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Cave Story

Review: Cave Story (WiiWare)

2:00 PM on 03.29.2010 // Jonathan Holmes

Some people love it, and other people loathe it, but almost everyone agrees: Cave Story is an important game.

Does that sound dumb to you? Well, it probably should. The word "important" as it relates to videogames has been worn out to the point of near-worthlessness. People say that Modern Warfare 2 is important because it has a scene where you are a party to the deaths of innocent people, or that Heavy Rain is important because it brings "choose your own adventure" gaming into the HD generation, but neither of those games have yet proven their impact on the future of videogames.

Cave Story is different. It's proven to be important. When it was first released on PC in 2004, it showed us things about videogames that some of us had forgotten, and others never knew in the first place. It showed us that the techniques and tropes of NES-era game design can still be relevant in the post-cartridge era, something that Capcom and Nintendo have since capitalized on in a big way. It showed us that indie games could be "artistic" and be inviting, and not just one or the other -- something that the developers of Braid and the Bit.Trip series have definitely taken to heart. Perhaps most importantly, though, Cave Story showed us that one man can make a videogame all by himself, and end up with something that's just as compelling a game made by a development team of hundreds. Though we are yet to see the true impact that this will have on the game industry, it's already become clear that many aspiring game developers see Cave Story as proof that anyone with enough passion and determination can become a game developer.

These are just a few of the reasons the game has developed an ever-growing, ever more ravenous fan base. Thanks in no small part to that fan base, the game has been re-released on WiiWare, but not without a few changes. Most notably, Cave Story isn't free anymore. So now that more than five years have gone by since its release on the PC, is Cave Story still important? More importantly to your wallet, now that Cave Story costs $12, is it worth paying for?

Hit the jump to find out.

Cave Story (WiiWare) 
Developer: Nicalis
Publisher: Nicalis
Released: March 22, 2010
MSRP: 1200 Wii Points

Cave Story starts with no explanations and no promises. You control man in a cave, who, like the player, doesn't know who he is, where he is, or what he's supposed to do. From there, the game's world gradually unfurls before you, revealing a place not quite like anywhere else. Some of the game's narrative points have been seen before. The man vs. nature stuff was recently used in a similar way (but to a lesser effect) by Hollywood darling Avatar. Despite those similarities, the game feels unique. The way it fuses gameplay and storytelling under a unified style of subtlety and surrealism is hard to define. In terms of the kinds of feelings Cave Story evokes, the only things I can compare it to are some Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, but even there, the correlation is far from perfect.

You could compare Cave Story to Super Metroid because of the way it utilizes a strong sense of place and non-linear exploration to form a connection between the player and the game. You could also compare it to a classic run-and-shmup like Gunstar Heroes, as -- like that 16-bit classic -- being tasked to simultaneously navigate through a screen full of bullets, while firing off precision shots of your own, while jumping over instant-death-traps, while collecting essential power-ups, becomes commonplace after a few hours of play. That's not quite right, either, as between those action-packed 2D set-pieces, the game can feel more like a SNES-era Final Fantasy game. When you're not busy jumping and shooting, you can reap huge rewards for painstakingly combing the game's world for items, weapons, and narrative events. Talking to everybody twice, searching fireplaces, and finding secret passages is quick to reveal something new and exciting in the world of Cave Story. Actually, doing anything in Cave Story could lead to something new and exciting. "There is a surprise around every corner" may be a tired cliché, but in this instance, it's totally true.

These surprises come in many forms. In terms of storyline, the initially cute-and-sweet story frequently dips into surprising, truly dramatic, sometimes disturbing places. Permanent character death isn't uncommon, though its frequency doesn't lessen its power. You'll care about these characters, and when they die, you'll feel it. Boss fights are also particularly evocative. Not all of them are key to the game's story, but even the more random battles can have a way of blowing your mind, particularly when they come as an ambush. There is no place in Cave Story that lacks cuteness or danger, and that juxtaposition works to keep the player constantly unsure of what will happen next. You'll learn early on in the game that even the most peaceful cabin or innocent-looking office can suddenly be invaded by huge, ass-kicking bosses.

Many of these bosses will kill you, and they may kill you many, many times. Don't let that intimidate you, though, as Cave Story is a game that stays compelling even when it gets tough. In the same way that the NES-style Mega Man games use friendly, easy-to-look-at graphics and catchy music to keep things fun even in the face of constant restarts, Cave Story uses its charming visuals and infectious soundtrack to keep the player engaged even after hours of regular deaths. The last section of the game is particularly treacherous, filled with powerful, hard-to-hit enemies and instant-kill hazards. It's an area that has already become infamous among fans of the game for being so punishing, yet so fair, and more than anything, so compelling.

That's the sort of thing that makes Cave Story a must-play for anyone considering a future in game design. This is the stuff of game design genius, pure and simple. If you understand how Miyamoto designed the first few seconds of Super Mario Bros. to teach you everything you need to know about the game (how to jump, what your enemies are, how to kill them, and how to obtain power-ups) without ever letting the player know that they're learning anything, then you'll know what I mean by "game design genius." That's the sort of thing that's happening in Cave Story all the time. It'll likely take you multiple play-throughs and constant observation to catch all the tricks the game uses to teach you what it wants to teach you, but each time you pick up on one, you'll be smiling.

Probably my favorite "meta"-type game design move made by the developer of Cave Story relates to the way its branching path system plays out. I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that where most games with multiple endings use the standard "if you do this, the game's script jumps to this page, but if you do this, it jumps to a different page," function, Cave Story's multiple story arcs are triggered in a very different way. As opposed to jumping to a certain page, the player can instead arrange it so that particular pages are ripped out entirely, metaphorically speaking.

