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.
Cave Story is currently available on the North American Wii Shop for 1200 Wii Points (Ł8.40 / €12). A European release is yet to be confirmed.