We’re right in the middle of two major movements in gaming: The retro revival and the burgeoning D.I.Y. indie aesthetic. With all the upsides to this time, there are a few downsides. First of all, a lot of retro games or games with a retro bent aren’t really very good. They focus on the wrong things about retro gaming, such as increased difficulty and graphical glitches. Second, sometimes “indie” can be shorthand for “not polished,” “unfinished” or “quick and dirty.”
It’s rare to find a game that avoids these pitfalls in its respective category, and even rarer to find a game that does both well. Enter Cave Story. Cave Story is made by one man, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, in conjunction with Nicalis, who ported the game to WiiWare. It looks and plays like an old-school 8-bit game akin to Castlevania or Metroid. It’s also bloody brilliant.
In Cave Story, you’re an amnesiac who’s been dropped in the middle of nowhere with a gun. There’s no big backstory, no major cutscenes starting out the game. Cave Story hands you bits of story in manageable chunks as the game progresses, and spins a yarn of surprising depth. You learn about your character and the world as your character does. You’re not forcefed anything or made to sit through really long expository pieces.
Cave Story looks great and sounds good too. You could compare Cave Story to older classics like typical NES or Master System games or to newer faux-retro games like Mega Man 9, but Cave Story is really in a class by itself. It looks like it could legitimately be a game from that era, but it plays faster, has no slowdown, loads up the screen with enemies, and sounds fantastic to boot. In this case, the old-school graphics aren’t an affectation in an attempt to gain sympathy or a false sense of nostalgia, but rather a way to interpret the story with a minimum of folderol standing in the way.
Cave Story controls like a dream, too. You play with the sideways Wii Remote and use it like an NES controller. Different moves and powers get introduced gently as the game goes on, and all of them are easy to use and understand. You might even surprise yourself by finding moves that they don’t expressly state that you can use, too.
On top of that, the gameplay is sublime. It’s a side-scrolling exploration akin to Metroid, but the design is so incredibly tight that you’ll rarely find yourself lost or backtracking through previous areas over and over again. When the game does ask you to backtrack, there will usually be a major change to the environment that makes it worthwhile to do so. There are decisions you can make that can affect characters, there are choices you can make that can affect the outcome of the game, and there are tons of secret weapons and powerups to find. The amount of depth is astounding.
If you’ve already played the freeware version of Cave Story and feel that you don’t need to pick up the Wii version, it’s still worth your time. I heard someone describe it as the “Cave Story Special Edition,” and that’s an apt comparison. The graphics and sound have been greatly upgraded for this version. There are boss rush features, the ability to play the game as a different character, and even an option to play with the original graphics and music.
Alas, we come to the part of the review where we must explain the negatives of Cave Story. First of all, it’s short, but not overly so. You can probably blow through it in 6 hours, which is great for a WiiWare game. You can also try playing through again with different decisions and as different characters, so that mitigates the length factor somewhat.
Second, there are cases where save points aren’t very well-spaced and you can find yourself doing some of the same sequences over and over again. For instance, one boss fight in particular was vexing for me. I went through a difficult corridor with angry dragons spitting fireballs at me and reached a room with a missile upgrade standing innocently in the middle of the screen. I picked it up and was immediately attacked by two angry, nigh-unhittable dragons who promptly killed me before I could even say “Hi.” I returned to the room over and over again with the same results. Finally, when I came back to the room I noticed a door on the other side of the screen, skipped the powerup and just continued onward.
Fortunately, those kind of events are few and far between. If you screw up against a boss or in an area, you can usually figure out what you did wrong and go back armed with new knowledge.
Subterranean Homesick Alien
Cave Story is a great demonstration of what WiiWare should be all
about. Allow me to step on my soapbox for a bit, but too many developers
use WiiWare as a dumping ground for cheap Beer Pong or “_____ Party” games that
feel like App Store rejects. Cave Story flies in the face of all
that. It’s currently the finest game available for WiiWare, and one of the
best games available for the Wii.