2D platformers are fertile ground for Indie developers because, obviously, it’s easier to produce a game on a budget when you don’t have to worry about super fancy graphics & catering to the 3rd dimension. Many Indie games follow this formula, but few have done it as arguably well as Cave Story. Originally a freeware game developed by a single man over the course of five years released in 2004, it was remastered as Cave Story + by Nicalis a few years ago & re-released on Steam. I decided to check out this King of the Indies for myself & see if it lived up to its hype.
Cave Story takes place entirely in a set of caves on a floating island. You play as a robot with no memory that we later learn is named Quote. As Quote investigates the caves, he meets the Mimigas, a race of rabbit-like creatures, who apparently were at war with robots once upon a time. Quote learns that a Doctor has stolen the Demon Crown, a headpiece that gives him immense power. Working with others, he plans to turn the peaceful Mimigas into ravenous beasts through the use of Red Flowers & create an army to take over the Surface. But Quote gets help on his quest to stop the doctor from several researchers who came to the caves with the Doctor before he went mad as well as a female robot named Curly who, like Quote, has developed a conscience & may hold the key to Quote’s past.
Although the game can be lumped into the retro-platformer category, it’s probably most accurate to call Cave Story a Metroidvania game. You’ll explore the caverns bit by bit, finding items that help you reach the next area naturally through exploration. Quote gains several different guns that he can level up by picking up crystals enemies drop when they die. But if you get hit, the gun you have equipped will drop a level, becoming weaker. Exploration is key to this game. Getting the best ending requires you to take very specific steps over the course of the game & find certain items.
Story: The overall plot to Cave Story is presented relatively well. Although Quote is your typical silent protagonist, I like that the game gives you choices sometimes. The pacing at which the game reveals its plot is nice as well. Things sort of naturally build as you explore the caves until eventually you have the whole picture. There are also some funny moments, particularly when Balrog is involved. I also liked that the game gives you three different endings to discover. But unless they’re using a guide, most players won’t get the Best Ending. The only thing I wish is that the game told more about the world itself. Aside from learning about the previous war, the Doctor & the Crown’s origins, it doesn’t give us much. I would’ve liked to know what the Surface is like, how the island came to be, etc. Not knowing these things doesn’t take away from the story, but it could’ve made the world a bit more immersive. Score: 4
Gameplay: There are two distinct aspects to Cave Story. The first is the action portion. Enemies respawn whenever you re-enter an area, so expect a lot of combat. Combat mostly consists of shooting & trying not to be shot. You get a nice variety of weapons throughout the game which all function differently. I like that the game has three optional guns (you have to trade your starting gun for them so you can only get one). There are a lot of boss fights in the game as well, which I thought were well-done. Each boss requires its own strategy to take down & some can get downright frantic. In the normal final boss you actually have to fight three bosses at the same time. At one point there was so much stuff on the screen I honestly lost track of where I was. I just kept jumping & shooting. The second aspect is platforming. I think I can safely say this game has some of the trickiest platforming I’ve ever experienced. The combat can be tough, but it was the platforming that made me the most frustrated. Some sections require a lot of precision, & there were a few points where I said, “If I don’t make it on this next time I quit.” Of course that was usually when I made it. So I guess while it’s frustrating at times, it’s also rewarding when you get it right. But I do have to talk about the controls for a second. I highly, highly recommend getting a gamepad for this. The default controls were too tough for me, even when reassigning them. The default uses the arrow keys rather than WASD, so unless you’re comfortable it can be a bit unyielding. Just speaking for myself, I found the game a lot easier when I started using a gamepad. So overall, gameplay is simple but very challenging at times. Score: 4
Visuals & Audio: I’m not entirely sure how to judge the graphics in Cave Story. The Cave Story + is was playing has both remastered visuals & soundtrack. This means that the sprites are slightly more detailed than in the original. Of course they’re still very pixelated. But I think the graphics have a charm to them. The various levels all have a unique style, as do the enemies there. The strongest part of the game’s presentation, however, is its music. It may be 8-bit, but there are some really nice pieces. My two favorite pieces are during the Outer Wall & Last Cave sections. Both are beautiful in their own right, but fit the area perfectly as well. Overall, I can’t recall any pieces that I hated. So while the presentation isn’t next-gen by any means, everything is a perfect representation of old-school games. Score: 4
Replayability: Pretty high. As I said, there are three endings, one of which most people probably won’t get the first time through. In the Cave Story + version, there’s also a Challenge Mode with several challenge stages. Score: 4
Overall Score: 4
Final Word: Cave Story + is a solid retro-platforming experience for those who like old-school & are willing to work through the challenging bits. Everything in my comparison between the original & remastered version suggests CS+ is the exact same version but with slightly improved graphics & sound quality. Definitely check this out if you’re in the mood for some old-school Metroidvania action.
Title: Cave Story + Console: PC Rating: None officially but probably E or T Developer: Studio Pixel Publishers: Studio Pixel & Nicalis Release Date: November 22, 2011