Cave Story+ Studio Pixel PC Released in 2011
When we are talking about classic indie games, then Cave Story is definitely one of the bigger names. Released in 2004 and created solely by Daisuke Amaya, this game has seen numerous re-releases and is one of the first indie games I remember that came forward with an emotional story. I played the 2011 remake Cave Story+ and was promptly reminded that this game is hard.
It’s rabbit season
It takes a while before the story of Cave Story begins to make any sense since it starts of entirely in medias res. After intercepting an IM chat session from a guy claiming to be trapped you awaken as a tiny robot guy in a small cave. Before long you escape that first cave and emerge in a village where a whole lot has happened while you were off napping. There was apparently a war, then a hero, then a mad scientist, now abductions… what’s going on?
The story is actually deceptively simple: there is a race known as the Mimiga that live on a floating island that you happen to be trapped on. In years past there was a war between humans and the Mimiga, but nowadays everything is peaceful. That is until an expedition group arrived on the island only to unearth a mystical crown that gave one of the doctors a lot of power. He now uses that newfound power to abduct the Mimiga and prepare them for another war on the surface world.
There is more to the story than I am giving away here and you discover all of it, as the title suggests, by exploring a collection of caves dotted around the island. This leads you to meet colorful characters, such as fellow robot Curly that has vowed to protect the Mimiga, the rebellious and young Sue that was part of the expedition and got turned into a Mimiga herself, and King, the stubborn and dedicated boss of Mimiga village. Unlike Bastion, which we reviewed earlier this week, all these characters have their own goals in the story they are working towards, making it feel more like you are part of a joint operation to prevent the war, rather than the chump that everybody else dumps missions on.
The characters are all fun and interesting, but not all of the make it to the end of the story. I already mentioned that Cave Story is quite the emotional ride and this begins to become really apparent halfway through when you get a good sense of how the game’s world works and the characters have endeared themselves a fair bit. I feel that Cave Story handles its drama and tragedy well: there is a silent melancholy to these moments punctuated by your main character’s inability to respond much. If you fail to trigger the best ending, then the words “There is no reply” are going to be painful to hear for some time afterwards.
Putting nostalgia for this game aside, I do notice that the dialogue might be a little too overbearing. For a game that starts all mysterious and in medias res it’s remarkably excited to reveal the backstory, so much so that multiple characters are busting down the door to shout exposition at you. Stretches of gameplay are broken up by long conversations and especially when replaying the game it would be nice if there was a way to click through these a little quicker.
Story score: 9/10
Leveling down is never fun
This is a 2D side-scrolling action game that mixes platforming and shooting to create a punishing game that looks deceptively cute. One button jumps, a move that gives you plenty of airtime and allows you to cover large distances. This is offset by a quick descent and the fact that the game often likes to stretch these jumps as far as it can get away with, so be ready for some grueling leaps over instant-death pits that you can just barely make if you time it right.
The other button shoots and weapons in Cave Story work a little different from what you may be used to. There are plenty of them and each one has a different type of projectile. Your starting pistol can fire in a neat, straight line and has limited range, but something like the fireball sends projectiles rolling on the ground, allowing you to always hit small enemies or foes on uneven terrain. You’ll switch weapons constantly as you play and all of them have their own level that increases as you pick up shards from defeated enemies. Leveling a weapon changes the kind of projectile you fire, as well as the damage it does. A sword at level 1 just has you throw the sword at a foe, but at level 3 it does damage in a wide area of effect as well. It’s a all-in-all a great system.
The downside is that weapons level down if you are hit, encouraging you to stay on the move and dodge both the enemy projectiles and the enemies that just throw themselves at you. The amount of hits a weapon takes to level down varies and especially during boss-fights it can be a real showstopper when you are halfway through and realize all your favorite tools are knocked down a level or two. The boss fights are creative too and don’t mess around: most of the early ones will rush you from the word go and barely let up. You even have the option to let the first boss give you a free pass because you have 9HP and a peashooter to work with.
Once you do have a nice arsenal of weapons in your pocket you’ll find that the bosses in Cave Story become remarkably easy. Too many of them have the tendency to summon their minions mid battle, which only serve to briefly get in the way before dropping restorative items and shards all over the field. Many of the bosses past the first stage I would simply stand still and tank because it was raining shards and I did damage faster than them.
