I’m very affectionate toward the N64 to the point where I consider it my main stomping ground. It wasn’t my first console, but something about it speaks to me beyond just nostalgia. Despite that, I’m quick to point out its shortcomings. The PlayStation, for being a much less powerful console at the time, has aged much more gracefully. The PlayStation’s visual quirks are often charming. Graphics on the N64 look like a dog has been licking the screen.
Nonetheless, the N64 had a personality, and it’s one that seems difficult to mimic successfully. As someone who is so well indoctrinated by the hardware and so familiar with all its eccentricities, I’m difficult to fool and jaded to the point where I’m tough to impress.
I’m a snob. What I’m saying is I’m an N64 snob.
Nonetheless, I’m always excited when a game developer makes an attempt at cracking the formula, and Cavern of Dreams has appeared in the sights at the end of my nose. Bynine Studios has brought a demo to Steam Next Fest that is ripe for scrutiny.
Walking on eggshells
Cavern of Dreams puts you in the scaly paws of a dragon out to save its unborn siblings. It’s a collect-a-thon platformer, not terribly far removed from Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. The big difference here is that you can’t really die. There’s a smack attack that you unlock early on, but it’s mostly used to bust open doors rather than hurt people.
Despite that, rather than fit in with the cozy indie scene, Cavern of Dreams truly feels like a lost N64 title. The narrative is sparse, focusing more on exploration and unraveling the puzzles scattered throughout its game world. What is available in the demo is rather breezy, with progression coming fast, but it still carries a lot of rewards when it comes to figuring things out. The worlds are small and intimate, more in line with the original Banjo-Kazooie rather than the bloated latter-day N64 platformers.
Smudges and muffles
Aesthetically, it’s presented in true N64-style, with a blur filter and everything (that you can turn off). The textures are filtered to a blotchy sheen, and the 2D sprites feature that awful anti-aliasing that make them look really blobby. It’s beautiful. To even better sell the experience, the colors are extremely garish, showing some hues that I’d swear I haven’t seen since Majora’s Mask. While the game itself is clearly running in a higher resolution than the N64 was capable of, the attention to detail sells it to the point where you could believe it’s just an upscaled title from the era.
It’s such an impressive facsimile that I’m truly curious to know whether or not it’s the result of adhering to hardware limitations of the era or if it just required a deep study and familiarity with the aesthetic. Either way, it’s the most convincing I’ve seen outside the actual hardware.
The demo shows off a handful of areas from the final game and gives a good sense of where it’s heading. Cavern of Dreams is a pleasant experience that does a great job of harkening back to the better experiences on the N64. I’ve been disappointed by a lot of retro-inspired platformers in the past, but this one is looking like it might make the mark.
I was unable to find a release window for Cavern of Dreams, but you can play the demo right now as part of the Steam Next Fest.