On Cave Story

imma claw my eyes out, i mean i love this game

What is the most important word in any language? It’s the existential question of “why?”, or posed differently – “what for?”. Since this is supposed to be a post about a video game (and games in general), I’d like to ask the question: “Why play video games? What for?”. The first answer that comes to mind is: “for fun”. The hedonist choice. Video games are the ultimate in entertainment, after all. Still, when you consider that pleasure can be derived even from things you’d be doing anyway (see: eating – it’s a physiological need, dammit!), going out of your way to play games only for entertainment feels empty. You could be doing something that does more for your sake than just entertaining you.

I’d been hearing about Cave Story (or Doukutsu Monogatari) and how great it is since forever. Definitely since before it was officially published in English in 2011. It was THE indie game before indie games were even a thing. The game itself was put out in 2004 and fan-translated soon after. Nonetheless, it took a Steam sale in 2017 to finally make me move my lazy ass and buy the game. And it took me even longer to actually play it. On Christmas last year, I had a free five minutes and decided to check what Cave Story is like. Let’s just say I didn’t put it down after five minutes. It was far too impressive for me to do so. Though unintentionally, I got to see Cave Story in its Christmas skin, too – my robot wore a Santa cap and stuff like Christmas trees was placed here and there. I’ve wanted to replay the game during this year’s Christmas, but couldn’t wait anymore.

The answer to the “why?” question absolutely has to have something to do not only with the virtual world you enter when starting a game, but with real life as well. You can put on that VR headset and proclaim “I’m leaving the meatspace behind and moving to Fantasyland!”, but you are bound to reality whether you like it or not. Connect yourself to an IV drip at least. I’m not competent enough to scientifically prove that playing video games is beneficial to you – that’s a topic for a whole other book. It definitely feels good, though, when a game makes the impression that it improves upon the player’s real-life skills. In this post, I will limit myself to oldschool games you play with a gamepad and such – news items like “I’m Ripped Thanks to Wii Fit” don’t count. Way too many games test only your ability to follow orders and do petty errands which require no skill whatsoever. Ever played a game which felt like a long-ass list of easy-to-do tasks? You completed the list? Congratulations, you’ve beaten the game. That’s the bad kind of gameplay. It’s interactive in name only.

So, what is Cave Story? It’s a game in which you jump (and later, use a jetpack) with one button and shoot with another. That’s a very short and simple definition, but Cave Story proves this combination can give birth to a rich, vast and fun game which puts several of the player’s skills to the test. If you google around for more information, you will certainly see the game being called a metroidvania. It definitely is similar to 2D Metroids. You get put in a cave (as the title suggests), you jump, shoot, and collect new abilities. You gather capsules increasing your max HP and the maximum number of missiles you can carry. You mash the button to stuff bosses full of missiles and hope the enemy dies in that dogfight earlier than you. What you don’t do in Cave Story is wander a huge-ass labyrinth while consulting the map all the time. You don’t experiment and lick the walls to find out what you need to do next. And then fail, look up the walkthrough, do the thing, need to go to the opposite end of the maze to go through the same spiel and get mad at the damn game. Cave Story is mostly linear – you just go forward. You do have access to a map, but it’s pretty useless and you can beat the game without looking at it even once. And to pump a boss full of missiles, you don’t need to painfully keep that shoulder button held down – you just change weapons with L and R. Cave Story might be a game devoted to purging the game design-related bullshit from SNES games, but it’s not easy at all. “Fair” describes its difficulty level well. I cursed the game plenty on my first playthrough (on easy mode, too!), but after the second one, the only parts I got stuck at were X-Monster and the last boss. Those three (four?) bosses in a row without saving and with next to no healing really do require plenty of practice before you can finally say you’ve beaten the game.

Number one on the list of good kinds of gameplay is occupied by what I call “games of nimbleness”. As far as traditional games go, the term might make you think of yoyo or kendama. Or juggling. Since your only means of interacting with a video game is a gamepad, your possibilities are rather limited. Games of nimbleness are then about pressing (or releasing) a button at the precisely right moment. Sometimes you’re told clearly when that moment is, sometimes you need to figure it out yourself. Pressing one button is hard enough, but what if you have multiple buttons to press in a rapid succession? Such manual challenges are probably the most commonly seen kind of gameplay in video games, discounting no-effort pseudo-gameplay.

In Cave Story, the jump has a maximum range which you should know, and your jetpack also has a limited dose of juice you can use at once. The outside of the floating island, near the end of the game, is the place to try your jumping skills – it’s a long-ass section made of narrow squares of footing that you need to jump between. If that wasn’t enough, different vectors of gravity affect your character and the enemies. That and the background rapidly scrolling sideways makes that part of the game a torture. I mean, I love Cave Story. It’s a great game. How many times do I need to die, though? Don’t even get me started on the Final Cave. It’s pretty much a needle game. Timing shots from your gun comes in handy, too. Unless you have an M-Gun, which eliminates that need and makes for a much easier experience. Cave Story proves shooting games are superior to games where you swing a close-quarters weapon instead, if you’re going for the skill value.

If you wanted to divide video games into genres by the criterium of skills they require of the player, the second most popular one would be games based on memorization. Like Memory. A game like Memory, but more complicated and prettier would be nifty, would it not?

Cave Story is a game that rewards effort put into focus and attention. You’d better remember which houses have fireplaces in them. And you’d better visit them all once you have the means to extinguish fire. You’d do good to spot Mr Little in the tall grass and remember he’s there. You might want to visit the gunsmith again later in the game too. All those little bits the game wants you to remember and backtrack to later are there to disrupt the linearity of the game. Cave Story is being praised as a stellar example to follow for game designers, and no wonder – everything has its place, everything is there for a reason. It makes a tremendous impression of completeness. There’s plenty of hidden, easily missable secrets, and most of them are required to beat the game.

Number three on the list of skills video games like to challenge is the one hardest to define: logical thinking. The domain of puzzle games. And strategy games, at least in name. This one is represented to the least extent in Cave Story. The only place I can think of that truly forces you to think is that one room with the not-Thwomps in Egg Corridor. That was really clever.

The plot in Cave Story is clearly there to serve the more important half of the game – the gameplay. Which doesn’t mean at all that it’s bad. You’re a robot that lost its memory and you find yourself in an underground town populated with cute bunny-people. Turns out you’re inside a floating island where an evil Doctor is plotting something terrible and your task will be to try and stop him. There will be some shocking, emotional twists to the story, too, with the story sharply going south and characters dying. The deeper you go into the titular caves, the clearer it is that the game is a sad tale of a dying world. It definitely is told competently – you’re gradually told about the world it’s set in, exclusively in the form of dialogues. Play Cave Story in Japanese to see how rich in personality the dialogues originally were – the wild stylization in dialogue lines got mostly lost in translation. It’s just a solid, simple, classic story with some playfully surreal aesthetic choices. Visually, it’s stylized for a SNES game, with a good dose of weird and cute thrown into it. My personal favorite: the cute jumping kitties from the first cave, that later evolve into flying monstrosities dropping at you from above. What has science done.

Anyway, I can recommend Cave Story with confidence. It’s engaging, hard to put down and serves as a display of how to design video games. I’ve just beaten it for the second time, and started a third playthrough on hard mode (which I will probably never finish). It’s got replay value out the wazoo. If you’ve never tried it, what are you waiting for?

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