“Cave Story” Review

Not the Classic Starting Page, But Very Nice

If there is any cave you must get lost in, this is it.

Feb 03, 2010I have to admit, I’m not a gamer that actively searches out good independent games. Like most mainstream gamers I focus on the large triple-A blockbuster titles, like Halo, God of War or Starcraft. But, being a lover of games in general, and gamer culture, I find myself just as interested in smaller niche titles with unique concepts, art or gameplay, so long as they are brought to my attention. If a website I frequent never mention it, then I’m probably not going to notice. The obvious downside is that there is probably a wealth of games out there that I would love but have no idea exists. On the plus side, if I do find something, it is an immense and wonderful surprise that I just don’t get with modern videogames, as plugged in to the media as I am.

So with that setup, I’m very, very glad that Cave Story, by Studio Pixel, is coming to Wii Ware, and thus reported on at IGN. If it weren’t, it is unlikely I would have ever found out about this wonderful title. Reading down a list of some of the Wii’s top anticipated titles for 2010, the title of the game caught my eyes, and so did the word “Free.” I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a good deal, so when I see that a game labeled as a fantastic indie title is free, well, I’m going to get my hands on it. I’m so glad I did.

I figured it’d be like most free games. You pick it up for fifteen minutes, enjoy the gameplay and move on. What actually happened was quite the opposite. I found myself drawn in, sucked further and further into the game and its narrative and charm. For the three days I played this game, I pretty much put off playing more Mass Effect, it is just that good.

The First Cave. It's All You Know.

I’ll give you a brief rundown of the game’s premise. The player’s character wakes up in a strange cave, weaponless and without any memories to speak of. The player’s first task is to find a weapon while dodging enemies, and figure out where he is. Once this is accomplished, the character soon finds himself introduced to a people of cute rabbit-like creatures, Mimiga, that are somewhat anthropomorphic and can speak. They are being oppressed by a mysterious and powerful “Doctor” who comes on occasion to spirit away unlucky members of their society who are never heard from again. The character finds himself fighting on the side of the Mimiga against this evil Doctor and his minions. Don’t be fooled by the simple story premise, when playing the game it soon becomes clear that the story is much better than it has any right to be.

The gameplay is simple in design, but surprisingly deep in practice. It shares many similarities with Metroid and Castlevania, in that the 2-d world is open for exploration and that the player picks up a number of new weapons and items to help progress through the levels. The two main focuses of the gameplay are shooting and platforming, and both are precise and feel good.

The one major advantage that 8-bit(like Cave Story) and 16-bit games have over modern 3-d games is how tight the controls are. 3-d games have to accommodate for a lot of free-ranging movements, and in trying to cope with this gives needed concessions in how tight the controls are. This means that in Assassin’s Creed, yes you can climb anything and go anywhere, but sometimes you’re going to accidentally jump off a building and it’s not your fault. That doesn’t happen in a good 2-d game, and Cave Story is a fantastic example of how this can be done. If you fall of a ledge, or make a pixel-perfect jump in Cave Story, the player feels either frustrated with themselves or accomplished because that the results they got were entirely based on their own skill, and not any potential wonky controls.

Kill Those Critters!

The shooting is also fantastic, as each weapon feels unique and effective in what they do. They’re just about all good for something. The Polar Star is a great basic gun, the fireball shooter is great for hilly terrain and the Rocket Launcher gives a satisfying punch. Later secret weapons like the Snake or the Spur are also fantastic high-end weapons that give a nice feeling of progression from early in the game. Again, if the player makes a mistake, or accomplishes a feat while shooting it feels right and fair because it is about how well they wielded the controls.

An additional level of strategy comes into play when each weapon has different levels, and different strengths and abilities at each level. Their levels increase as you collect little golden bits that are dropped by slain opponents. This might mean a greater reach, such as with the Snake, or greater frequency in the case of the Rocket Launcher (three rockets at a time on the max level,) and almost always greater damage (except in the case of the Nemesis, which is strongest on Level 1.)

