A Little Background . . .
By now, most people have heard of (or played) Cave Story in one of it’s various forms. Originally a freeware PC game, then ported to the WiiWare service, this humble little piece of heaven became something of a legend in the gaming community. Combining the look of NES-era classics, an extremely smart weapon system, and unique platforming physics, Cave Story is an obvious labor of love. Throw in the indie mythos of a game designed by a single man over the course of 5 years, and you’ve found the recipe for a rock star among games.
Beyond all this, Cave Story has a sweetness of narrative and moments of touching character development that larger, more expensive games can only hope to emulate. It plays like a cross between Castlevania and Mega Man, but invokes the spirit and sentiment of the best JRPGs. In short, the original Cave Story is an uncontested classic, and no gamer should overlook it.
The original freeware version of Cave Story remains available for download to Mac or PC computers. Given that commercial release hasn’t led the developer to pull down the free version strikes me as a testament of pure indie game greatness. Here’s the link, for the uninitiated:
Now, let’s talk about the latest update—Cave Story 3D.
What’s New in Cave Story for the 3DS?
First and foremost, the graphics are the BIG feature in this new version. Though we haven’t had many games by which to judge, the 3DS is an amazing graphical powerhouse that can push a visual update (such as the treatment given to Ocarina of Time) from the realm of “neat” into utterly amazing, eye-popping territory. If you’d told me that Cave Story was being remodeled for, say, Xbox 360 or PS3, I wouldn’t have cared nearly as much. But the added bonus of a 3D element adds an entirely new layer of appeal to this already-artistic game. Below, I’ll offer more detail on the updated 3D graphics.
The music has also been enhanced for the 3D version, though not nearly to the degree of the visual overhaul. Since my first play-through of the freeware version, I’ve held a deep appreciation for the score of Cave Story, so much in fact, that I’ve kept the soundtrack on my iPod for months at a time. The melancholy and cartoonish tunes stand on their own, retaining their appeal even outside of the game that gave them life. Full disclosure–I’m not able to say if the updated music is identical to the remastered version that was released with the WiiWare Cave Story download (I chose to wait for the 3D update, and have never played the Wii version of CS). However, I’m happy to report that although the music has been retouched to include subtle effects and backing tracks that feel appropriate for a modern title, these are still the same classic songs you first fell in love with. It sounds great, yet entirely familiar.
The 3DS update lacks some of the alternate game modes that debuted in the WiiWare version, but this handheld version retains the ability to choose from 3 different difficulty settings. As I’ve previously finished the game on PC, I opted for the hardest setting, and I’ll give the designers credit—I’m shedding lives on a regular basis (many monsters crush your character in a single hit). Adult players will probably want to stick with the average difficulty or higher—Cave Story isn’t the longest game on earth, so you should savor the added challenge required for a true a retro-game experience.
The final big addition to the 3DS version is the option to choose between two graphic styles. Each time you boot up your game, you can select between “story” mode or “classic” mode. Though I find the labels slightly confusing (both feature the same story and cut scenes), Story mode utilizes 3D models of the hero, NPCs, and enemies, while Classic mode incorporates retro-style sprites similar to those of the freeware release. The environment and background graphics are identical in either mode—you’ll still be adventuring in a 3D world, but Classic mode reminds me of the way Super Paper Mario transposed a cast of ‘flat’ characters into a multi-dimensional environment. Classic mode looks very cool, and is probably my favorite of the two. Conveniently, you can switch between Story and Classic modes every time you boot up the game, so you won’t need to play through the same game 2x to experience the difference and decide for yourself.
More on . . . the Graphics of Cave Story 3D
In general, Cave Story 3D looks very, very good. Three-dimensional without being gimmicky or dizzying, the (formerly) minimalist world of the Mimigas now has all kinds of atmosphere and depth, as well as a million little artistic touches that bring the universe to life. The foreground sprouts colorful trees and flowers, while distant backgrounds hint at a much larger world of villager huts, winding caverns, and mysterious vistas. These additions don’t strictly add to the gameplay, but given that the original CS went to great lengths to create atmosphere and narrative using a limited palate, these updates are legitimately cool expansions of the Mimiga’s world, not merely tacked-on bells & whistles. There are tons of little things to appreciate, like the farm sprinklers that spray pixelated water droplets (a super-cute exception to an otherwise fully 3-dimensional world), or the large-yet-subtle improvements, such as when the computer-controlled camera pans in such a way to create the illusion of a curved (yet two-dimensional) playfield.
