Cave Story (PC) review
"Cave Story is definitely the right game, but it's in the wrong place, at the wrong time. If you time-warped (again) back to 1990 and released it on the Mega Drive, the time you returned to wouldn't be the rubbish one we know. It'd be an endless pastel-hued Age of the Pixel, where men express themselves in only sprites and double-jumps and catchy 16-bit tunes. Nobody'd remember Mario or the Green Hill Zone or the rain or tetrominoes or El Viento or any of that crap; they'd remember ..."
Cave Story is definitely the right game, but it's in the wrong place, at the wrong time. If you time-warped (again) back to 1990 and released it on the Mega Drive, the time you returned to wouldn't be the rubbish one we know. It'd be an endless pastel-hued Age of the Pixel, where men express themselves in only sprites and double-jumps and catchy 16-bit tunes. Nobody'd remember Mario or the Green Hill Zone or the rain or tetrominoes or El Viento or any of that crap; they'd remember the fantastic island in the sky, and those weird Mimiga rabbit guys, and the amazing missile launcher, and how they pooed themselves when they reached the Core, and those lovely moonlit clouds... oh, and they totally cried when Curly did the thing, ooh, and they had that cool mask as well! There'd probably be no war or AIDs or anything either. It'd be amazing!
But no. Doukutsu Monogatari AKA Cave Story was released by the one-man Studio Pixel as a freeware download in 2004, a crappy year that had no time machines, but loads of train crashes, GTA ripoffs, terrorist bombings, and stealth levels. It's a simple adventure, in a time of next-gen realer-than-real tellyworlds. A 2D run-and-gun, on the platform of magic-mapped MMORTSes and 5D FPSeses. A fanciful fantasy, delivered via the channel of abstract concept-games and ninja shmups. From every angle, it's an anomaly.
Well. Every angle but the most important one, of course. Despite being a freakish fish-out-of-water, Cave Story excels, primarily because every mechanic in place is as old (and as reliable) as the hills. You may have to exercise them via the arrow keys and the west coast of the QWERTY field here, but the moves and techniques required to succeed will be in your fingers already if you've played your share of the 8 and 16-bit legends. Within seconds of the double-click, a seasoned vet will be steering his guy - an ivory-skinned amnesiac lad - through the side-scrolling tunnels with the same simple grace of a thousand avatars past. You'll jump over spikes, shoot dumb baddies with your various weapons, have one-sided chats with NPCs, snag power-ups, open treasure chests, and generally do all that stuff you've done a million times before (but possibly not for a while).
Obviously, it all works - a chimp could slot these elementary blocks together - but it's shocking just how well it works. The fact that Cave Story is a classic among free games is understandable, but the fact that it could just as easily stand tall among the professionally-developed titles of yesteryear that it takes its inspiration from is full-on farce. For a game that you could, at first glance, reasonably write off as a lazy homage, it actually has a life and personality that's entirely its own. The adorable sprites dance, bicker, and smile their way through their roles in a story that's genuinely quite affecting - it's eccentric but not nonsensical, childlike but never sugar-coated. The gameplay itself constantly bristles with energy and atmosphere, shifting the tone often enough to prevent any potential pangs of repetitiveness; a tense climb through a dangerous monster hive might suddenly turn into a freewheeling funk-backed rampage alongside your blonde buddy-in-arms Curly Brace, then a melancholy wander through a robot massacre zone could explode into a shitifying boss battle. Whether it's making you shiver, weep, or whoop with glee, Cave Story is never anything less than striking.
And yet it always delivers raw substance beneath its enchanting style. Cave Story is a game refined to complete eye-popping perfection, its core components singing in a harmony that other games can only hope to achieve through a few thousand man-hours of desperate testing and tweaking. Level layouts, weapon configurations, enemy AI; the blocks come together to build a system for combat and platforming that's a little bit twitchy, a little bit tactical, and more addictive than Tetris and heroin at the same time. Tactics are rewarded - you can pull back, take the battle to a better area, and hammer the goons with the weapon that best suits the battlefield. Concentration works - switch to your rapid-fire sidearm and pay some attention, watch where the boss moves, slip through the gaps and counter-attack when appropriate. Even item hoarding and desperate brute force can reap success - stock up your missiles, power up your weapons, and just hope the other bastard dies before you do. Armies of giggling nasties giving you a hard time? Giant television-man kicking your arse? Chances are you're just approaching the battle in the wrong way.
Cave Story tolerates your operational whims so gladly that you often expect it to fall apart at the seams. In fact there are times when you think it has, when you might smugly think you've exploited a glitch or figured out some way to break things. You probably haven't - it's more likely just one of the game's rewarding little optional detours, or a subtle ploy to adjust the difficulty depending on how you've been playing. Cave Story is a game in which you never feel lost or trapped; you're always right where the narrative needs you to be, but you never quite realise it under the moment's passed.
It's about the same moment that it becomes clear what an incredible feat of balance and planning that Cave Story actually is, and when you start to realise that it may not be the product of a bygone era that it initially seemed to be. It may seem like a tragedy that this smashing example of classic gaming concepts is doomed to rot in freeware obscurity, but cold hard logic states that it could never have been the same game if released way back when. The radical nostalgia rush it delivers is held together by a host of modern design principles, a player-friendly shot to suppress the less pleasant memories of the way we used to play.
It's most obvious in the game's difficulty, pitched as it is on a curve in the classic sense; the gracious save points thin out as the stages and enemies increase in complexity and number, at a rate that's slow enough to be bearable but fast enough to be constantly challenging. New weapons are granted at sensible intervals, and whenever one is picked up there's always a short period of glorious promise, when it seems like your new toy is going to throw everything out of joint. It never does, though; the game is always ready for you, with complex challenges and clever stages that, if you really pay attention, seem to have been about 20 years in the making.
It's that careful balance - the best parts of history presented with the convenience and approachability we enjoy today - that makes Cave Story such an appealing play, and one that couldn't exist anytime but today. It's a shame that it'll miss out on the legacy that it could easily have created - I wouldn't mind an arranged OST, personally - but it's not quite the crushing injustice it might seem. Hey, at least this way it's pure, a single complete little adventure, unsullied by the inevitable tawdry sequels and handheld ports that'd have followed with mainstream success. As it stands, Cave Story is just a megabyte or so of pure gaming class, sitting proud on your hard disk among the emulators and Flash remakes. Deservedly in its own folder.
Not the worst place to be, really.
Community review by autorock (January 20, 2006)
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