Despite being released a Nintendo indie staple, I’m late to Cave Story. Developed by one guy in his spare time and released on PC 13 years ago, Cave Story has been remade and remastered in many different ways, most notably a complete 3D remake on 3DS. Cave Story + is a more straightforward port than that and is a neat addition to the rapidly growing indie library for the Switch.
Cave Story follows a cute little robot called Quote, who awakens on a mysterious island, floating in the sky, populated by talking rabbit creatures known as Mimiga. The Mimigas are being persecuted by a mysterious figure known as the Doctor, who has been kidnapping Mimigas and forcing them to eat a strange red flower which causes them to become violent and feral. Quote sets forth to defeat the Doctor and save the Mimiga, discovering on the way that things on the island are much more complex than they first seemed. The story and world of Cave Story are much more complex, compelling and well thought out than you might expect from its simplistic art style. It is frequently funny, but at times genuinely quite horrific and sad. Minimalist or environmental storytelling is more common in modern indie platformers and it’s quite nice to see something so densely plotted and heavy with world building detail.
Cave Story is a platformer, with Metroidvania elements. You’ll mostly be working your way through caves, blasting enemies with a variety of weapons, all of which can be temporarily upgraded with shards, but will downgrade again if you are hit. One thing I loved about this game is how utterly puny and pathetic you feel at first compared with how powerful and dangerous you become with all your weapons fully upgraded. The jumping itself was obnoxiously floaty for my tastes, but the addition of a jet pack mid-way through greatly mitigated this irritation. You’ll fight through a series of areas, with most centring on the Mimiga Village, and most culminating in a cool boss fight. Some issues with balance and difficulty belie the amateur origins of Cave Story, but these issues rarely raised above the level of annoyance. It’s a hell of an achievement. Exploration is rewarded with upgrades to health and missiles, Metroid style, but this is largely a linear experience. Floaty jumping aside, Cave Story plays well, with some smart level and boss design.
With a charming chip-tune sound track and satisfying blasting noises for the weapons, there’s a lot of polish to Cave Story. It’s got a simplistic art style, but it’s very effective, particularly for the character models and bosses. I loved the character designs, which vary from charming to creepy to just plain bizarre. With support from Nicalis, you can see that a lot of love went into this game.
I suspect that playing Cave Story for the first time in 2017 will not have the same impact it would have had back in 2004. Indie Metroidvania platformers aren’t exactly a rarity these days and, when placed aside more modern examples, Cave Story doesn’t come across as particularly special, excepting its strong world and story. It’s an interesting cultural artefact though, and I can see how it’s influence rippled through the indie scene. I’m glad I played it.