One of the game’s few flaws is related, in part, to the game’s ambiance and setting. Since the events of Cave Story take place mostly underground (big surprise, given the title), many areas are dimly lit. Unfortunately, this means that some dark-colored enemies may not show up very well, and you’ll find yourself dying for no apparent reason. This is frustrating when it happens several times in a row, especially when you were already being extremely careful and doing your best to avoid threats. The problem is most noticeable in areas that use a long-distance camera angle, meaning that the enemies are now tiny as well as semi-invisible. The issue isn’t going to impact your love for the game (you’ll simply learn to move more slowly and fire your weapon constantly in problem areas), but random deaths always feel cheap, and I wondered if the designers could have spent a bit more time fine-tuning the brightness/contrast settings for some levels.
Gameplay and game design—what’s new, and what’s not.
I’ve already mentioned the difficulty settings, which is one of the few changes from the freeware version of the game. Honestly, Cave Story 3D strikes me as a bit light in the new content department, aside from the overwhelmingly well-done graphics. In fairness, CS was never intended to be anything more than a bare-bones, simple & pure gaming experience, so perhaps the lack of added features is in keeping with the spirit of the original design. Still, I can still imagine many would-be CS spelunkers wondering why exactly they should pay $40 for a game that they’ve already downloaded, loved, and conquered, so the lack of bonus content is slightly surprising.
More positively, the in-game controls and general gameplay are entirely intact in this reimagined 3D world. The floaty, fun physics (the ones that you raved about to all your platform-loving friends) are identical to those found in the freeware version, and if you’re like me, you’ll relish the chance to play Cave Story with a true Nintendo control pad and buttons (I actually finished the freeware version using keyboard controls, not an easy feat). I’m not always the biggest fan of the 3DS’s shoulder buttons—they sometimes cause my hands to cramp up with repetitive motion agony—but I have to say, the shoulders work really well here, allowing the player to rapidly toggle through your hero’s arsenal of weapons.
One of my only gripes—and again, this is relatively minor, but still annoying enough to mention–is the inability to skip cut-scenes after you’ve viewed them the first time. I’m probably sensitive to this issue because I’ve chosen to play on the hardest difficulty, meaning that I die/repeat tough areas more than I normally would. Still, given that almost all boss fights start with a pile of dialog boxes, one would appreciate the option to avoid reading the same conversation 10 times in a row.
So, should you purchase Cave Story 3D?
It’s really hard to make one unified argument for–or against–purchasing this game.
On one hand, it’s Cave Story–it’s the game you’ve already played on PC, Mac, or the Wii download service. If you’re sick to death of it (or never understood what all the hype was about), you’re probably not even reading this review. Beyond the flashy 3D graphics and the ability to play on a handheld device with true Nintendo controls, there isn’t a whole lot of innovation going on here. It’s a phenomenal game—a phenomenal game from several years ago.
On the other hand—this is freakin’ CAVE STORY, for God’s sake! This new 3D version is the most gorgeous realization of Cave Story to date–and I say that as a card-carrying retro-gaming freak. The first reason I heard of Cave Story (and gave it a chance) was because friends kept telling me, “you love those old NES games, you’ve GOT to play this”. For comparison, I’ve played almost none of the most popular PC videogames—I’ve never started an avatar in WoW, or solved the puzzles of Portal (yet)—but Cave Story, with it’s throwback spirit, humble presentation, and glorious shoot-em-up attitude…this one hooked me in . . . waaaay in. The masterful pairing of 8bit-era sprites with intense adventure/platform action is the reason everyone loves this wonderful little game. You might wonder if a 3D update would somehow dilute the very reason you loved Cave Story in the first place—like, why mess with perfection (i.e. George Lucas syndrome)? But, I’m telling you, they pulled it off. They retained the original’s perfection while adding all kinds of enhancements that reinforce the game’s underlying greatness. Indeed, this tasteful reinvention of a modern classic makes me wish that more studios would take a page from Pixel’s book—Maniac Mansion, or Day of the Tentacle, perhaps?
FINAL THOUGHT: If you’re not stretched to your gaming limits in terms of finance or time, the 3DS version seems like the perfect opportunity to show your love for this epic piece of gaming history–one that was offered for to us for free, but worth so much more.
If you enjoy my reviews and want to read more of my video-game-related commentary, PLEASE check out my IGN.com blog at http://www.ign.com/blogs/unoclay1/ .
Thanks for reading. Your comments are not only welcome, but encouraged.
PS. PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT. . .
For Cave Story Pros, I’m including the following link for your ease of reference. I’ve never faced Cave Story’s easter-egg “final” board (“The Sacred Ground”, aka HELL)– but I’m going to make the attempt as I work through Cave Story 3D. I’ve heard it’s total punishment. I look forward to seeing if I’m up to the challenge. How To Enter Sacred Ground