So the game has a lot of high-minded, smarty-pants game design prestige going for it. What if that kind of "depth" doesn't mean anything to you? What if a more concrete, calculable sort of depth is your priority? Well, then Cave Story still has you covered. There are plenty of weapons, enemies, and environments to explore, and it's rare that you'll be fighting the same types of enemies for long. The game isn't afraid to toss a weird new enemy at you once (I'm looking at you, knife-wielding frog) and only once. On the other hand, every weapon you get will remain useful for the full length of the game.

On that note, the game will take you quite a while to complete. I clocked about ten hours on my first try, and another ten on my second run for the better ending. Though the first three-quarters of the game did get easier the second time through, playing for the best ending opens up more levels, all of which are much more difficult. For collection-crazed gamers, there are also tons of optional weapons to grab, some of which are goddamn brilliant in design. There are also plenty of non-essential items and other cute details added to the game just for the fun of it. This all adds to a level of replayability rarely found in even full-priced retail games.

Speaking of price, just about everything I've described can be experienced in the free version of Cave Story, already available on the PC. So, what does this new WiiWare port do to justify its $12 price tag?

Well, for starters, the game now runs at 60 frames per second, so everything is silky smooth from start to finish. The graphics have also received a total overhaul, bringing 480p definition and added character to the already charming sprite work. Even if you were a fan of the way Cave Story was before, chances are high that you'll prefer the game's new look. It retains all the charm of the original, while adding just enough to make everything more evocative and beautiful. It's one of the most loyal yet most improved visual upgrades a game has ever received.

The music has also been remixed, in a style that clearly works to retain the chiptune charm of the original, while adding variation to the virtual orchestra. The sound waves here are fuller, and liberties are occasionally taken with the specifics of the orchestration. Mega Man-style vibrato makes its way into the proceedings now and again, which I greatly appreciated. It's worth noting, though, that I never completed Cave Story on the PC, so much of the music here is totally new to me. Longtime fans of the game have noted that the new remixes don't sound right to them. That's okay, though, because like the new graphics, the new music can be switched on and off at any time in the options menu.

What can't be altered is the game's English script, which has seen some major changes from a fan translation released a few years back. Though this new script retains the same meaning as the old one, the details have often changed. The game has always had a few cultural references (a character name Cthulu, for instance), but now there are even more of that brand of semi-humor. My guess is that the version you've read first will be the one you prefer, as whatever words you associate with your first time through Cave Story will be the words you'll be most attached to. Either way, both translations are great, so to have one available for free on PC and one available in the WiiWare version can only work to increase the amount of ways in which the game can be enjoyed.

Then there are the bonus modes created specifically for the WiiWare build of the game. There are now three difficulty levels -- easy, normal, and hard -- each with their own version of the game's main character. On easy, enemies seem to die more easily and the player takes less damage, and on hard, you get no health power-ups or missiles, making the game feel like a limited power-up run on Metroid: Zero Mission. I'd recommend Normal for most players, as it has plenty of challenge, but not so much that things feel intolerable. Either way, you'll see the same story, so you won't lose or gain much in terms of what you see and do.

In fact, none of the game's new modes greatly alter the core game. Curly Brace mode allows you to play as an NPC who plays an important part in the regular game. Playing as Curly changes almost nothing, though. You'll see some new dialogue, and of course, she looks different from the regular protagonist, but beyond that, it's all the same. There is also Boss Rush mode and Sanctuary Time Attack mode. The first pits you against all the game's bosses in succession, and the latter forces you to play through the game's toughest dungeon while being timed. Both modes are cool, but it bugs me that they are accessible from the start. It would be extremely easy for someone who hasn't already played through Cave Story to jump into these modes before they've beaten the game, and in doing so, spoil themselves from some of the cooler bosses and levels as they appear in the "real" game.

That design flaw is one of my only complaints about Cave Story. The only other thing that I might change about this port relates to the new graphics. They may be much nicer than the old sprites, but at a higher resolution, the limited animations used for most of the game's characters look slightly less fluid than before. It's a always been a problem with animating detailed sprites: the less pixelated they become, the more frames of animation you need in order to make them move smoothly. It's a bummer that along with the new, higher-res sprites, Nicalis couldn't have added a few new frames of animation as well. Still, it's an extremely small complaint, one that I'm guessing 99% of the population couldn't give a rat's ass about.

All in all, Cave Story is an incredible game that I'm sure I will be playing again and again for the rest of my life. It succeeds at telling a great story, providing fantastic run-and-gun gameplay, and a huge world to explore, and it does so with a style and technique all its own. For a new 2D action/exploration game to come along now, more than twenty years after the genre's creation, and still be this fresh, is an achievement in and of itself. As someone who had the PC version of the game for years, but never finished it, due in part to a preference towards the console experience, Cave Story on WiiWare is a godsend. The new modes, graphics, and sound, plus the ability to play with a NES-style controller on an HDTV, makes the experience feel totally deluxe. If the original Cave Story was a like VHS rough-cut bootleg, this WiiWare port is the special edition DVD -- an indispensable purchase for any fans of the genre.

As a free piece of software, the original Cave Story gets a perfect ten. This not-free, enhanced port gets a...

Score: 9.5 - Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)



Cave Story - Reviewed by Jonathan Holmes
Entrancing - It's like magic, guys. Time disappears when this game and I are together, and I never want it to end. I'm not sure if this is a love that will last forever, but if it is, you'll get no complaints from me.

See more reviews or the Destructoid score guide.

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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