Version tested: Wii
What the hell kind of a name is Cave Story, anyway? Come on, sex it up a little, leverage the IP against your core demographics. At least stick a subtitle in there, and let everyone know that you're building an international franchise. Try this on for size: "Tunnel Assassin HD: The First Descent." It's like I'm printing money over here.
But solo developer Daisuke Amaya doesn't want my advice. He decided to name his magnum opus Cave Story, because that's all this unassuming game is. A simple, wonderful, touching story (that takes place in caves, naturally) about a race of bunny-like people called Mimigas and the boy robot who tries to save them from a horrific end. That may sound obnoxiously adorable, but while Cave Story is indeed cute, it's not overly so. In fact, nothing in this game is overstated, and that's the heart of its charm.
Originally released by Amaya as PC freeware in 2004, this old-school platformer's fit and finish have been polished a bit for WiiWare by indie dev Nicalis, without ruining the chunky, retro vibe of the original. The game's structure, which sends you on a winding voyage through a floating island, has often been described as a "Metroidvania"-type romp. That gives an accurate sense of the run-jump-shoot action while implying that Cave Story is a game of exploration. It isn't, really. You can come and go as you please between about a dozen cavernous worlds, but you'll rarely find cause to backtrack and re-explore what you've already seen.
Still, that freedom of movement is important, because it creates the sensation that you are in charge of Cave Story's journey. You proceed whenever you want to. There's no invisible hand pushing you to just get on with it, no ticking time bomb to extinguish. In fact, most of the other characters seem almost indifferent to your hero, the ballcap-wearing robot Quote.
And you know what? The lack of cheerleaders is hugely liberating. It was so much fun not to be treated as The Last Great Hope for once. My successes felt more genuine; I defeated that evil, Mimiga-poisoning doctor not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
There are game-changing choices scattered throughout Cave Story, a few of them with profound effects. One decision has the potential to cut the length of the game in half, and others can determine whether a major character survives the quest. (I won't elaborate further for fear of spoilers.)
There isn't a lot of portentous pageantry, however. It doesn't have the "Press A to be Good; Press B to be Evil" clumsiness of a BioShock clone. The choices are small, like deciding whether or not to swap a weapon, and their ripple effects aren't always obvious. More to the point, Cave Story doesn't judge you or punish "wrong" choices, as there's no such thing. Whichever path you choose is the correct one, the story as it's meant to be told by you. It's a sweet, purposely naive way to craft a game.
That childlike spirit informs Cave Story's look, too. Enemies such as rampaging elephants and gargantuan blackbirds are sketched in bold, clean lines, like they're plates from a treasured storybook. Heck, even the zombie dragon babies are cute, if a touch depressing.
The most lovable of the lot has to be the recurring foe Balrog, who looks like an overgrown toaster perpetually tripping on E. He's always so happy to see you before he tries to kill you. It almost pained me to unload my fireball gun and missile launcher on his troublemaking ass again and again. (One quibble on Balrog: In this new Wii localisation, his trademark battle cry of "Huzzah!" has been changed to the bland "Oh, yeah!")
The music - a catchy mix of synth tracks - can be just as cheerful at times, yet there's a range of moods at work. Early in the game, the grassy Bushlands feature a peppy march, which gives way to a more anxious, pulsing beat in the more frenzied action of the Sand Zone. The songs play a crucial part in setting the emotional tone of each level, which makes a few audio mishaps all the more regrettable. The remixed songs created for the Wii version are defective in the release code, such that certain instruments in the mix can't be heard. The result is a half-baked sound. There is an option to switch the audio back over to the "old" music, and you should use it, full stop.
These bugs don't detract from the quiet joy of playing Cave Story, though. There are stretches where all of the game's elements - the character design, the soundtrack, the story, the sense of lonely freedom - coalesce into a touching whole.
The signature moment of the quest has to be the ascent of the floating island's outer wall. As you climb a series of tiny platforms, you're bombarded by ghost cats, sand crocodiles and hopping pincers. Yet - this will sound crazy, but it's true - there is a haunting stillness to the whole ordeal. Maybe it's the gorgeous, elegaic music (the outer-wall theme is the best song in the game) or the moonlit sky in the background, or the way those ghost cats' torsos flow in the wind. Really, it's a combination of all these things, a lone artist's vision coming into singular focus. You'd be hard-pressed to replicate that sensation in a studio-developed AAA title.
If this game had been released on the NES 20 years ago, it would be recalled by a generation of players as a high point of the 8-bit era. The fact that console gamers are only getting their first crack at Cave Story in 2010 doesn't make the experience any less memorable.
9 / 10
Cave Story is currently available on the North American Wii Shop for 1200 Wii Points (£8.40 / €12). A European release is yet to be confirmed.