The same can not be said about platforming, which is absolutely brutal. As mentioned before many jumps are tight and others will ask you to land on small platforms surrounding by instantaneous death. A nice move of Cave Story is that it allows you to swap the starting pistol for a machine gun that, at max level, allows you to use the the bullets to float in the air like you are using Fludd from Super Mario Sunshine. This prevents you from getting more powerful upgrades later in the game, but for a first time player it’s a great way to make the second half of the game much more bearable. If you choose to stick with the peashooter, then I recommend saving a lot. Death in Cave Story is quick, merciless, frequent, and frankly a little overkill.
I am also not a fan of the progression in this game. Right from the start the game will have you running back-and-forth across its moderately-sized levels until you are sick of seeing them. In the second area you have to kill a mid-boss to pass through a door, then later you need to head back to kill that same boss again to unlock something at the start of the area, then one final time for good measure. A later stage will have you working through a long gauntlet of tricky platforming sections and enemies with nasty projectile attacks, pick something up at the end, head back to the start, then do all of that a second time to fight a boss where you picked up the item. It’s good content, but this game game milks what it has for all its worth and with death pits around every corner I found myself getting bored quite often as I trekked the same route a dozen times for another go at that one annoying jump you need to make twice with no save point in-between.
Gameplay score: 7/10
Hop along on your favorite tracks
While visually + is a major upgrade compared to the original game, it’s the soundtrack that really sells Cave Story. It too was composed entirely Daisuke Amaya and remastered, though not changed in any way, for this release. The quality of the sound has been improved so that each song sounds perfect, from the calm tunes used for villages and quiet moments to the exciting beats of the Labyrinth theme, this game always has the right music for the right moment.
Sound-effects too are done excellently and lend a lot of great little touches to game’s cutscenes. I loved the cute little noises during Sue’s attempted fight against a monster, as well as the cute bark of the dogs found throughout the game. The sprites for the characters are nice to look at and you get an even more detailed image of them during dialogue, but they aren’t animated much. In fact, those dogs you find are about as well-animated as it gets in this game; they even have different facial expressions!
Cave Story is a joy to see. The pixel art on display here is of the highest quality and the design of every character and enemy feels inspired. There is a lot of energy as you hop around and trade shots with large groups of enemies, each one of them exploding into a rain of shards upon defeat and a chirpy sound-effect indicating each hit you land. Even in the most chaotic of battles it still manages to be controllable. A few small touches and I would have gladly given this game a full 10 on this category.
Presentation score: 9/10
You’ll have to work for that “special” ending
Aside from dying or falling off the island, there are three distinct endings for you to get. The “Bad ending” is pretty obvious when you get to it and can easily be avoided. Unless you dislike the game or feel it’s too hard for you to beat, there is no reason to ever trigger it since it’s as unsatisfying as you’d expect.
The normal ending is a pretty big downer too and leaves you feeling probably worse than you’d have felt getting the bad ending. This I don’t like at all, since you need to put in a considerable amount of skill to defeat the final boss and your reward is mostly a reminder of the things you failed to do. To get the best ending of the game, the only good one, you need to jump through a lot of hoops. The game expects you to trigger a number of flags that you are unlikely to find out by yourself and which cease to be available if you miss any of them. You need to purposefully ignore characters in need of help, make a really difficult jump you only have one shot at, and you may run into a scenario where you unwittingly trigger points of no return, only to discover you missed a step and can’t head back to fix it anymore.
If you set up everything for the best ending, then the final levels of the game are significantly harder and you need to do an extra stage with a multi-phased boss-fight at the end of it, with little to no room for saving as you go. Dying at that point is incredibly frustrating and all around I just find it not fun to play anymore at that point. Like with Zelda 2, it’s this part of the game that suddenly reminds me why I so rarely replay it despite liking the game so much.
Besides getting different endings the game does have replay value in the sense that it’s fun to return to it and experiment with different combinations of weapons. While you are free to switch them up as you play there are many different trades you can make and these permanently remove weapons from your inventory in return for new ones. The machine gun I mentioned before, but other trades can take two weapons and turn them into just one, which is worth a try as well.
You can also complete a variety of challenge stages that test your mastery of the game’s mechanics and there is Curly Mode that allows you to play as Curly Brace. The latter does very little besides add in lines of dialogue at points where it can’t interfere with the rest of the story. Everything else is still the same. The challenges are pretty fun, if a little unexciting.
Extras score: 5/10
Cave Story+ offers unique gameplay thanks to its weapon leveling mechanics and mix of platforming and shooting on a 2D plane. It has excellent level design and has fantastic sound and graphics to back that up. The ending is a real bugbear for me personally and in terms of gameplay there is some serious room for improvement, but for many this is an indie game worth experiencing at least once. I recommend picking it up in a sale or bundle.
Next up we’ll be leaving the civilized world to play an indie game all about city planning.