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.