It’s not even worth denying at this point: Cave Story is a stone-cold classic, one of the best games ever made, and Nicalis, along with the original designer Pixel, have made a fantastic decision by putting Cave Story on every conceivable modern Nintendo platform – this is the best game Nintendo never made.
If you haven’t played the game before (and also, what’s wrong with you!???! It’s free online you dummy!), you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. And if you’re like me and you already have Cave Story on every platform you could imagine, you’re probably curious as to whether this version offers anything new. It does, and in some ways, therein lies the problem.
If I was reviewing just the underlying game itself, of course this would be a straight-up five out of five Reggies. Cave Story really is that good, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the games it quotes, specifically Super Metroid, Blaster Master and Mega Man. Playing as Quote, an amnesiac robot, you come across a race of adorable, bunny rabbit-esque creatures called the Mimiga, who are embroiled in a war with the humans who live below the surface of the world with them, and whose only goals are to torture and enslave the Mimiga using the personality-altering “red flowers.” It’s actually a surprisingly dark and somber story, and made all the more jarring because of the sheer adorableness of the characters involved.
The thing that’s always struck me about Cave Story is how it makes its claims to greatness on a seemingly-incongruous combination of linear character progression and the sometimes shocking episodes that go along with that (I’ll try not to spoil anything, but your first encounter with a mutated Mimiga is pretty fucking grim once you think about it); and exploration and a branching path system so complex that it ensures that you’ll play the game many, many times. Not to mention that the game, in whatever format you play it in though especially on Nintendo consoles and their technically perfect d-pads, is a mechanical tour-de-force. Games like Uncharted could only hope for gameplay that simply feels this good to play.
One of the most impressive aspects of the original PC release of Cave Story all the way back in 2004 was that the game was designed, programmed, and scored by one guy, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, and the game feels like an intensely personal game because of it. It’s rare to be able to apply auteur theory to game development, and the way that Pixel hit every single element of his game out of the park is extraordinary. The soundtrack is super catchy, the gameplay and story (as mentioned) are fantastic, and the pixel art (no pun intended!) had a charm that contributed quite a bit to the absolutely wonderful quality of the game.
So this 3DS release, in some ways, can’t help but feel like a dilution of that. This is very much the same game, don’t be mistaken: the gameplay is just as tight and the story just as poignant and the soundtrack just as catchy, but the aesthetics of the game never feel quite right.
It’s a combination of factors, really. First and foremost is that the 3D in the game, while full of depth and looking quite nice, is functionally useless. Cave Story 3D is based on the same design document of the original, which makes this change really strange – the game was never designed as a 2.5D platformer, so playing it as one is a little weird. The camera is also pulled a little too far out for my liking, making eye strain a real concern on the 3DS.
More than those niggling shortcomings, though, the game’s look just doesn’t ever gel together. The character and enemy designs’ original charm is nowhere to be found (unless you turn on the Paper Mario-esque “Classic Mode”) and while the environments are really cool to look at and to see the sometimes dark and twisted art design (Egg Corridor never looked this imposing in the original, that’s for sure), it just never feels like Cave Story, something that any jump to 3D risks. It’d be interesting to see a Cave Story 2 built from the ground up in this style, though.
But look: it’s still Cave Story. It just isn’t Cave Story for everyone. If you’re spending $40 on this game, it’s probably because, like me, Cave Story is one of your favourite games. Any chance I get to support Pixel is a good one, but the WiiWare release is still the definitive version to get.
Conclusion: if this was me reviewing the original Cave Story, it’d be five out of five. But since this re-release isn’t quite as appealing as the landmark original, it gets…
… a very respectable 4 out of 5 Reggies.