Cave Story was another classic tale of “I’ve heard good things, but I’m playing something else right now,”Â which you’ll find is a common theme in much of my writing. I’m not against stepping outside my bubble and trying new things that look interesting; it’s just that there are so many really good games out there that are being released at an alarming rate, and it’s simply just too hard to keep up. If you’ve never heard of the game yourself, it has a very interesting backstory to it.
The game was developed by Daisuke Amaya, also known as Pixel, over the course of five years. It was released as a freeware indie title over the internet and gained an immense following, even earning itself an English language patch. Soon after, a company by the name of Nicalis offered to aid Pixel in bringing the game to the WiiWare service. From there, the game was then ported to DSiWare and the Mac OS, though there is a Steam version in the works for later this year. It’s the kind of result every indie developer strives for, and it’s downright impressive to see the kinds of doors this side project of Pixel’s was able to open for him. It’s truly an inspiration.
Now, NISA has picked up the publishing rights to bring Cave Story to the 3DS. However, on a handheld already so packed with ports and remakes, was this really the right move, or has there been enough improvements to justify a full retail purchase?
You wake up. Alone. In a cave. And you don’t even know your character’s name or even why you were randomly in said cave. Mystery is the name of the game with Cave Story‘s plot, and it’s for that reason that it works so well. As you explore, collecting weapons and items along the way, you meet with creatures known as Mimiga that call the cave home. Through your interactions with them and short cutscenes involving other characters stuck in the same cave as you, you begin to unravel what’s going on around you as well who you are in the first place. It’s amazingly in depth for what is essentially an indie title, and one of the most welcome surprises in the entire package.
I honestly can’t say much more than that without spoiling the experience. The less you know about the overall story, the more you get out of it by the game’s end. Just trust me when I say that if you enjoyed games like Metroid Fusion and how its plot played out, it’s very much like that. Communication is pretty limited, but the characters say a lot with very little and this game is very successful at creating the feelings of isolation that are common in the Metroid franchise.
When you first begin the game, there are only two modes to choose from: Story or Classic. They are practically identical, since the only difference is cosmetic. You see, Classic mode uses 2D sprites in the 3D environments, making it look something akin to Paper Mario. The saved games between the two modes are even interchangeable. Upon completing the game and meeting certain requirements, there’s also a Time Attack mode to test the speed runner in you.
Those that have ventured into the world of Cave Story before might be disappointed to learn that a few unlockable modes that were featured in the WiiWare release did not make the cut this time, such as the Boss Challenge and Curly modes. At least, none that I was to unlock on my own, and my research didn’t turn up their presence either. The rumored Prinny mode doesn’t seem to exist either, though you can find a Prinny hat to wear in one of the new areas.
Story/Modes Rating: Good
One glance at the visuals and you would never guess Cave Story started out looking like what was essentially an 8-bit game. Despite the 3D in the title, this is very much a 2D game, though a lot of care went into making the areas look believable. All of the backgrounds are very detailed, utilizing multiple layers to create a sense of depth. The platforms you leap between will often have sections that jut out towards the screen, making you believe there’s a foothold there, even when there’s not (though sometimes that’s a bad thing).
The characters themselves showcase models that are brought to life by the 3DS’ capabilities, even if they do look a little small in comparison to the huge world they inhabit. The monster designs have a lot of charm to them as well, making you feel almost guilty for bringing about their demise, as if the game’s story doesn’t burden you with enough guilt. Oh, did I say too much?
The Classic mode’s 2D sprites seem to fit in naturally with the three dimensional backgrounds. Their presence somewhat makes up for the lack of the original game being included in this package as it reminds me of my fondness for the Paper Mario series. There is no option to fold yourself up into a paper airplane and sail across a chasm of course, but I think it’s neat that they decided to include this as an added aesthetic.
Graphics Rating: Great
If you were looking forward to actual voiceover speech when characters interact with you, I’m sorry to say that you’ll be disappointed. I personally think the game is all the better for it, as the main character is a silent protagonist, while most everyone else you converse with are little rabbit people that would likely have high pitched, exaggerated voices accompanying them anyway.
