Where have you been all my life?
Cave Story began its life in 2004 as a freeware PC title developed by one man—Daisuke Amaya—and went on to garner critical acclaim for its unique story, art direction, and Metroid-style gameplay. Now, in 2010, the game has received new life on WiiWare, where it’s been refurbished with new game modes and updated graphics. As it’s a free game on the PC, one may wonder if a $12 WiiWare version is worth the increase in price. Don’t worry, it is. Cave Story is one of the best WiiWare games on the service, and certainly worth picking up.
Cave Story tells the tale of a robotic soldier with amnesia who becomes involved in a fierce island battle between the peaceful, rabbit-like Mimiga race and the evil Doctor and his sidekick, Misery. They are using dangerous Red Flowers to transform the Mimiga into rampaging monsters, and they plan on using the creatures to take over the world. You must battle your way through the creatures that live in the island’s various environments, defeating the Doctor’s robots and minions. Cave Story doles out surprisingly touching moments, and there are even a few player choices that affect the ultimate outcome of the game.
The Metroid comparison is apt, but doesn't really communicate what Cave Story is about. You will rarely be traversing the same locations twice, for example. Heart Containers upgrade your overall health, and the hero can find upgrades and gizmos to make his journey easier, but in terms of Metroid-stye backtracking and finding new areas with new items, Cave Story veers far from that path.
In fact, a better comparison would be something like Mega Man or Contra. Cave Story is basically a sidescrolling shooter; the hero has an ever-expanding arsenal of weaponry with which to lay waste to swaths of dangerous creatures. At first, you’ll only have a short-range laser gun, but within a few hours you’ll find yourself decked out with a missile launcher, fireballs, a bubble gun, and (maybe) a machine gun.
Enemies drop hearts, missiles, and yellow shards. Shards upgrade your currently-equipped item, up to three levels. This is tracked with a handy yellow experience bar above your HP meter. Every time you get hit by an enemy or an attack, the bar decreases. You could make a comparison to Blaster Master here, but the penalty for getting hit isn’t quite as severe. Since a level 3 weapon will “max out” when its experience level essentially reacheslevel 4, a fully-powered weapon will not drop back to level 2 with a single hit.
Jumping can be a little floaty and takes some getting used to, but there have been plenty of times where I’ve been thankful that it’s not more mechanical. Once you get used to the jumping, you’ll be hopscotching around the caverns like a pro. The hero can fire up and down, too. Some weapons have alternate uses aside from just shooting things that effect your movement directly. The brilliant level designs are built with the hero’s abilities in mind.
Cave Story also has some surprising RPG moments. You’ll talk to a lot of people and wander through a few houses and villages, and cutscenes interrupt the gameplay now and then to move the story forward. At one point, I found myself looking for a woman’s four pet dogs, which were hidden throughout the level. Some were easy to find, but others were very difficult. Cave Story definitely rewards you for exploring every nook and cranny of each level with gadgets and heart tanks.
The graphics are charmingly retro, even with their new coat of paint. The environments are colorful, and you’ll quickly forget that you’re stuck underground. Character portraits, which show up when NPCs are talking, are surprisingly emotive. One portrait shows an innocent young Mimiga girl becoming affected by the Red Flowers she was forced to eat. Her eyes are red, but her expression is frightened. It’s a surprisingly sad scene! Obviously, a lot of thought went into every individual character portrait, and that’s something I admire and appreciate.
The music is incredible. It stands up to some of the best NES tunes, including the Mega Man games. Each level has a specific theme that will get your blood pumping, and the areas with subdued music convey exactly the emotion they’re supposed to thanks in part to the largely energetic music in other places.
There’s very little to dislike about Cave Story, but there are a few sore spots. Boss encounters can be very difficult and last awhile; it’s important to know the situational uses of your different guns. For example, a fully-leveled bubble gun creates a bubble shield when you hold down the fire button, which can be useful for blocking enemy attacks. Even with this knowledge, it’s pretty clear that boss pattern memorization and quick reflexes are paramount to success. Lovers of twitch gameplay will be right at home, but those looker for a less challenging experience may get frustrated. There are also a few tiring fetch quests (find these three things, etc.) that are never particularly fun, mainly because enemies respawn every time you enter and leave a room.
Once you’ve finished the main quest (a few times to get all the endings), you can engage in a challenging boss rush, a time attack mode, and even play through the main game with secondary character Curly Brace. The main game itself is surprisingly long; just when you think you’ve beaten it, you realize you’re only halfway done! Furthermore, there are a lot of decisions you’ll have to make that will decide not only what ending you get, but what areas you can explore and what equipment you find! To experience the entire breadth of Cave Story requires multiple playthroughs. This is probably the best game I’ve played so far this year, and I’m betting you will love it, too.