A quick history lesson before we get into this.
In 2004 an amateur Japanese game designer named Daisuke Amaya (aka "Pixel") released a free PC game called Cave Story. Over the next six years, the game became an underground hit, both for its classic, Metroid-inspired gameplay, and for its adorable pixel art aesthetic. In 2010 indie gaming company Nicalis teamed with Pixel to bring the game to Nintendo's Wiiware downloadable game service with updated aesthetics and a few new gameplay modes. Earlier this year, Nippon Ichi Software teamed with Nicalis to translate Cave Story to the Nintendo 3DS, complete with three-dimensional backgrounds.
Somehow during this half-decade-plus of notoriety, I managed to completely miss the game. Friends and colleagues would tell me how phenomenal it is, and how much it hearkens back to the deep, exploration-based gameplay of personal favorites like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, yet I still never actually played the game.
That all changed when NIS America sent over a review copy of the upcoming 3DS game. Finally, I had a chance to play a game that, by all estimation, I should absolutely adore. So what's the verdict? Hit the jump.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Daisuke Amaya has an almost romantic affection for Metroid. From a purely gameplay-based perspective, Cave Story is a Metroid game. For the most part, that's high praise — outside of Nintendo (and Konami's later Castlevania games), no developer has really been able to reproduce the Metroid series' blend of exploration and arcade-style combat — but at the same time, it should be noted that the Metroid titles Cave Story most resembles are nearly 20 years old. As a result, the game would be perfectly at home on the Super Nintendo, with all the positives and negatives that might imply.
First however, the good.
Cave Story 3D places you into the role of a silent protagonist who finds himself in a subterranean world. The first characters you meet are a group of anthropomorphic rabbit-esque creatures called Mimigas. These cutesy lagomorphs are being tormented by the evil, mysterious "Doctor" and his cohorts. From there the story takes some surprisingly complex turns, full of buried artifacts, inexplicably dangerous red flowers and creepy laboratories full of unhatched dragons. It's the kind of wacky, off-the-wall plotline that would never pass muster at a larger game developer, but with no one to tell him that his ideas were too "out there" Amaya somehow makes it all work. The end result is a story that is genuinely touching and thrilling, yet sounds totally nuts when described to anyone who hasn't played the game.
By comparison, Super Metroid's "space pirates are jerks, let's go kill aliens" storyline is as bland as it comes.
In contrast, the actual gameplay in Cave Story 3D is very simple. You have a "jump" button, a "shoot" button, and the two shoulder buttons on the 3DS let you quickly cycle through the weapons you have discovered in the depths of the game's cave system. This simplicity comes in handy during combat, as enemies can appear from any direction, and will often come at you in swarms. And of course, this often occurs when you're perched on a narrow ledge, or attempting to climb a series of blocks. The overall feel of combat in the game is very much classic Nintendo-style platforming action. It can be frustrating at times, but also offers a satisfying level of tension, and a huge dose of satisfaction when you finally kill every one of those stupid flying things that murdered you the last half-dozen times you attempted to pass a certain corridor.
Now don't get me wrong, this kind of nostalgic game design is great to see, but at the same time, it infects certain areas of the title that might have benefited more from more recent trends in videogame creation. When you're dropped into Cave Story's world, you have absolutely no idea where to go or what to do, and this is a trend that continues throughout the game. By speaking to characters or reading computer screens you can get some idea of what you might need to do to proceed, but by and large you will only make progress in this game by exploring every nook and cranny, and eliminating options via trial and error. Remember when I said the game would be at home on the Super NES? Yeah, that's the level of player assistance the game offers.
Personally, that works just fine for me. I grew up on those games, and have no problems smashing my head against an in-game puzzle for hours before I finally stumble on that one missing element that should have otherwise been obvious. The same probably can't be said for younger folk who were weaned on more recent consoles, and their games' tendency to offer ever-present tips on how to move to the next area. To say "Cave Story 3D has classic gameplay" is not so much a compliment in this case, as a warning to those gamers who just can't survive without an annoying pixie shouting "Hey! Over here!" every few minutes.
