Cave Story is a classic example of what's considered to be an indie game these days. It's got retroesque visuals and music; its gameplay is a throwback to hits from gaming's past like Metroid and Castlevania; and it's got one of those rags to riches stories that everyone loves oh-so-much attached to it. (In this case, the game's developer, Daisuke Amaya, who made Cave Story single-handedly, had gone from a nobody to somewhat-celebrity after his game went viral and eventually landed a publishing deal with Nintendo to bring the game to their platforms.) Standard stuff, really.
None of that is what makes Cave Story special, though. It's indie status is inconsequential to its quality; a mere arbitrary label. Cave Story's strength comes from its exploratory focused gameplay, rather, and the enigmatic story supporting it. A simple foundation, yes -- but an effective one nonetheless.
From the outset, it's clear that Cave Story was heavily inspired by Metroid and Castlevania. The game takes place on a two-dimensional plane, much like its inspirations, and presents you with a series of spacious levels to explore at your leisure. You'll move through the game's many cavernous levels many times throughout Cave Story's... story, making backtracking something of a commonality. Normally that would be seen as a problem -- no one likes having to constantly revisit the same few areas, after all. In Cave Story's case, as in many other games of its type (that is, the lovingly coined "Metroidvania" style of gameplay), however, that's actually a positive.
Cave Story is a game who's focus lies in exploration. Moving about Cave Story's vast caverns to see what secrets they harbor is the primary source of entertainment. Searching every nook and every cranny for secrets -- whether they be hidden paths, health upgrades, weapons, etc. -- is always engaging and extremely gratifying when presented with some actual findings. Expeditions themselves are hardly difficult on account of how little is actually well hidden (most of the secrets are placed in plain sight in some just-out-of-reach area rather than hidden along some obscured pathway), but the act of searching is still engaging. That new items and pathways open up in previously explored areas as you progress only strengthens the value expeditions and provides a near constant incentive to revisit old haunts.
|And fight through the same hordes of enemies again and again.|
The mystique surrounding the game's setting -- a floating island in the sky -- helps as well. Cave Story's tale is a mysterious one. You begin in a dark, nondescript alcove with no memory of how you got there. Stranded, you decide to start exploring your surroundings and eventually come across a small village populated by anthropomorphic rabbits known as mimiga. You soon discover that something is afoot on this strange land, however; particularly that a man referred to only as "The Doctor" (no relation to that time traveling doctor, I assure you) has been kidnapping mimigas for some dastardly plot. After a little investigation, you quickly find yourself embroiled in the conflict and are charged with putting a stop to the Doctor's plans before calamity strikes.
Cave Story's narrative is an interesting one. Not because it's got a great cast of characters (though there are a few standouts, such as the ever happy-go-lucky villain Balrog) or because it's some emotionally trying epic -- it's because it never truly reveals the whole picture. Though many plot points are answered throughout, such as who your character is and why he's on this mysterious floating island in the first place, there always remains some unanswered matters that are left up for interpretation. Exploring the island's caves are made all the more interesting when you happen to discover something more about the island itself or the world below, whether it be concrete details or a simple allusion to something more, fleshing out the minute but intriguing world of Cave Story.
Whilst exploring, you frequently encounter monsters that attempt to impede your progress. They're not too big of a impediment, of course, especially when taken on one-on-one. If anything, they're more of a light annoyance, most of the time. Reason being because they often like to attack in large groups, which become more and more difficult to manage as they become larger and larger as the game goes on. Challenge therefore comes from their sheer numbers and kamikaze attack tendencies. Given that a good number of the enemies you face are airborne, that strategy of theirs can be quite the nuisance. In fact, if you try to avoid them, it's very likely that they'll all pursue you tenaciously. Dispatching them isn't too much trouble, though -- it only takes a few shots to take the majority of foes down, less so as your weapons level up. (They can be leveled up three times maximum, each level extending the weapon's range and attack prowess.)
Combat truly shines in a few choice instances where your faced with a nearly endless cavalcade of foes streaming in from all over. Swarms of enemies flying in from all sides while you try to fight them off -- sometimes while dealing with a boss simultaneously -- make for some of the more exhilarating moments in Cave Story; expertly weaving through the attacks from the boss and their lackeys especially so. Typically combat doesn't reach some levels of excitement, though. Enemies are usually thrown forth in manageable numbers and in areas where you're given plenty of space to move about in, allowing you to dodge enemy attacks (or enemies entirely, even) with ease.
|Though things tend to get a little close when dealing with bosses.|
This WiiWare release of Cave Story contains a few new modes. Apart from the regular old story mode, there's Curly's Story, which sees you placed the role of another character (one who actually speaks); Boss Rush mode, which sees you trying to defeat all of the game's bosses in the fastest time possible; and a Time Trial mode for one of the game's harder areas, The Sanctuary (otherwise known as "Hell," as a sign in the entryway states). All of the modes, with the exception of Curly's Story, become unlocked after you've beaten the game proper. The time trial modes are decent distractions, and provide a good bit of the game's replay value. The most singular of the new modes is Curly's Story, if only because playing through the game with a character who can actually speak is quite interesting. The new protagonist doesn't add any new insights or alter the gameplay at all, unfortunately, but it's a swell addition for those who have played through Cave Story before on PC.
On the technical side, Cave Story has gotten a bit of a face-lift for the Wii. The game's artwork has all seen a minute but noticeable upgrade that adds an extra layer of detail. The new art assets also allow the game to show up better on HDTVs, I find. If you like, though, you're given the option to switch back to the original art assets, which still looks swell on the big screen. You can also do the same for the music, which has also seen an upgrade for this release. Strangely, though, the newer compositions are much quieter than their older counterparts. Turning the game's music volume up to the max didn't help remedy that either. I had to adjust the TV's volume instead, which amplified the other sound effects to the point where they almost drowned out the music if not adjusted in-game.
Those unfortunate technical follies aside, Cave Story is a quality title. It's exploration focused gameplay is entertaining and its story thought-provoking. Justifying its $12 (or 1200 Wii points in Nintendo currency) price tag may seem hard to justify when the freeware version is still out there, but the new modes available prove to be enticing enough to warrant its asking price. Cave Story is a tale well worth experiencing.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”