The background music is quite catchy, which is even more impressive when you consider that the tracks were originally composed by Pixel himself. Their remixed versions add even more atmosphere and tension to an already intense game. You’ll notice that many of the tunes loop if you hang out in the same area for long, though you do switch locales frequently enough that this shouldn’t become too much of a nuisance for you. I noticed that on occasion when you unpause the game, the soundtrack glitches a little bit when it starts playing again, but it happens so quickly that unless you were accustomed to that one song you’ll probably miss it.
Sound Rating: Great
Any fan of classic Metroid or Mega Man titles should feel right at home in Cave Story 3D. The world is one large open area interconnected with doors and teleporters, though, luckily, you are provided a map early on that is displayed on the bottom screen (which is where your inventory also goes). Despite backgrounds that would lead you to believe otherwise, you can only progress on a 2D plane going in either direction. That means no taking a stroll into the background for you.
You can use either the thumbstick or the D-pad to control your movement, though I felt the latter to be the most comfortable. The face buttons allow you to jump and shoot, and the triggers will cycle through your available weapons. And really, that’s about it. But the simplicity is what makes it special, and it’s clear that Pixel put forth a lot of effort in capturing the essence of what made some of those classic games fun in the first place.
When you begin the game, you only start off with three health and no weapon, but you’ll quickly obtain your first gun (dubbed Polar Star). As you progress further, in classic Metroid fashion, you’ll eventually obtain a missile launcher that can have its missile capacity raised by finding expansions for it. You can also find expansions for your health, with some given just by reaching various storyline landmarks.
Each gun has its own level that is raised by collecting power-ups dropped by your enemies. For each level gained, the weapon you are carrying will either increase in strength, fire more shots per round, or both. Each weapon caps at three, giving you two upgrades apiece, though taking any damage will cause them to level down. This seemingly minor gameplay element ensures that you don’t play recklessly, even around weaker enemies, as success against bosses often hinges on how long you keep your best weapon at maximum level.
Despite how open the world seems, don’t think you won’t spend a great deal of time backtracking through it. As with Metroid, much of your time is spent looking for a particular item or set of items that are needed to progress further. Sometimes it’s just a key, but you might acquire something such as jelly that can douse flames. You have to pay attention to areas that you cannot traverse as you go along, because chances are, you’ll find an item later on that will allow you to venture into that area and find hidden items.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Great
A single playthrough may last you less than ten hours depending on the difficulty you choose and how many extra items you pursue. When you begin the game, you have a choice between three difficulty levels, with huge spikes in challenge from one to the next. There’s also three different endings that unlock, as well as secret areas to discover and explore depending on your choices and actions you take during the course of the story. If this is your first time with the game, you’ll likely have to play it twice, once to stumble through and a second time to unlock the secret (and somewhat difficult to reach) ending.
Time attack makes its return from prior versions, though as mentioned above, many modes from the WiiWare version have been stripped away from this release. This would be fine if there was something to fill the void, but there is very little in the way of additional content. Even the new areas are pretty small in relation to what was already present in the game. There are definite reasons to go through the game again, but not as many in this release as there were previously. It’s too bad too, because this could’ve been the definitive release of Cave Story which would have justified the premium price for having it in your collection.
Replayability Rating: Above Average
Cave Story 3D can be a pretty difficult game for some, especially since the varied difficulty levels can’t do much to assist in some of the more challenging platforming sections. These sections are more difficult than they are in their Metroid and Mega Man counterparts, if for no other reason than the fact that those games offer more tools to assist in jumps, such as the Space Jump or the Rush Jet. Cave Story will grant you an item that helps aid in your jump height and distance, but it comes fairly late in the game. Still, very few jumps in the game are fatal, and save points are plentiful so you don’t have to worry too much about flying enemies knocking you into pits and sending you back a ways (like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden).
If you’re daring enough to try tackling the game on the hard difficulty, beware that you do not get any health upgrades save for the ones given out during the story. On the other end of the spectrum, save for the jumping segments, the easy difficulty isn’t all that tough, as you can throw yourself at most bosses without much consideration for strategy and still come out ahead.