That's not to say the game lacks modern touches though. The new aesthetics in the 3DS version are utterly gorgeous. Whether you prefer to play the game with the 3D slider cranked all the way up or with the option turned off, the game's environments are lush and incredibly detailed. Cave Story 3D maintains the 2D gameplay of its prior iterations, but all the characters, enemies and background elements are rendered in full 3D. This allows for neat tricks like characters believably passing behind obstacles, or camera angles slightly shifting to reveal the true scope of a new area. Admittedly, the character models are a bit smaller than I would usually prefer, but given that the game's focus is on its vast, complex environments, that seems fitting. Plus, during combat, you need to be able to see as much of the world around you as possible, so the zoomed-out camera is a definite boon.
Speaking of these "vast, complex environments," regardless of what you think of the story or the characters in it, the cave itself is the true star here. It follows Metroid-style conventions of offering players tons of options on where to go and which direction they might want to explore first, but there are also certain areas that can only be accessed once you've found a certain weapon or item. Likewise, every area in the game is littered with hidden secrets and upgrades that make exploration consistently thrilling. It's never mandatory, but given how underpowered your character is at the beginning of the game spending time to discover health and weapon upgrades is always worthwhile.
Normally I don't say much about a given game's soundtrack — honestly I'm kind of a plebeian when it comes to music beyond "I like this" or "I muted it and tuned to SomaFM" — but the accompanying music in Cave Story 3D is just phenomenal. As with the rest of the game, it's a direct descendant of the 16-bit tunes found in Super NES-era titles, but it easily holds its own against any game of that era. This is the kind of gaming music that you hum along to hours after you've stopped playing.
I know I've written a lot about how Cave Story is a lovely homage to Metroid (and it is), but I should also point out that the game has a few critical advantages over Nintendo's classic series. First, the game is never stingy with its save points. On a handheld system where you may only want to play for a few minutes, it's invaluable to have the ability to save your progress almost at will, and the game's developers have perfectly balanced the placement of its save points to allow for short play sessions, without detracting from the tension of having to squeeze through a particularly difficult section of the game. As many PlayStation-era games prove, that's no easy feat, so propers to them for pulling it off.
Second, the game introduces an almost Gradius-esque weapon upgrade system for your main gun. The weapon has three separate power levels, which you can access by collecting shiny bits left over from defeated enemies. Getting hit will detract from your gun's overall experience level, so the key to surviving in Cave Story is navigating its dark corridors while managing to destroy enemies before they can hit you, draining both health and your attack power. The first level gun is viable, and you're never left feeling unarmed, but a fully-powered gun makes everything infinitely easier. It almost becomes more disheartening to lose a weapon power level than to just die. In truth, there's no real reason why the game should have this system in place, but as a simple addition, it adds an entirely new level of complexity to the traditional Metroid formula the game otherwise relies on.
Now that I mention it, that's a pretty solid descriptor for the game as a whole. Cave Story started as an obvious love letter to classic Metroid-style exploratory platforming games, but with the addition of a few simple gameplay tweaks offers an experience that can stand alongside the titles that inspired it. That new coat of 3D paint the game received for its debut on Nintendo's latest handheld is just icing on the cake.
One part of me wants to recommend the game to everyone with a 3DS as the most expansive, engrossing non-Legend of Zelda game on the system to date, but now that I've played it, a more selfish part of me wants to tell you all to ignore this review. This game is never going to have the world-conquering stature of a new Super Mario Bros. title, but that's almost in its favor. Your favorite indie band won't ever sell as many concert tickets as U2, but that makes them all the more appealing, no? That sense of "this is my thing that no one else knows about, and its extra-cool because of that."
Every one of you knows what I'm talking about here.
So yeah, that's where I am with Cave Story 3D. This is now my thing too. Forget you read all the above text. Go back to your mainstream videogames, and us cool kids will be over here sneering at you and shooting blocky elephants with laser beams.
Aside: Though Cave Story 3D doesn't hit shelves until November 8, those of you suddenly interested in the game can play the original PC version of Cave Story for free by visiting the Cave Story Tribute site. Given that the original was created in Japanese you'll have to apply the English language patch before playing, but all the instructions on how to make that happen are included in that link.
As for how that game differs from the new 3DS version, well, I already mentioned the graphical upgrade, and though I can't go into specifics, let me assure you that the new version includes a surprisingly large amount of extra hidden areas and gameplay modes not found in its original incarnation.