Developer: Studio Pixel
Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS
Copy purchased by reviewer
November 2011 (Steam), October 2012 (3DS)
Curiosity, boredom, and a $1700 car repair bill recently drove me to look through my Steam library for games that I already owned but hadn’t gotten around to playing. I found Cave Story, and realized it's one of those games that people either obsess over, or can gloss over quickly if they aren't looking for it. I had seen this game compared to Undertale more than once (which I may or may not have an obsession with), and it was enough to catch my interest. A simple game with some deeper story and charm to hook you? Sign me up.
The original design of the main character (left) and the remastered version from Cave Story+ (right).
While I found that the similarities between these two were pretty superficial, Cave Story proved to me that I shouldn't have overlooked it all those years ago. It's a great game in its own right that is worth playing.
Cave Story begins with you waking up someplace dark and seemingly underground (sound familiar yet, Undertale fans?), with no knowledge of who or where you are. You soon find a gun to protect yourself from the - admittedly adorable - monsters hopping around this cave and get out of the starting area.
You’re treated to a contextless scene of a man named Kazuma trying to contact someone named “Sue.” You gather that the two are siblings and that Kazuma is in some kind of trouble, but the game is pretty light on the details at this point. Following this cutscene, you begin your journey to figure out just what the heck is going on.
The retro-style chibi art and chiptune music is off-putting to some, but for many fans, a large part of the game's charm.
Cave Story is a Metroidvania platformer, and exploration is the core of the game. Progressing the story is all about finding the right people, places, and items, and along the way you learn how your character fits into all of it. That much became clear just from the starting village, where after a little poking around I found a map inscribed with the words, “So long as you always maintain a sense of exploration, you will someday find the way out. This is my hope.” That moment really set the tone for the rest of the game.
While Cave Story does use the overdone “main character has amnesia” trope, the game doesn’t obsess over it. The protagonist isn’t defined by his amnesia, it’s just motivation to get out there and see the world. The story is fed to you a piece at a time as you see more of the world and talk to the people in it, and it keeps you wanting to learn more. Each area you explore and each character you talk to adds a bit more to the story. The fact that you start as a blank slate means that you, both as the character and as the player, are curious and receptive to these new things.
Cave Story plays a bit like a Mega Man X game, with gameplay centered around platforming and intense jump-and-shoot action, but it has a style all its own. There’s a fair variety of weapons to find throughout the game, from the basic Polar Star pistol, to the powerful rocket launcher, to the… hard-to-explain Bubbline. Picking the right weapon can make all the difference as you try to plow through swarms of enemies, run and jump away from their attacks, and not fall into the death traps that are sprinkled around just for good measure. It’s fast, sometimes frantic, more than a little challenging, and man is it fun.
The cave is home to the Mimigas, rabbit-like creatures who live in fear of The Doctor (no, not that Doctor).
Combat and exploration are all well and good, and Cave Story does a good job with them, but I think the best thing I can say about this game is that it made me care about what was happening. In talking to the Mimigas, I got a sense of real fear and desperation. The Doctor and his minions were kidnapping them one by one, and I found that I really wanted to help the few who remained. All of that can be boiled down to just good writing. However - for me - the mark of a great game is when it takes me beyond just wanting to win, and instead makes me want to help. When you find yourself wanting to help these non-sentient lines of code, that’s when you know that your heart is in it.
Good writing is also the reason why the main character’s amnesia really works, rather than just coming off as a storytelling device. The world of Cave Story is interesting, with a deep and apparently dark past, and the people who live in it seem genuine. I didn’t just want to advance the plot and get to the ending, I really wanted to learn more about it.
The Bad: Problem-Solving is One Thing, But...
***WARNING: this section contains spoilers!***
After beating the game I learned that Cave Story actually has another ending, which you can only get by saving a certain character. I’d gotten the “neutral” ending, so to speak, and there was a “good” ending waiting for me. Okay, fair enough; it’s actually pretty cool that the game has some replay value, given that it’s fairly short.
However, saving that character and getting the good ending requires you to jump through completely nonsensical hoops. For example, at one point you have to just completely ignore one of your friends who gets thrown into a dungeon after you. If you don’t talk to him, then for some reason he does just fine and meets back up with you later. If you do, he dies. You also need an item later that for some reason just isn’t there if you stop to see how the poor man is doing.
While I’m fine with needing to think outside the box and work for the best ending, but there’s just no way to figure some of these things out other than a strategy guide. Moreover, once you’re past a certain point, there’s no way to go back and fix what you’ve done short of completely restarting the game.
Also, at least on the Steam version, the Challenge mode is broken. As soon as you reach the end of a Challenge the game crashes, and the same thing happens if you try to access the leaderboard. So, your completion times won’t save, and even if they did you wouldn’t be able to go and look at them. This has been a problem since the 2011 Steam release, and there’s no reason to think Studio Pixel will be fixing it.
Finally, while this is more of a nitpick than a real problem, the controls in Cave Story are a little floaty, which can make the finer points of platforming a little harder. Your character tends to jump just a hair higher than you think he will, stay in the air a little longer than it seems like he should, and has a little trouble with pinpoint landings. It’s nothing that some practice won’t fix, but it does take a little getting used to.
Finally, as with a lot of platformers, playing with a keyboard is just an awkward and frustrating experience. You’ll absolutely want to get a controller for this one if you’re playing on PC.
Final Thoughts: A Great Adventure in a Small Package
I'm still amazed sometimes at how pretty retro graphics can be.
Cave Story+ is a really fun game with unexpected depth (no pun intended). It is a shame that the challenge mode doesn’t work correctly on Steam, and that Studio Pixel doesn’t seem inclined to fix it. However, that really has no bearing on the main game, which still has enough story and solid gameplay to see you through an enjoyable gaming experience.
Overall, while it is a bit short, I would say that Cave Story+ is worth its $14.99 price tag, even with the bugs. A good story mixed with distinct charm and style, it proves it's worth through great gameplay and memories of games from consoles long, long ago. If you missed this gem years ago, now might be a good time to dig it up and try it for yourself.
A lot of my friends were surprised that I hadn’t played Cave Story before. What’s sitting around in your games library, still waiting to be discovered? Leave us a comment, or drop us a line on Facebook to let us know what you find! And if you like our work, please consider supporting our Patreon; my car would really appreciate it.