a wide range of gameplay options, like jumping, drifting, and more. The level design focuses heavily on player movement, as well, with a variety of obstacles like ramps, balancing logs, and steep inclines, each of which offer new challenges and opportunities for the player to explore. The controls are simple and intuitive and movement is, overall, a lot of fun. It’s incredibly entertaining to simply ride around, exploring the mountain, even without trying to complete any of the challenges.
Early on you’ll find yourself crashing into trees, falling off ledges, and ragdolling down hills multiple times per checkpoint, but the more you practice, the more you improve and learning the tracks, it becomes extremely satisfying. There’s a stark difference between the first time you do a run, holding your brakes and looking out for any surprises around the next corner, to your later runs, blasting down courses, taking shortcuts, and expertly maneuvering through obstacles. A large selection of secret paths, many of which can only be accessed with new bikes or greater skill, encourage exploration and add a lot of replayability.
You will likely spend a lot of your time playing Downhill dying, but, thankfully, death is pretty low stakes and often very entertaining. There are quite a few checkpoints per trail, so you’re never forced to start too far back. The only times death is really punished is when a challenge requires that you die fewer than X times. You’ll quickly become accustomed to the little “oof” your character makes every time you slam into a branch but your bike keeps going. The ragdoll physics and screenshake contribute to an always satisfying, and usually humorous, death animation.
Progression can be rather difficult, but also very rewarding. Completing challenges provides new skins, new maps/trails, and new parts for bikes. With enough parts you can build new bikes with different stats, but they can be tough to acquire. Only certain challenges grant bike parts so it can take quite a while to get any new bikes at all. This is unfortunate for newer players because the fun really begins after acquiring faster or more powerful bikes and gaining the ability to explore new parts of the mountains, like longer jumps or rougher terrain.
Downhill is a great example of a game that focuses on one aspect of gameplay and does it really well. Everything in this game focuses on making movement more engaging, from the intricate, handcrafted levels to the simplistic, but versatile, controls. The easy to learn, difficult to master nature of the game means that you will spend hours crashing through bushes, landing sick jumps, and exploring the shockingly large maps before you have experienced everything this game has to offer.