By now, any true fan of video games has heard of Cave Story. If by any reason you haven’t, then what you have in your hands is a chance to experience something wonderful with fresh eyes. I recommend you stop reading right now and go download your prefered version, whether it be on Steam, Wiiware, or the latest release on 3DS with stereoscopic 3D visuals. For those who have heard or played Cave Story, it will almost seem redundant to tell you how great a game it is, but there are few words that can be used to summarize Cave Story. The words amazing, fantastic, or wonderful come to mind, but in the end the point remains the same: Cave Story is a great game.
Cave Story started out as a free PC game. Instantly it captured the hearts of critics and players alike, and it’s not hard to see why. Cave Story takes elements that on their own are pretty fantastic and combines them into a whole that is better than any one of its parts. A mix between a homage to video games of old and a revival of their most memorable elements, Cave Story will be loved by long time players and new younger players who are unfamiliar with side-scrolling action games and concepts like “Nintendo Hard.”
One of the most interesting elements is the narrative. The main character is a robot that looks like a young boy who wakes up with no memory, and could be immediately seen as a cliché. Generally this would be an overused plot device to deliver inane exposition, but here it’s used exceptionally well. Exposition is still there, as that’s how we learn about the world and narrative of Cave Story, but it’s never inane, trite, or obtrusive to the game, as the story is layered and feels meaningful as it quickly puts forth a mystery of what’s happening and why, and sets up a dark tone to the proceedings that contrast quite heavily with what many may see as cute visuals.
The story with its mystery and darkness is very engaging from the start. It sets a dark tone with the talk of a past and possibly still ongoing war, and forces the player to question the morality of said war while also hinting at the possible and equally dark past of the protagonist. Part of what makes the narrative so engaging is its characters, which aren’t one dimensional caricatures, but are, like the narrative, layered. The character of King, for example, may seem like a typical mean leader, possibly even a bully, but soon reveals how he is frustrated at by his own futile attempts at trying to protect his village and the people he cares for, and has become angered and desperate because of it. This surprising complexity coupled with a visual style that contrasts so much with our expectations results in a very effective mixture that will catch initial players off guard and will have them hooked.
The visuals are composed of gorgeous pixel art. It’s reminiscent of 8-bit games, but with an aesthetic sense that perfectly builds the world one plays in. The visuals are furthered by an extreme eye for detail, smooth animations, and a large variety of environments that show the artistic skills even more. Complementing these visuals is an equally enjoyable audio experience.
The soundtrack, like the visuals, works on its own, but also adds layers of atmosphere to the many environments. This layering is key to the narrative aspects of Cave Story. They create the idea that there is more to this world than what you see or immediately experience. Whether it be a line of dialog from a character, a small detail in the visuals, or the way you hear the sound, these things come together to create a sense of depth to this world that wouldn’t exist if these elements didn’t work together so well.
This level of quality is maintained in the gameplay as well. Calling back to classics like Metroid, Castlevania, and Megaman, the gameplay is essentially that of a platforming 2D action shooter with some emphasis on exploration to discover secret areas and powerups. Cave Story is difficult, but not unfairly so, instead it is challenging in the best of ways. All challenges are possible to overcome, and the knowledge that as a player one gets better to do this makes victory more satisfying. This fulfillment is aided by giving the player simple, accessible, and balanced controls, meaning any loss is because of player mistake and not of unfair design.
Play involves some challenging platforming, but most memorable is the use of weapons. There’s a large variety of unique weapons, each suited for specific situations, preventing the ennui that comes from knowing that any challenge can be handled with just one weapon. Each weapon can be leveled up with experience points that sometimes appear when killing monsters, each level making the weapon more powerful or changing how it works. For example a fully leveled up machine gun can be aimed at the ground to float in the air for a brief time. To maintain challenge, as a fully leveled up weapon can be very powerful, taking damage not only causes loss of health, but of experience as well. This amount of challenge makes Cave Story a satisfying and addictive game, and even more so when combined with all its other elements.
With all these great elements coming together, it’s no surprise why Cave Story is so loved, or why players return over and over again to play through it. To add to the challenge and many secrets as reasons to replay Cave Story, there’s also one aspect of the story itself. Specifically, the story can change depending on the players choices. At key moments the player will make choices that affect how or when the story ends, meaning one player’s experience of the narrative could be unique from others. Though this is not a new idea for video game narratives, what stands out in Cave Story is that these choices may not be apparent to the player, who may just go along with a specific choice because it is expected from them based on previous years of experience playing other games. Because of this, replay is necessary to fully experience all sides of the narrative. This subtlety adds depth and only helps to make Cave Story even better than it is.
While not perfect, as there are times when the more “video game-y” nature of Cave Story, for lack of a better term, will stand out, Cave Story is a near perfect game. Combining fantastic visuals and sounds, with an intriguing narrative, perfectly balance controls, and challenge, Cave Story manages to set a high bar for which other games should strive for. If there is a game that can perfectly encapsulate what video games can aspire to, especially those who mimic the style of older games, it’s Cave Story.
Reviewed version: 3DS