Review: Cave Story (PC/WiiWare/DSi/Steam/3DS)

What a deceptive name Cave Story is. It’s appropriate but at the same time so much is hidden beneath a simple title. This is one of the few games that have fallen under the “hopelessly obsessed” category, so I’ll try to be as impersonal as possible here.
Cave Story was created entirely from scratch by one man, Daisuke Amaya, during his free time over the course of 5 years. The result is a polished 2D action-adventure/platformer with the look and feel of something that wouldn’t be out of place in the SNES era. Originally free for PC, Cave Story has since been ported to several different platforms and updated thanks to Nicalis. I’ll primarily be talking about the WiiWare version here, which comes with some rather neat unlockables.
You begin with a brief cutscene that will not make sense for probably 25 minutes before you are plopped in control of the pale Mr. Traveler, who hasn’t the slightest notion of who he is or why he’s defenseless in a small cave. He soon learns that the Mimiga, a bunch of cute bunny-like creatures, are being captured by the minions of the strange “Doctor” or killed by the Doctor himself. As Mr. Traveler makes his way through the cave system, a dark and terrible truth comes to light and with it the mad schemes of the Doctor.

Yes, that is a skull sitting on the throne. Yes, that man is laughing. No, this won't end well.

You will come to love the cast (except the Doctor and almost anything trying to kill you) from the tough yet protective and caring Mimiga leader King to the minor characters that only get several lines in. Everyone has a name, but since the game is so short, not all of them have a definite personality. That doesn’t make the game any less enjoyable, however. The story is short and unveiled in bite-sized portions, always leaving you wondering and wanting more.
Where are you? Who is Sue? Why are the Mimigas being targeted specifically?
The answers to these and much more are spread out nicely throughout your journey as the plot builds up, balancing story-telling and gameplay well.
Progress is fairly quickly and not even a screen packed with enemies will slow you down for too long with a rocket launcher (limited ammo) or a machine gun (unlimited ammo) in your hands. Obliterating foes gets even sweeter when 8 other weapons are available, but only a maximum of 5 can be carried at once. Some can be traded up while others are found lying around in chests. Each one can be leveled up by picking up the yellow triangles that enemies drop and filling up an experience bar. It can be filled up to 3 times; each level of power changing the damage a weapon can do and sometimes even the damage radius. However, if our silent protagonist gets injured, the bar empties chunk by chunk until the weapon delevels. This isn’t as bad as you might imagine since there are plenty of enemies to harvest even during boss fights.
Aside from blasting foes to smithereens, there are some puzzles to solve and fetch quests (thankfully short for the most part). You are also encouraged to check out suspicious areas and in turn track down chests for helpful items and Life Capsules to raise the maximum HP past a measly 3.
The delicious icing and strawberries on top of this delectable cake are the visuals and music. The WiiWare version of Cave Story offers original and remixed tunes as well as the original and updated graphics. (Other versions listed at the bottom.) The original tunes are midis that clearly convey the mood from liberating to tense to melancholy, and the remixed tracks do much the same. Which is better depends on you, though veterans of Cave Story would likely cling to the old music and newcomers might prefer the revamped beats. Either way, both versions set the mood wherever you go and are (usually) pleasant to listen to.
Before Nicalis came along and got the game ported, Cave Story was already as good looking as a commercial game. The amount of detail put into the graphics and designs by one man is impressive. There are no words to effectively tell how eye-catching everything is. The flowers at the farm in Mimiga Village, the grassy hills of Bushlands, and even the front of buildings call for your attention at least once.
There’s no slouch with the characters and enemies neither. Each one is well-designed and the characters’ emotions are carried through movements and words. Over a dozen of them, who are important in their own way, have portraits for when they speak that shows off their mood or status.
Enemies are diverse with bats, mushrooms, moldy ghosts, beetles, and so many more found throughout cave system. A cave system that strangely has more biomes in it than one would expect to be underground.
The differences between the original and revamped graphics are minor. In the latter, sprites for the characters and enemies as well as the portraits are smoother. Characters also have more ‘face’ to look at while 2 of the portrait sets have been changed.
If you need more incentive there are multiple endings, a boss rush, time attack, and a little unlockable called Curly Story wherein Mr. Traveler and the NPC Curly Brace switch roles as protagonist and mysterious ally. Every version of Cave Story has something different to offer (unlockables, challenges, portability, etc.) but even without them there’s something about Cave Story that will keep bringing you back. Maybe it will be immediate, maybe it will be a month later, but you will be compelled to play again.
By this point I really should have turned the spotlight on the negative side of things, but there’s little to none to mention. Maybe it’s a little short, clocking in at around 8 hours your first time through, but at the same time it feels just right. Trying to figure out the best ending without a guide is a pain, but there’s a certain “Take that!” satisfaction after making it through to the end. Using down as an action button is awkward but you get used to it.
On the subject of controls, there are easy to pick up and there’s nearly no delay (read: minute, you probably won’t notice) between input and response. Unless you look at the manual, you’ll have to rely on instincts or experimentation to know that: 1 shoots; 2 is jump; minus (-) toggles the map (when obtained); A and B scroll through your weapons; and down opens doors, talks to people, and other useful interactions.
If you’re looking for a way to pass the time, try out the Cave Story demo on the Wii Shopping Channel or, better yet, download the original for PC. You can’t go wrong either way.

 

For convenience, a list of differences between the current Cave Story versions has been placed below.

PC: Free. Has the fan translation by Aeon Genesis Translations. All other versions have an official translation. Fan mods available.

WiiWare: 1200 Wii Points ($12). Contains original and new music and graphics, Time Attack, Boss Rush, Curly Story, and a hidden sound test.

DSi: $9.99. Original graphics and music. A step above the freeware version.

Steam: $9.99. Known as “Cave Story Plus”. Contains original, new, and remastered music, Achievements, Time Attack, Boss Rush, Curly Story, and a new level called Wind Fortress.

3DS: $39.99. Contains remastered music and graphics, Time Attack, and “Classic Mode”. Added areas and Life Capsules.

About SmashQueen

Staff writer for ACGV.