Cave Story – An Indie Classic Taken Too Far

“Classic.” That’s a word that’s thrown around a lot these days. Even here on our own site! But as far as indie games go, Cave Story is most certainly a classic. It was released to the public for free in December 2004, and was developed in its entirety by just one person. That’s about as “indie” as indie gets. You could say Cave Story set the standard for indie games, and you’d be absolutely correct. This game’s got a big history, and we’re going to take a look at all of it today. Though I’ve played four or five different versions of Cave Story, we’ll be specifically reviewing the Nintendo Switch version, Cave Story+.

Introduction

The original Cave Story release was truly commendable. Developed from the ground up by one programmer? Check. An original and surprisingly complex storyline? Check. Released for free despite taking years to develop? Check! And so on and so forth. So much of Cave Story’s history couldn’t happen today, and understandably so. Of course, these days you need a team to develop a game in a good amount of time. And you also need to make money, which is a logical reason to make a game.

Cave Story should be famous for being a really generous product. You get to play it for free, right? Well, not anymore. In 2010, a (significantly larger) independent developer called Nicalis obtained the rights to Cave Story and ported the game to several consoles. Let’s take a quick moment to list all of the versions of Cave Story: aside from the PC original, we have DSiWare, WiiWare, 3DS eShop, a 3D remaster also on the 3DS, a Steam port, and now a Switch port. Good grief! You might’ve noticed, but between the DSiWare version, the 3DS eShop version, and Cave Story 3D (which we may talk about in the future), players had three different versions of Cave Story available to them if they owned a 3DS. That’s a little ridiculous!

To clarify, I think Cave Story is a great game. The original PC release was as ambitious as it needed to get. New developer Nicalis has added a ton of features to Cave Story over time, such as two-player, updated graphics, different versions of the soundtrack… but none of it’s really necessary, you know? It’s a bunch of fluff added to a game that ultimately only lasts a few hours. And considering the Switch version goes for $30 over the original version’s price tag of $0… yikes.

Story & Presentation

In terms of Cave Story’s... story, don’t worry. If you haven’t played the game yet, we won’t be going in-depth on any spoilers. The plot starts out simple enough. Your at-first unnamed protagonist wakes up in a cave, and has to explore his surroundings to uncover and solve a mystery involving sentient rabbits and red flowers. Of course, the story gets much more involved than that, and it’s honestly impressive that it was all thought up by just one person. Cave Story leaves a good amount of its storyline open to interpretation, which I actually really like to see in games.

Cave Story has multiple endings. Again, I won’t spoil anything in particular… though, the game is literally decades old. The game’s best possible ending is just about impossible to get by accident. You’re going to have to look up how to get it. If you don’t go into the game knowing exactly how to get the good ending, you likely won’t get it. Of course, this is probably a relic of Cave Story being a really old game, and thus having a few slightly outdated design philosophies. I just take issue with the good ending being obscure because you have to look it up to find out how to get it. And if you have to look it up, it means you’re probably going to be spoiled on how the game ends before you can ever see it for yourself. Which is very unfortunate.

Moving right along to the game’s presentation, it is about what you’d expect from a game released in 2004. Luckily – and as you likely already know – the game is in 2D, so it actually hasn’t aged poorly at all. It looks retro without looking old, if that makes any sense. Cave Story+ (the Switch version) includes a setting that lets you swap between graphic styles. The first style features small, blocky sprites as they appeared in the original release. The second style features the updated graphics that made an appearance in the WiiWare version of Cave Story. They’re both well and good, but the WiiWare graphics look really tiny on the Switch’s screen (especially in handheld mode). That’s why I tend to prefer the original graphics, though luckily you can switch between them at any time.

Remember how I said Cave Story was developed by one person? What’s even more impressive is that they composed the entire soundtrack, too. There’s a lot of memorable tracks here as well as leitmotifs that reappear throughout the game. Cave Story+ lets players swap between several different soundtrack versions. You can choose from Original, Remastered, Famitracks, and… a soundtrack where all of the tracks are played by heavy rock-type guitars. No thanks to that last one. Of these, I think the original soundtrack is still my favorite. Maybe it’s because I played Cave Story on the DSi Shop years ago, but it’s definitely my favorite. It’s good that graphic and soundtrack options are available, too, but I’m just not sure they’re necessary. The original graphics and music were good enough for me.

