Cave Story proves that new games with old-school roots can be as good as its counterparts of yesteryears
Cave Story is, originally, the work of a single man: Daisuke Amaya. The game’s success as an indie PC title led Nicalis to pick it up in order to dress it in a new coat of paint by adding an extra level of polish to character models and more detailed background scenarios, and then port it to some of Nintendo’s platforms. Despite the small workforce employed in the making of the title, which was literally as small as it could be, nobody could possibly realize that the sheer greatness of the adventure contained within Cave Story was crafted by just a pair of hands. Everything the game offers is well-designed enough to draw positive comparisons to the great Nintendo games of the NES and SNES eras. It is an achievement that is certainly no small feat, for such an honor is sometimes not even closely reached by games produced by full-fledged companies with enough professionals to fill up a small arena.
As amazing as the title’s gameplay may be, it is not the only part responsible for elevating Cave Story into the status of one of the greatest indie downloadable games. Its plot kicks off in a very mysterious way as, without any introductions, players take control of a character that has lost his memory and finds himself within a dark cave, holding no knowledge whatsoever of his exact location and his surroundings. Still, from a very early point in the adventure, it is possible to notice that its story has much more to it than the game initially lets on, which is a fantastic and very effective design strategy to keep players interested in the plot. As they advance through the game’s levels, elements of the script are slowly explained and little by little the form of the game’s narrative is revealed. Before players know it, they will be involved in the engaging web of happenings that underscore the battle between an underground race and a mad doctor of dark origins who is driven by an evil goal.
If one were to narrow down Cave Story’s location to a single branch on a big tree of different gameplay designs, it would probably be located on the limb that houses Super Metroid and its less memorable peers. The game world is set up in a way that makes all of its many areas connected via a series of teleports, and even if its many settings are not as cohesively knitted together as Super Metroid’s, it is simply impossible not to make such a comparison because the caves have many different scenarios, a maze-like configuration, a few collectibles along the way, and – most importantly – some level of backtracking. Although it does share a lot of characteristics with the Metroid series, Cave Story never triggers déjà-vu feelings due to the pace of its gameplay and a few RPG-like elements which make it vastly differ from Samus’ crowning 2-D achievement.
The game’s controls have the simple efficiency of those of an NES game. The protagonist’s actions are limited to quickly switching between weapons, jumping, shooting, and running at a surprisingly speedy pace. Besides, the main character is affected by some really unique physics: his jumps are very high and fast, offering mid-air control that is extremely flexible. When those quirks are paired up with the frantic pace of the game’s shooting, the result is the ability to perform some downright insane maneuvers that look stunningly awesome and that are a must to deal with the most brutal enemies in the game.
In fact, the game’s chaotic and fun shooting will easily remind old-school gamers of the space shoot’em ups of yesteryears. Only, instead of having a ship that flies through space and blasts foes to oblivion, gamers are controlling an agile little boy that is confined to Metroid-like caves ridden with devilish foes.
Cave Story’s most curious element, though, is the way in which the guns are powered-up. The game offers a nice variety of weapons, such as a regular pistol, a fireball-throwing gun, a missile launcher and even a sword, each varying in range and effectiveness against some kinds of enemies and bosses. All of the game’s weapons can be enhanced up to level three, and in order to do so players need to collect golden diamonds left behind by defeated enemies.
Those diamonds are very easy to find and leveling up most guns to their utmost power, hence improving their reach and firepower, won’t take a long time; however, there is a twist. When hit by an enemy, the gun that is being held at that time will have its level bar decreased according to how powerful the blow is; as a consequence, a few hits are enough to bring them back to their regular strength – a not so welcome occurrence, especially when facing powerful bosses. This constant level roller coaster that players’ weaponry will go through will effectively turn even the silliest combats into key battle for survival. After all, slip-ups against a set of enemies that was meant to be simple potentially means having to face upcoming, and more powerful, foes with less effective weapons.
The game also features a group of very creative boss battles that come packed with a lot of challenge and action. The boss battles start out relatively easy, but by the end of the game some bosses are likely to drive even the most skilled players mad. It is a shame, though, that the fun of some of those battles is extremely harmed by the fact that Cave Story will often throw bosses at the screen without offering players a resting place and a checkpoint before those battles. Trying to overcome the game’s tough bosses is a lot of fun; however, the same cannot be said about having to go through tight platforming sections over and over again just because one has lost to a mighty boss that comfortably sits after tons of traps and away from any checkpoints. It is unpleasantly surprising that such a well-designed game stumbles upon a very primary game design issue.
Nicalis didn’t limit the improvements they implemented to the game’s visual part. The title’s soundtrack has also been remixed and had its quality improved, offering songs and sound effects that are in tip-top shape. Moreover, adding to Cave Story’s seven-hour adventure, there are three levels of difficulty, three different endings (a bad one, a good one, and a great one) that are triggered based on decisions made during the adventure, and a bunch of new game modes. Those modes include another Story Mode with a different character, and a Time Trial struggle where players face all of the game’s bosses with small intervals to regenerate some health and re-upgrade weapons that were downgraded during battle. Sum those replay incentives with the health and missile capacity upgrades that are spread around the caves, and Cave Story offers plenty of value.
Cave Story ends up being a game that blatantly drinks from the Metroid source, but that adorns that long-established structure with its own ideas, removing the hunt for equipment that Samus tends to engage in and replacing it with a unique brand of fast-paced shooting; and taking off the silent storytelling approach and putting interactions between numerous characters and revealing dialogues in its place. The result is an old-school adventure that is simultaneously classic and refreshing, and immerssive and thrilling, carrying an impressive emotional punch and a grand level of game design that few other titles achieve.