Even though you might not know it, it’s difficult – impossible, even – to overstate the influence of Cave Story. It might seem quaint to say so but when this game released back in 2004 it was one of the first hugely successful single-developer indie projects to grace the gaming scene. In the years since its release, a ton of indie games now owe their space in the industry to this game. Basically anything with 2D pixel art is almost definitely an inheritor to the impact of Cave Story, but outside of that Cave Story showed the world that a single person development team with a strong sense of identity and idea could create something as strong as any full team. With that it completes the trifecta of influence; it’s not just a point for games to draw from in an aesthetic sense, but also mechanically as it acts as one of the great precursors for the explosive popularity of the Metroidvania genre in indie titles, and as a developmental influence, as it set and codified the potential of independent game development.
Cave Story (3DS, NDS, PC [reviewed], Switch, Wii)
Released Dec 2004 | Developed: Studio Pixel | Published: Studio Pixel / Nicalis
Genre: Action | HLTB: 7 hours
Things begin in Cave Story as simply as possible. Our character, a young chap named Quote, wakes up in an unfamiliar cave. As he takes tentative steps out of the gloom he winds up taking a tumble, falling down through the caves and caverns, and crash-landing into the village of the Mimigas, a race of sentient bunny people. However, he finds it a desolate, all-but-empty place, with derelict buildings perched on jutting cliffs; the locals that are left are in mourning for the death of their hero, Arthur, and only the grizzled and scarred King remains to act as a leader for the group.
Quote, it seems, has arrived at a bad time. The Mimiga live in fear of the villainous Doctor and his fearsome minions, the boisterous bruiser Balrog and the sadistic witch Misery. Together, backed by incredible dark magic, the trio rapidly seized control of the caves and have been kidnapping the Mimiga for some sinister purpose. By the time Quote blunders in, there’s only a scant few Mimiga remaining free of the Doctor’s omnipotent grasp, and insularity and distrust have gripped their village.
Amongst their number is Sue, a Mimiga who claims she is actually a transformed human. She tells Quote she was part of a small team of scientists that made their way to the caves and began research into ways to escape the Doctor’s nefarious reign. Unfortunately for them, the team has since been scattered and separated, and Quote is left to follow their trail to try and reunite them and help them conclude their research.
If it sounds a bit hectic, it’s mainly because the story happens around Quote a lot rather than he moves it along. It’s still a creative narrative, and one which jumps forward in very digestible bursts as Quote’s short-term mission evolves and changes depending on who he needs to go find next or what part of the caves he finds himself exploring. Although Quote is a silent protagonist, he is surrounded by a plethora of wonderfully realized characters and it’s their interactions that carry the most emotional weight and depth. As good as the cast is though, the caves themselves are as much a character as anything else. Each new area you explore is full of personality, both in terms of the lush pixel art that packs in a ton of detail, to the changing bevy of enemies that inhabit each locale. More importantly though, Cave Story is a triumph of expository worldbuilding, with a ton of clues as to the history of the caves scattered around each screen, begging us to infer pieces of the caves’ history. The piles of rusted robots that build up as you trek on towards the caves’ core speak of an ancient war, for example, and one which must have had some devastating consequences.
Cave Story is sometimes considered to be a Metroidvania but I personally think if you go into it with expectations of that genre you might be a little dumbfounded – I know I was! In practice, Cave Story doesn’t really resemble any of what our general understanding of a Metroidvania looks like, and in reality it’s a fairly linear sidescrolling shooter but it just happens to be very narrative-heavy, with a strong sense of environmental storytelling. I suspect that’s what drew the comparisons initially, but I think in reality has as much in common with games like Contra than it does with Metroid – it’s an unashamedly old-fashioned action game. Still, its legacy is that of being one of the most successful indie Metroidvanias and I can only assume that’s part of how it influences indie titles to this day.
Perhaps the most unique feature on display here is the creativity in what weapons you get and in the way they evolve and level up as you play. Each gun has an experience bar that is filled by gathering up the little pickups that are dropped by defeated enemies and once you have enough of them your weapon levels up to its next stage. New stages don’t just bring with them an improved damage output but often entirely change properties of the guns and how they fire. Some are fairly simple, such as the starting weapon, the Polar Star, which begins at level 1 by firing tiny plinking shots, before firing double shots at level 2 and finally firing huge waves at level 3, or the missile launcher, which upgrades to fire an entire salvo of missiles at once. Some are a lot more eccentric though and these make for Cave Story’s most memorable weapons.
I’m a big fan of the bubbline, for example, which starts off by pibbling out a tiny stream of barely harmful bubbles, but by its final form it veritably chugs out a wall of bubbles which float around you and pop into sharpened slivers that fly out in front of you delivering a steady stream of chip damage, or the sword which you “fire” by flinging it out in front of you as if it were some bladed boomerang but its final form unlocks the spirit of the warrior sealed inside and so by level 3 you instead unleash a sword-wielding ghost to spectrally assault everything in its path. However, there’s a catch! If you get hit at all the weapon that you’re holding loses experience and can revert all the way down to its base form if you lose enough, requiring you to defeat enemies cleanly and gather up experience again. It’s less laborious than it sounds; no weapon requires all that much to level up and later enemies drop massive hauls and so managing the ebb and flow of your weapons’ efficacy becomes a tense and extremely fun part of the gameplay loop.
The other thing Cave Story has got going for it is its difficulty. It’s actually strikingly well-balanced but certainly towards the end it earns a reputation for cranking up the challenge, and at its hardest it almost resembles a bullet hell game, such is the volume of stuff being hucked at you. Thankfully, its numerous re-releases also add in difficulty choices which is a very welcome change from the occasionally punishing grind of the original release (or more specifically, of the original release’s endgame).
Yes, re-releases. Cave Story might originally have begun public life as a piece of freeware but in 2010 a separate studio, Nicalis, began working with original developer Daisuke Amaya in order to port it to other systems. This includes the version of the game you’re probably most likely to see now, Cave Story+, which is the edition sold on Steam. The fact that it got a price tag slapped on it might make you balk given its status as freeware, but in fairness Cave Story+ does have some nice extra features to soften the blow. Aside from the aforementioned difficulty settings, it also has updated pixel art, a remastered soundtrack, and some extra game challenges. These all offer great choice but the biggest advantage this release has is that these extras are togglable so if you want to use all the old look and sounds you can. There’s also a 3DS release that I’ve never had the privilege of playing, which has an entirely new aesthetic and works with the 3DS’ inbuilt 3D display; although I’ve not played it, given the ease with which you can get the Steam release, I’d hit up that one first over what seems to be a harder-to-find 3DS release.
I feel like I’ve not had that much to say about Cave Story and that in turn feels like I’m doing it a disservice. Sometimes that’s the way with games that are really good; when you have an awful game it’s super easy to isolate the things that are worth complaining about and then spending words doing so. In contrast, when you have games that are great it’s tempting to sort of do a little list of “here’s the stuff what is good” and knock it off. This goes doubly so for when a game is not just fantastic but also very simple and this is the quandary I’m in with Cave Story. It doesn’t have huge arrays of mechanics to dive into or vast reserves of content to talk about; instead it’s a concise and near-perfectly designed piece of art. Not a single moment of it feels wasted. The only word for it is sublime.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play