It’s not easy to even start talking about Cave Story without starting to throw out such adjectives like “modern classic” or “cult underground hit”. But there, you have it, I just wrote it and I won’t take it back. This game preceded the current state of indie scene by a few years, back when it was released as freeware title in 2004. In a few years it was improved and expanded to various platforms with more content and refined graphics. It even was remade in 3D and published for 3DS, though that particular version lacks to provide definitive Cave Story experience. But in the beginning it was made by a single developer on his free time. His name was Daisuke Amaya. The fact that this guy is japanese (not that you couldn’t tell it by his name) explains a lot. Like, for starters, game’s setting and plot.
Taking place inside giant floating island inhabited by giant sentient rabbit-like creatures called Mimigas this story is both absurd and complex. Starting out very light-hearted game is filled with tremendous amount of jokes. While the story develops, it tends to grow deeper and more brutal than you might think it’ll turn out. Like many metroidvanias do, game prefers not to present you with the world details and backstory, but rather let you explore it by yourself. A vague prologue, which will leave player clueless transits to waking up in a cave. A silent protagonist suffering from memory loss, as cliché as it is, works as perfect instrument here. You wake up, you find a gun, you begin your journey. Your mission, your ultimate goal is covered with the mystery. And discovering it can’t be done separately with finding an answer to an even more important question “What the hell is going on here?” But searching it won’t be similar to aimless wandering around. Cave Story keeps a very good pace, presenting you with new goals and providing directions to them on the go. It isn’t large glowing marker on the map though, but rather clevel organization of levels and progression of the story. Exploring and finding hidden secrets is present in the game, but size of the areas isn’t overwhelming and new levels are introduced one by one. There is though few very unobvious decisions that change the outcome of the game drastically. So if you want to achieve the best ending prepare to keep a keen eye for details or rather even look for some guides.
From the perspective of game mechanics it’s the usual run-jump-shoot trio, but with a few twists. One of them is leveling system. Killed enemies drop yellow triangles, which fill the progression bar of currently equipped weapon. Fully filled bar increases weapon level, up to maximum third, but taking damage drops the bar back down, so prepare for some micromanagement. Weapons have different shooting patterns. There is Polar Star which fires plain bullets, then there’s Fireball which produces bouncing deadly balls of fire. Then there’s Spur which has chargeable beam; the longer you charge it, the more powerful the resulting shot will be. Plenty of choices results in very different strategies player can use. Though you’ll tend to have favourites among your arsenal, keeping them all leveled up and ready will be invaluable. To make things even more complex some of the weapons can be traded off in exchange providing you with other guns which have different qualities. This changes are sometimes mutually exclusive and not always reversible, so don’t answer yes every time some friendly NPC offers you something, that’s my advice here. Unlike your main interaction tools your character doesn’t really level up, with the exception of few valuable health upgrades. Not very hard if you keep the default path game is horribly ruthless when it comes to that last levels of the “best ending” branch. How does it sound for you: beating a few sequential levels swarming with enemies and two bosses? If you fail, you start again from the very beginning. That’s very different from the main path, where you’ll find save points after every major event. But then again, it’s for those who want to fully beat the game. For those who are trained and prepared there are even special timer for that last sequence, beating last boss before time runs out will unlock one of the few special music tracks in main menu. The themes depend on how fast you complete it, a new one for each minute saved. And that happens only if you found special secret item, but I guess that won’t be a problem for those who are that deep in the game.
Cave Story stands on the shoulders of giants, combining elements from both Metroid and Mega Man. But it goes further than just simple copying of old classics. It is polished and compelling and its influence knows no merits; nearly every modern 2D-metroidvania has taken some lessons from here. A must-have experience if you call yourself a lover of modern indie-games.