Review: Cave Story (Wii)
Playing Cave Story is like rolling around in a pile of your favorite 8-bit game cartridges. You’re constantly bumping into reminders of treasured adventures, you can’t help feeling like a kid again, and how hard and fast you roll determines exactly how much pain you can expect in return. The WiiWare version of Cave Story succeeds in transposing this masterpiece of independent gaming into a medium suitable for garnering the game a still wider audience, and its innate difficulty scaling and new bonus features are an ideal fit for the Wii’s more casual player base.
For those unfamiliar, Cave Story was produced independently by game developer Daisuke Amaya (AKA Pixel) over the course of five years, and was released in 2004 on the PC as freeware. The player awakens as an amnesic hero in a dark cave, on an island populated with strange rabbit-esque creatures called Mimigas. Threatened by the machinations of an evil doctor, the Mimigas call upon the player to jump, shoot, and collect his/her way to victory through about 10-12 hours of classic action-adventure gameplay.
The homage paid to the era of games immortalized in the memories and pop-fan art of hipster 20-somethings’ has been one of Story’s greatest strengths. Its designer’s love of the NES/Game Boy era is evident in every aspect of the game, from its fantastic 8-bit art and epic bleep-blooping soundtrack, to its typed-text storytelling and computer-controlled in-game character cinematics. By playing, one is taken on a journey through some of gaming’s most venerable influences: the platforming and classic leaps of Mario, the item collection and dialog of Zelda, the hop-and-shoot and mad science of Mega Man, the varied weapons and power-ups of Metroid, and the casual treatment of a world filled with everyday technological wonders and marvelous creatures of Pokémon. The worlds so many gamers have come to know and love are alive and well in the world of Cave Story.
At the same time, the game evolves beyond its progenitors, summoning their spirits, only to forge them into something entirely new. As I play Cave Story, I am frequently struck with waves of nostalgia, despite the uniqueness of everything I see onscreen. The game accomplishes a remarkable feat by simultaneously resurrecting the joys of quests long since completed, and crafting an experience that is so entirely original that it’s difficult to place exactly what is tickling your memory box in any given moment.
For all the ways in which Cave Story builds on its predecessors, it possesses no shortage of innovation. The game’s story has character, depth, and substance, allowing it to evoke joy, loss, and triumph in the player. Despite harkening back to games almost a decade and a half old, Cave Story quickly reveals a palpable heart and epic scope that allow it to keep pace with the best of current games. Of particular note are the game’s multiple endings, which are contingent on the choices, accomplishments, and discoveries of the player. More than the results of simple good or bad play, the variables which determine the player’s path feel more akin to the decisions asked of players by Mass Effect than to the thin stories and choices underlying the games of yesteryear. Further, these multiple endings encourage players to replay the game to obtain the more difficult outcomes.
However, this extensive story structure can at times represent one of Cave Story’s few shortcomings. Large chunks of dialog often precede important or dangerous sections of gameplay which possess an increased likelihood of death. On respawning, the player is forced to button spam through the entire conversation line by line, with no option for skipping directly ahead to the action. For particularly hard sections requiring multiple attempts, this flaw can become a significant time sink.
Cave Story’s tight and balanced gameplay includes several unique elements. The successful marriage of classic game mechanics has resulted in a deft and agile avatar that is easy to pickup and play, yet also complex enough to allow for aggressive emergent control and style to evolve via innovative use of discovered weapons and devices. The widely varied weapon abilities combined with the game’s unique experience mechanic require the player to shift tactics during combat to effectively use weapons which are not ideally suited to the current opponent.
Slain enemies drop health, ammo, or experience shards. Collecting the shards allows the player to level up his/her currently equipped weapon, granting it abilities such as increased damage and larger spread. When fully leveled, additional effects can be significant, for example the Machine Gun allows the player to hover by shooting into the ground. However, if a player is hit by an enemy, they will lose both health and experience, and, if hit enough, weapons will actually de-level, losing abilities. This effect ranges from annoying, when experienced in the grind of a normal level, to disastrous, when engaged in combat with a level boss, and forces the player to switch, or invent new, tactics to compensate.
While the game does offer three levels of difficulty, the player’s choice of what weapons they use and what weapons they receive during the game, play a large role in both the difficulty of the game, and the what ending players earn. This mechanic is quite handy, as it allows players greater flexibility as they approach the game’s challenges, and allows them to adjust the difficulty on the fly.
New features introduced in the Wii version of the game further increase the player’s degree of control over his/her game experience, and cater to the casual gamer. Most significantly, players may now choose to attempt the Sanctuary level in a Time Attack mode directly from the main menu screen, whereas this level is typically only available after finishing the game and completing several specific in-game side quests. This option is great for players attempting speed runs, and also for players who did not unlock this level on their main play-through and would like to experience its challenge without committing to a full replay. The Wii version also includes a Boss Attack level, allowing players to challenge all of the game’s bosses in order, and the option to play the entire game as Curly Bruce, a prominent female character usually met as an NPC in the game.
The Wii version of Cave Story also provides remastered music, graphics, and translation which provide a modicum of improvement over the game’s originals, while remaining true to the overall experience of the first game. However, both may be easily reverted via the main menu.
For the most part, the Wiimote serves admirably, and is certainly easier to use than a keyboard. The only difficulty I encountered was the occasional unintentional weapon swap caused by bumping the B trigger during battle, requiring further tactic adjustments to avoid damage.
Overall, Cave Story is a fantastic game which both honors and builds upon our collective gaming history. Its Wii version remains faithful to the original, while introducing several new features which cater to casual gamers, reach out to players who missed playing the secret level, speed runners, and offers slightly enhanced gameplay via the Curly Bruce option and remastered music and graphics. Its only flaw is the lack of a more streamlined way to avoid repeating portions of its otherwise well-executed story. While it is usually difficult to recommend paying for a game that is already available for free, it is not hard to recommend downloading the WiiWare version of Cave Story so that you too can dive into a pile of your favorite classic games and roll around for a while.
This review is based off a retail copy of the game.