Cave Story 3D Review
Game: Cave Story 3D
Publisher: NIS America
Available on: Nintendo 3DS only
You don’t have to have been dwelling in a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter for Cave Story to have passed you by. Your man in the street probably wouldn’t have heard of it. Most gamers haven’t heard of it either. But like the very bestest best-kept secrets and undiscovered gems, once you have discovered it, you will want to tell the world and their extended family.
Cave Story is many things to me. The best game Nintendo never made. The finest freeware game ever devised. Along with brilliant, slept-on PS1 delight The Divide: Enemies Within, the most accomplished take on the Metroidvania style of exploratory, RPG-tinged platformer. It may sound like I am getting carried away with myself, but I assure you I am not.
Cast your mind back to 2004, and a freelance writer, knowing what makes me tick games-wise, turned me onto the PC version of the game. Designed by indie programmer Daisuke Amaya (who prefers, like a Brazilian footballer, to be known by a single-word moniker – in this case “Pixel”) in his spare time, the game is a five-years-in-the-making labour of love and a fitting tribute to the gaming confections he enjoyed in his youth. Cave Story easily transcended much of the dross available as freeware and became something of a cult hit, garnering tremendous reviews and ports to other systems. Over the years I have had the pleasure of playing the game on not only a desktop PC but on PSP, Xbox and GP2X. Homebrew types were busy putting together a DS version, but this was canned when, in the late Noughties, Pixel did a bit of a deal with Nintendo.
We had to wait six years for it, but in 2010 an excellent, Nicalis-programmed version of Cave Story was released for WiiWare. It went down a treat, with a DSiWare version following in the United States a couple of months after. A Mac OS version arrived on the App Store in September 2011, with a variation due to be released onto Steam at some stage. Cave Story is now being published by NIS America, better known to you and I as Nippon Ichi. As the inventors of the Prinny and purveyors of such classics as Disgaea, the marriage between the publisher and such a magical platform adventure would seem to be one made in heaven. So just how good is this here 3DS version?
STORY: The tale begins as you take control of a silent, baseball-cap wearing robot boy, who has somehow ended up in a huge, labyrinthine series of caves. How did he get there? How the hell is he going to escape? Exploration reveals that an evil, power-hungry Doctor is attempting to enslave the friendly native creatures that inhabit the caves and use them as part of his wicked scheme. You see, the caves are actually underneath an island, an island upon which grows a mysterious red flower that, once consumed, turns the peaceful natives into uncontrollably vicious monsters. Factor into the equation the fact that the island is also home to a hidden artefact of unspeakable power (The Demon Crown) and you can see why the loony Doctor is going all megalomaniacal up in this bitch. Naturally, it is up to your little robot guy to negotiate the caves, discover the secret about his identity, and stop the Doctor in his tracks.
GRAPHICS: The original Cave Story features simplistic, 8-bit style graphics with small yet functional characters that do the job nicely. Cave Story has always been about the gameplay, yet with the 3DS version, Pixel’s vision has never looked more ace. Nicalis have done a magnificent job of transferring the game into a glorious stereoscopic mode, with all the characters and backgrounds rendered in 3D. There is a real depth to your surroundings and the cutesy characters look polished whilst retaining a sense of old-school charm and not abandoning the roots of the source material. The game is unencumbered by too much clutter either on the menu screens or the game hub itself. A few simple, colour co-ordinated bars and icons sit neatly in the top corner of the screen. That is about it.
SOUND: If you have played similarly stand-out platformer Super Meat Boy, you will be familiar with the work of Danny Baranowsky, who handled the music and does so here with aplomb. The soundtrack is best described as modern retro, a perfect accompaniment to the action and reminiscent of some of the awesome soundtracks that you used to get during the C64 and Super Nintendo eras, respectively. This is rounded out with concise, functional sound effects that do the job nicely.
GAMEPLAY: This is old-school, exploratory platforming. Barely using more than the D-Pad or circle nub and one face button, there are no flashy techniques required. You jump over obstacles. You use a laser gun to blast enemies. There are traps and pitfalls to negotiate or avoid. As you progress, new items become available to you, allowing you to access new areas of the map.
You can collect mysterious yellow items from downed enemies that power up the weapon in your possession, to a maximum of three levels, but if robo-boy takes a hit it will return to its original, weaker setting. Selecting a different weapon is as simple as scrolling through those in your possession using the shoulder buttons.
Like Zelda, Castlevania and Metroid, the three most obvious influences that are worn on its gaming sleeve, Cave Story dots health and weapon capacity upgrades around the landscape for you to discover. There is no tutorial or obvious signposting. Like the very best games of this type, you are plunged into the action without a clue yet are able to feel your way through it and learn the many new tricks all by yourself. It is perfectly natural. You are compelled to keep playing to see what is going to happen next. Progress is all about exploring, about trial and error. It is sublime.
LONGEVITY: It will take you a good while to discover everything that the vast, cavernous complex has to offer. This remake features a raft of extra areas that were not present in the PC original, and even offers the opportunity to play using the old-school graphics. The game is very generous with save points and although a vast undertaking, you can play in bite sized chunks – perfect for a handheld. It isn’t an easy game – there are some sections that will take some practice to master, and enemies that will off your robot buddy again and again. But this only adds to the old-school charm. It is slightly disappointing to find that the Boss Rush mode failed to make the translation from the WiiWare and DSiWare version of the game, but I am prepared to let that slide.
VERDICT: Perversely, I almost don’t want to recommend this game. You can still download the free version, and save for a few extras and a lick of paint, the pair of them are one and the same. But then I think how heartwarming it is that my homeboy Pixel is finally getting to make some money off the back of his incredible achievement, especially considering how respectful the developers have been to the source matter, translating it to the platform quite beautifully, and producing what is easily one of the best 3DS games of 2011.
I feel privileged to have enjoyed Cave Story over the years, and would like as many people as possible to fall in love with it as well. Many folk will not bat an eyelid when they see this game on UK shelves in the run up to Christmas, but it is something that any fan of retro platforming would be delighted to find in their stocking. If you do decide to pick this game up (and you should!), then please spread the word.