Gameplay

Cave Story’s gameplay remains the same no matter which version you’re playing. It’s a side-scroller, of course, so you have to run and jump over obstacles and such. Throughout the game, you’ll collect a variety of weapons. There’s the Polar Star, a gun that lets you fire a shot forward; the Fireball, which lets you shoot a fireball (wow!) that follows the laws of gravity; and the Missile Launcher, an ultra-powerful weapon with limited ammo. These are just a few examples, too. Weapons can be upgraded later on in the game. What’s really unique about weapons, however, is their level-up system. When you kill an enemy, it’ll drop little yellow triangles that you can collect. Each weapon has three levels, and in most cases, the final level is its strongest form. If you take damage, though, your weapon loses those little triangles and levels down. You’ve also got a health bar, so you lose HP and weapon experience when you take damage. This encourages you to play the game strategically… or just mash the attack button really fast. It’s a simple yet interesting system that works really well without feeling overly gimmicky.

The only complaint I have regarding the level design is arguably a minor one. There isn’t much of a sense of cohesion in Cave Story’s world. You access each new area via teleportation stations, so each area is rather disconnected from the last. It would’ve been nice to see some more areas lead into each other, but again, this game was made in 2004. I think it gets a pass on this one.

As I mentioned earlier, the game isn’t very long. If you know what you’re doing, you can easily beat the whole story in four or five hours. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it might take you a little longer. Areas aren’t too big, so they’re easy to memorize on repeat playthroughs. There also aren’t too many areas, so again, if you know what you’re doing it won’t take long to explore them in their entireties. Some of the areas include a village, a grassy cave, a sandy cave… you’ve probably noticed a recurring theme: caves. Because most of Cave Story takes place underground, there isn’t too much variety between areas, though there’s enough differing scenery to make these locations memorable. The music really, really helps out in that regard.

Each run of Cave Story takes anywhere from two to six hours, depending on the ending you get. There’s a bunch of different endings you can wind up with, and you’re welcome to restart or replay the game to get a different ending. We already talked about how the best ending’s requirements are a little obscure. Players who go in blind will most likely get the neutral ending. Either way, though, the presence of multiple endings adds a lot of replay value to the game. So if you really like your first playthrough, you can play the game again using different weapons and a different route.

Cave Story+ adds a number of bells and whistles to the main game. One interesting option is a local co-op mode! Player 2 can join in or leave at any time, and can choose to play as an alternate-colored protagonist or another character entirely. From what I could gather, it seems to work pretty well. Some of the later areas are tough, because if either player dies, you have to restart from your last save point. You’ll have to ensure your Player 2 is good at the game or you might run into some trouble! Personally, I prefer playing the game in single player, especially in those difficult areas.

I’ve got a few final notes here to wrap up with. First, the game’s difficulty is highly customizable. You can choose the game’s base difficulty at the beginning, or you could choose not to collect life-up capsules as you progress through the story. Something else is that I think Cave Story would have benefitted from a traditional D-Pad, which the Switch’s Joy-Cons don’t have. I feel like this game was very clearly made for arrow keys / direction inputs. Though this is more the fault of the Switch than the game.

The Verdict

Cave Story is a great game. In fact, it always has been! I’m personally a fan of the original version of the game that was offered for free. Unfortunately, Nicalis has apparently been trying to take down re-uploads of the original free version. Sure, Nicalis’ Cave Story re-releases have added a bunch of content. Sure, Cave Story is still a good game, even on modern platforms. But that additional content isn’t quite worth $30, and I’m willing to bet that not much of that money goes towards the game’s original creator (who honestly deserves to benefit from its sale most, in my opinion).

If you’re able to track down the original version of Cave Story, I would highly recommend you set aside a few hours to experience this indie classic for yourself. If Cave Story+ on Nintendo Switch is your only wat to play the game, you could do that too. As mentioned earlier, it does add a number of bells and whistles, but said bells and whistles really don’t warrant that high $30 price tag.

Some players want to see a sequel or prequel to Cave Story. I think it’s fine as it is! It doesn’t need extra features or additional lore to be relevant in current times. In many ways, it set the standard of indie games for years to come, and for that reason, Cave Story has cemented its place in history. The game is not broken by any means, but Nicalis seems adamant to continue fixing it. Which is totally not necessary. It’s good that Cave Story is available on a wide variety of platforms, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that this is a perfect example of a classic that was taken too far. The title of this post probably makes a lot more sense now!

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