The game’s structure also leaves open the possibility for vastly different weapon load outs. Early in the game you’re offered to trade the Polar Star for a machine gun. Do you take it? If so, you get a wonderful weapon that makes the early and mid-game much easier (not to mention that when at its highest level it doubles as a Jetpack,) or do you keep the Polar Star so that you can upgrade to the Snake or Spur later on? It’s one or the other.

The environments are suprisingly varied.

The tight controls gave me a really good feeling as I blasted and jumped through open levels with branching paths, but these branching paths can sometimes involve backtracking. However, because of a smart narrative, the world changes according to the proceedings, and going back through familiar areas can feel entirely different, like the Egg Corridor late in the game, and even if the change is as simple as missing characters (Just try to tell me that the Mimiga Village doesn’t feel empty and lonely when it is deserted.)

The level design is really well done, and yet it is far simpler than games like Metroid. It’s not that one is superior to the other, but rather they are trying to capture a different style and ambiance, or atmosphere. Metroid is often cramped and full of tunnels, while Cave story feels more open and airy.  To be honest, it can be easy to forget you’re in a cave.

It’s just that atmosphere, combined with an almost cutesy 8-bit style that give the game much of its immediate charm. The graphics are nostalgically 8-bit, but the designer didn’t use that as an excuse to make poorly designed characters. The style is appealing and whimsical. Though it is a lot like a children’s book, with vibrant colors and soft shapes, it is also immediately recognizable and unique.

Beyond the art style, the music is also fantastic, with memorable pieces that play well against the action and the narrative to really enforce the emotional resonance of the environment, characters and happenings. Furthermore, the title music gets into your head and becomes an instant classic of 8-bit tunes. Bleeps and Bloops can sound really good sometimes.

One of the coolest visual segments of the game.

Though the gameplay is solid and the art style is wonderful, the real key to the game is its engaging story. It’s easy to look at the premise I wrote at the beginning of the review and right it off as ridiculous. It is a story about robots, rabbit creatures and even demons. How could it be any good, really?

And it is just that unexpected juxtaposition, the whimsical versus the serious and sad, that makes the story so impacting. I was lulled into caring about these characters by the sweet music and charming style, not to mention the excellent writing and plot. And that’s when the game gut-punched me with character deaths and noble sacrifices. Characters are deeper than they appear at first blush, and plot clichés are either avoided or done so well as that it doesn’t matter. The point is that everything feels fresh and real.

One of the best aspects of the narrative is its branching paths. Much like the layout of the game’s levels, there are a number of ways things can happen. There are three very different endings, one bad ending, one normal ending, and one terrific ending. Furthermore, these endings are entirely dependant on how you progressed throughout the game. And without spoiling anything, there is at least one character death that can be prevented if you play your cards right. You won’t get the best ending without it.

These multiple endings and scenarios, not to mention multiple weapons and strategies, lends highly to replay value. I highly recommend playing through multiple times (I’m looking forward to playing through again when the games comes out for Wii Ware) and you have to see all of the different endings, even the bad one.

If I was to have one complaint against the game it would be that it gets ridiculously difficult at the end. I’ve heard people complain about a specific boss in the Labyrinth level, but that is nothing when compared to the “final” three bosses. At times the game can turn into a Bullet-hell style of game, making it nigh impossible to keep track of all the dangers streaking across the screen. And even that is easy when compared to the real final level and boss, appropriately called the Hell level, which is all unlockable depending on your actions in the game. This insane level of difficulty means that few people will get to see the end of the game outside of Youtube, and I think that’s unfortunate. The only upside is that beating the final level and boss feels immensely satisfying, and saying “I beat the Hell level in Cave Story” feels like a badge of honor.

I Love This Game

Closing Comments:

Okay, so it is obvious that I think the game is fantastic. The art style is great, the gameplay is solid and addicting and the story and music will stick with you long afterward. But you know what the real kicker is? It is free. Free, you hear me! I would pay money for this game. I’m going to pay money for this game the moment the WiiWare version comes out (it has enhanced graphics and some new music to boot.) What are you still doing here? There are some links to the game and the translation patch (it’s originally Japanese) on this Website! Go download it!

STAR RATING:

Five out of Five Stars

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