Where do I even start with Cave Story? First and foremost, it’s an indie, freeware classic: available completely for free on the net since 2004 (be sure to grab the English language patch!), it’s an acknowledged masterpiece, the cult freeware adventure game to end all cult freeware adventure games. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine Pixel AKA Daisuke Amaya programming it over the course of five years, making the music, writing the story, and then choosing to release it for free. To any artist or aspiring game-designer, it’s an absurdly humbling work, deftly weaving its 8-bit blip-and-bleep soundtrack and minimalist pixellated artwork into one of the finest Metroidvania-style (gamer lingo for side-scrolling adventure/shooter) games you’ll ever play. Of course, that’s the freeware version, still available online, still very retro-charming and very non-HD in its soundtrack and visuals. That is, until indie-game developer Nicalis stepped up back in November (September for Macs!), re-releasing Cave Story to the PC crowd as Cave Story+, and giving it the comprehensive-overhaul collectors’ edition it always deserved.
At heart, Cave Story+ is a deeply traditional game. With every step it’s an homage to great adventure games past: Metroid’s heart containers and missiles make their appearances, the bosses are thoroughly Castlevania in their difficulty and scope, the sense of humour is utterly Japanese Gaming (as are the lovingly detailed sprites), you’ll even detect a hint of Mega Man in its more intense platforming sections. Where it breaks away from tradition is in its style: Cave Story+ is a curiously adult game with a surprisingly mature story that begins innocuously enough (amnesia!), and by its end achieves a level of metaphorical integrity and thematic density that many art-house games are still struggling to match. Humour is pervasive and quirky, but characters die, and once dead they stay that way. Balrog is adorable (and modeled after a bar of soap), but morally ambiguous. King is technically on your side, but protective and vengeful to the point of distraction. Murder happens. What begins as a very conventional critter-blaster eventually blossoms into something thought-provoking and dark, especially if you happen across one of the bad endings (of four branching endings total).
Gameplay-wise, if you love side-scrolling shooters and adventure games, you’ll more or less be in platform-gunner heaven. Controls handle well, standard 4-directional jumping and shooting applies, with a glut of different weapons (upgrade-able with experience pickups) and tools (entirely secret, you’ll get no spoilers here). Platforming and gunning sections gradually ramp up in difficulty, and with effectively no on-screen instructions at all you’ll soon be plugging enemies and jumping spike-pits with ease.. at least until you hit one of the supremely challenging later bosses. There are secrets and bonus areas and difficulty sliders, and, in Cave Story+, even bonus modes of play. Taking all of these (and the various endings they funnel you towards) into account, it’s entirely likely you’ll find yourself replaying the lengthy campaign repeatedly, later surfing the wiki only to find you’ve overlooked like a quarter of the game.
In terms of the Nicalis rerelease, what changes have been made are mechanically minimal and aesthetically tasteful. Thanks to a graphical overhaul the game now looks much sharper, while retaining the original’s charm and general bizarreness (someone’s gone and filmed a great comparison). The soundtrack has been updated as well, and is available in its entirely through the Humble Bundle download I’ll be providing below; it’s absolutely fantastic stuff, evocative and minimalist when it needs to be, jumpy and exciting when appropriate, but all the while reinforcing Cave Story’s intentional air of mystery and stylistic oddity. It works really, really well, and I’m more than happy to have it loaded into my music player, though dedicated cult fans might find it a little too ‘softened’. However, in a nod to these traditionalists – and Pixel’s freeware intentions – the entirety of Cave Story’s original soundtrack and graphics skin is only an options-menu away. Like the new Halo: Combat Evolved rerelease, longtime fans and newcomers can flip between the two, appreciating the game however they choose and co-existing in peace (though the remix really is quite effective). Mechanically, the gameplay and level-design is identical to the original save for the unlockable post-game bonus levels, designed by Pixel/Amaya himself (which again negates complaint). In releasing Cave Story+, Nicalis has provided Cave Story the opportunity for mass-exposure it’s always deserved, while tweaking its aesthetic appeal – clearly in line with Pixel’s original intentions – to draw in an even wider cult audience. A benchmark for tasteful remakes, Nicalis leaves very, very little to complain about.
As a student of the arts, I love Cave Story+’s weirdness, its vague puzzle of a storyline, the metaphorical power of its characters and branching storylines, the painstaking effort that’s been put into its graphics and sound-production. At times lonely, at times unforgiving on its ‘Normal’ difficulty (another nod to Mega Man, no doubt), for many it may prove altogether too weird and bleak to complete – and of course, for me, these count among its greatest virtues. Two more very pure gaming experiences, Cave Story and Cave Story+ are indie classics, and deserve the attention of every platforming aficionado. Indie game of the year? Very likely.
Go shoot some bats, Quote.
Part three of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until about the 27th of December, 2011. Now featuring 12 whole games (and their soundtracks!) if you beat the currently $5.16 average, 5 great games and OSTs if you pay anywhere over a buck. You can’t go wrong here. Money goes to charity, games go to your Mac, PC or Linux machine.
Note: All screenshots taken by me, using the enhanced graphics exclusive to Cave Story+.
… bonus Balrog.
Originally published right here, December 2011.