While there are many success stories in the realm of indie games, I would argue that none are quite as important to the industry movement as Cave Story. A retro style metroidvania platformer that was released on Microsoft Windows all the way back in 2004, the game was created by a single developer named Daisuke Amaya. Everything in Cave Story from the level design, mechanics, graphics, and even the music all came from the talent and vision of one man. It makes my personal achievements look inadequate, that’s for darn sure. Over time the game gained massive critical acclaim declaring it to be an experience on par with much bigger titles. Long story short, it was a big hit indie game before most indie games were even a thing.
Since its initial release the game has been updated and remade several times over, adding new difficulty levels, extra unlockable modes, along with remastered music and visuals. This review focuses on Cave Story+ for the PC, developed by Nicalis and released in 2011. This version of the game was also released on the Nintendo Switch in 2017 with even more added content, which will not be covered here. Now that all the history lessons and disclaimers are out of the way, let’s find out if Cave Story+ lives up to its reputation.
In the game the player takes the role of a silent soldier, later revealed to be a robot named Quote, exploring the depths of a floating island and fighting the monsters that dwell within it in order to stop a villain known as The Doctor. This wrongdoer has been kidnapping the native rabbit people called Mimiga for his nefarious scheme to attack the surface world below. It’s a fairly simple premise all things considered, but as the game progressed I was surprised how invested I became in the game’s narrative. A large part of that likely came from the many characters encountered throughout the story. They aren’t very deep or complex characters, but all managed to be at least somewhat likeable so it’s easy to care about them when the situation turns dire. Trust me when I say this game isn’t afraid of going to dark places in order to ramp up the tension, and when I say dark I’m not just talking about the caves.
In terms of gameplay, Cave Story+ is a fairly standard metroidvania. Players must navigate their way through each level to reach the exit and find helpful items while fighting monsters and avoiding hazards. Perhaps the most unique mechanic the game has to offer is its weapon upgrade system. When enemies are defeated they drop golden triangles that are essentially experience points that level up the player’s equipped weapon, making it more powerful. If the player takes damage they lose a portion of their weapon’s experience points and will therefore eventually lose that weapon’s upgrades altogether. It’s a well implemented system that punishes reckless behavior and rewards mastery of the game’s combat. Beyond that the rest of the game is pretty self explanatory. Jump over obstacles, shoot enemies, defeat bosses, and look for secrets. If you’ve played other metroidvanias you’ll know what to expect from this one. If I had one complaint about the gameplay it’s the amount of backtracking within each level. Trekking back through previously explored areas is not a forgien concept for these sorts of games by any stretch of the imagination, but in Cave Story+ it feels a little excessive at times. I understand that it’s a pretty short game already, but running through the same area and fighting the same hordes of monsters 3 or 4 times can be really tiring.
The main campaign is only about 6 hours long on a first playthrough, but there’s also 3 different endings to reach as well as 3 difficulty levels (each with a different outfit for the main character) so there’s at least some replayability built into the experience. Achieving certain criteria within the campaign such as reaching the “best” ending will unlock special challenge modes, mostly consisting of timed gauntlet runs. While we’re on the subject of unlockable modes I want to give special mention to Curly Story. In this mode the main protagonist swaps places in the story with his female counterpart named Curly Brace, changing some of the dialogue in story interactions to compensate for a more talkative protagonist. The real reason I draw attention to this mode however, is that the way it is unlocked is rather questionable as it requires the player to find a hidden item called Curly’s Panties. This instance of underwear snatching is pretty risque in comparison to most other parts of the game. I’m sure the original intention with this little easter egg was to be a joke, but I think it still warrants a heads up since the player is essentially being rewarded for doing something indecent.
Cave Story+ uses pixel graphics reminiscent of the retro games that inspired it. As a homage to the games of a bygone era it gets the job done pretty well, but if the player wants to give the game a little glow up there is an option for remastered graphics which utilize more detailed sprites. This remastering looks especially good on the characters and monsters. My favorite part of the presentation is without a doubt the soundtrack. Considering the fact that Daisuke Amaya isn’t a professional composer the number of memorable melodies throughout the game is very impressive. Much like the graphics, the music can also be changed to suit the player’s preference between the original chiptunes, remastered compositions that sound a little closer to real instruments, and a “new” arrangement that strips the songs down to be more simplistic. Personally I preferred the original and remastered arrangements over the “new” arrangements, but three options are always better than one. I’ve also been told that I have eccentric musical tastes, so take my opinion on the subject however you like.
From the Catholic perspective, Cave Story+ doesn’t overtly concern itself with spirituality or any particular moral, but I think there’s still a good lesson about courage baked right into the game’s premise. Our Lord Jesus Christ descended into hell to conquer death and make way the path for humanity’s salvation. In a somewhat similar fashion, the protagonist of Cave Story+ braves the dangers of the island’s monster infested caverns (an underworld if you will) in order to save the world from a tyrannical evil. Cave Story+, much like Jesus’s descent into hell, reminds us that we must also have the courage to enter into the heart of darkness and overcome its trials for the sake of others.
So does Cave Story+ live up to its reputation? Well I for one would certainly say so. It’s not an untouchable masterpiece above criticism, but the sheer amount of polish for a one man developer is undeniable. If you’re a fan of classic metroidvania games or the history of indie games Cave Story+ comes highly recommended from me. Remember to savor the experience because it has aged like fine wine.
Morality and Parental Warnings
The arsenal of weapons the player uses to fight monsters largely consists of guns, but they aren’t depicted very realistically and the violence in general lacks blood or gore. There is infrequent use of mild language in the game’s dialogue. Misery, one of the game’s antagonists, is a witch and fights the player with magic powers, albeit lacking any sort of rituals or incantations.