Friday, July 31, 2009

Cave Story, A Retro Labor of Love

Still can't believe one guy made this game. Look, I know I’m a little late on the whole Cave Story thing.  It came out for the PC in 2004 and received an English translation about a month later.  This year, it should find it’s way to Nintendo’s WiiWare service, courtesy of Nicalis. 

In case this never even blipped on your radar, Cave Story is a retro platformer in the style of Metroid or Castlevania.  Developed Daisuke Amaya (aka Pixel) created and programmed the whole thing himself (it took him five years!), even composing all of the game’s music.  Though the WiiWare version will sport updated graphics and music, the original has an 8-bit aesthetic crafted entirely by Amaya. 

And that aesthetic is just one reason this game’s stuck with me.  Read on for why Cave Story should be considered a crucial entry into gaming canon.

If the buzz around titles like ‘Splosion Man, Shadow Complex, or Trine is any indication, two-dimensional platformers haven’t lost their appeal, especially among an aging generation of gamers who cut their teeth on 8- and 16-bit classics.  The best of them still hold up: Super Mario Bros. can still illicit both joy and nerd rage (World 8-3 Hammer Bros anyone?), and I’ve known more than a few people who just can’t shut up about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (though I’ll admit that’s of a more recent generation). But the selling point of these newer 2D-titles is often their ability to update classic mechanics on modern hardware.  They may tap into our nostalgia, but they don’t drill deep, set up a derrick and watch as a geyser of childhood memories erupts into the air.

Cave Story comes close.  It captures the spirit of adventure and exploration that so many classic games were able to do in spite of their technical limitations.  In a recent Escapist piece, Leigh Alexander examined (among other things) how the limits of early games enabled players (primarily kids playing Atari or Nintendo) to fill in the gaps with their imagination.  8-bit sprites definitely allowed room for interpretation: I'M NOT A FREAKING TOASTER!!!“Is that a moustache or a nose?” “Is that an elf or a goblin?”  I had plenty of those fun moments of in Cave Story.  Consider the recurring boss Balrog (seen right).  Is he a giant robot?  A toaster?  Amaya would rather the player make that decision.  In a 2005 interview with TIGSource, he was asked about the specifics of this bizarre character, to which he replied, “I leave that to the player’s imagination.”  Statements like that usually frustrate me; nobody likes cop outs.  But I’m with Amaya on this one.  He knew what he was doing with Balrog, whether or not he cared to weigh in on the toaster issue.  Balrog’s large face and eyes grant him a unique expressiveness – perfect for a childlike opponent who can’t decide if he wants to help you or smash you.  From the cuddly, bunny-like Mimigas to the fearsome, towering bosses, Amaya’s crafted a stylish, imaginative world out of pixels and elbow grease.

But Cave Story is more than charmingly-aliased graphics.  A common complaint about modern games (especially Western ones) is their Hollywood-bland action music.  Yes, I appreciate that the Red Faction: Guerrilla music changes when I drive a dump truck through an enemy embankment, but I couldn’t hum it for the life of me.  Amaya took his musical cues from the songs that have inspired bands like The Minibosses or The Advantage, songs with memorable themes that stay with you when you’ve finished playing, that bring you back for more.  Check out the bouncy Main Theme, with its delightful synth solo around 1:58.  Or Egg Corridor, a song so peppy and uplifting I had a hard time resisting the urge to stop playing, go outside, and just explore.  Last but not least, there’s Balrog’s Theme, which aptly blends those qualities of humor and strength that I mentioned earlier. 

So Amaya, via some sort of black magic, has successfully consulted with the Ghosts of Games Past to render unto his game qualities befitting a classic: memorable characters with inspired artwork and infinitely hummable music.  But to access any of this, you have to play the game.  And, let’s face it, all this hard work would be irrelevant if the game weren’t fun.  Cave Story Awesomely enough, the machinegun can help you fly.isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, featuring a host of upgradable weapons (ahem, Metroid) and plenty of stat-boosting items (Zelda, etc.).  I don’t, however, mean that derisively.  All of the weapons feel quite distinct from those of other games from the 8-/16-bit era – most notably the Throwing Knife, whose fully upgraded form launches the soul of a warrior Mimiga along with what is essentially a storm of tiny blades.  I’m also pretty sure I missed some weapons, which speaks to the vast scope of this one-man indie title.  Then there’s the jumping, which evolves with jetpack upgrades and can be further augmented by using your upgraded machine gun to propel you into the air.  It’s all been designed and balanced for ultimate fun, making traversing the various zones immensely enjoyable.

And what of Cave Story’s story, you say?  It’s got multiple twists and endings (though I only found one).  It employs the popular Amnesiac Hero device, putting you in control of a robot soldier named Quote, who recalls nothing prior to the game’s beginning.  An evil scientist is planning to use the adorable Mimigas, natives on the game’s magical floating cave island (it’s weird, I know), and it’s up to you to stop them.  Amaya uses the Amnesiac Hero well.  Other characters relate to you the way many Half-Life NPCs do: with humor, skepticism, hope, compassion and plenty more.  Be prepared to do a little bit of a reading in this one.  The whole text box convention is part of the charm, and there are lots of details about the mysterious world waiting to be discovered. 

Prior experience with platformers of yore is not necessary for you to enjoy Cave Story.  Nor should prior experience diminish your enjoyment.  But I think it’s a game that gamers should play – to remind them of what it feels like to explore this kind of environment, to triumph against some epic bosses, and to maybe, just maybe, have some good old-fashioned fun.

Cave Story is available for free on PC and should be available via the WiiWare service later this year.