Depending on the side missions you take on during the course of the story, some areas of the game may become more difficult as a result. One example is a segment late in the game that strips away your weapon levels and forces you to fight extra battles. There’s also extra areas hidden throughout that are challenging in their own right. In short, the game is generally as easy or as hard as you want it to be, though those not familiar with 8-bit games of old might be a little put off.
Balance Rating: Great
Cave Story was already an homage to games that had come out almost two decades ago when the original PC version was released. Now, this is just one of many versions of the game already on sale, and there are more on the way. The 3DS edition is by far the most expensive, and there isn’t a whole lot in the way of content to justify the premium versus the downloadable versions. Granted, it’s a great looking game and very well designed, but if you’re looking for innovation, this will not be a good fit for you.
Originality Rating: Bad
As a fan of games of this genre, it wasn’t hard to get hooked on Cave Story 3D. Even though the world by design is one long interconnected stage, you usually conquer one area at a time. The reason I bring this up is that they were perfect places to put down the game and pick it up again if you need a break. While I completed my initial playthrough in only a couple of sittings, I took short breaks after each area so that I could uncramp my hands from some of the more stressful jumping sections and even some of the boss battles.
How frequently you pick up the game again, or even make the decision to pick the game back up at all, is going to be directly proportional to how much you enjoy classic 2D action platformer games. Particularly those of the 8-bit flavor, such as Mega Man, Castlevania, or the frequently mentioned Metroid. Though it is possible that the well developed plot, despite how subtle it may be might be presented, might shine through for non-fans as well. Only time will tell.
Addictiveness Rating: Great
While NISA generally publishes very niche games, I think Cave Story has enough word of mouth notoriety to generate interest in this version of the game, particularly those with nothing else worthwhile to play on the 3DS. On the same token, the game can be downloaded from DsiWare at about a fourth of the cost, and the game has been out long enough that most who have wanted to play it already have. Though for hardcore fans of the game, this is the best looking version yet and may be reason enough to upgrade, if only to show their support for indie developers and niche titles in general.
Appeal Rating: Above Average
The 3D effects in Cave Story 3D do look really nice, but only if you have the effect turned down low. When I initially started the game, I had it on the highest setting and there were some areas that had little doodads such as flowers that were too blurry to perceive on the higher setting. Even the platforms that jutted out towards the screen, despite being somewhat viewable, were far too distracting to make for an enjoyable playing experience. If you turn everything down though, it still seems as though you are looking down a 3D plane into the distance, but without the discomfort of having the things closest to you blurry beyond recognition.
This might not mean much to a lot of folks, but I quite enjoy the package design for this game. While no, it doesn’t come in a humongous box with collectables or a soundtrack or anything like that, it does have a nice slipcover with a 3D picture on the front. It’s nice to see a publisher put decent effort into their packaging, especially when games like Battlefield 3 do not even include paper manuals anymore.
Miscellaneous Rating: Classic
Replayability: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Final Score: Good Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Cave Story 3D is a remake of a popular indie title that was also featured on PC, WiiWare, DsiWare, and Mac OS. The 3DS edition is the best looking version of the bunch and it’s clear that the developers put a lot of effort into making it so. It plays like a dolled up version of classic 8-bit games of old such as Metroid or Mega Man, which fans of said games should enjoy, and the 3D effects enhance the experience so long as you keep them on their lowest setting. All that said, this version of Cave Story lacks some of the modes that were present in previous releases such as the Boss challenge or Curly modes. Not only that, but other versions of the game are much cheaper and offer almost as much content, such as the DSiWare version, which can be played on the very same system that this can. However, this is the only hard copy of Cave Story available right now and will likely be in limited print, so if you are not into the digital distribution method of acquiring video games, I would definitely jump on this. Not to mention there are a few hidden areas added that are not present in other versions of the game, as well as cameo appearances by one of NISA’s famous mascots. Regardless of which version you pick, Cave Story is a fantastic game that plays well, is well written, and was a pleasure for me to play. As someone who desperately needed something new to play on my 3DS, Cave Story 3D was the perfect fit to fill that void.