Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Defense: Cave Story

Here's a game I've wanted to write about for a while, but I figured that I may as well wait until it was finally released on the Virtual Console of the Wii on March 22nd. This game was announced for the WiiWare service quite a while ago, and fans such as myself have been itching for it to finally come out on the system. This was easily a day 1 (actually, hour 1) purchase for me, as it hearkens back to the 16 bit era in colour and art, and takes pages out of the books of a few amazing classic games and amalgamates them into an amazing composition.

First, some history. Cave Story has actually been available for about 6 years now because, if I'm not mistaken, it was released as a freeware game downloadable from the Internet in the year of 2004. This game was created by exactly one guy, who goes by the name of Pixel to his fans, and it took him about 5 years to complete it...but Pixel made everything for it. He programmed it, created the art and sound effects, and wrote the story all by himself. This in itself is quite a feat, and shows that this guy likes games for the sake of games. It's not like he was expecting payment for his creation...he just wanted people to download it and enjoy it, and to experience video game design for himself. I don't expect that he figured it would ever become as popular of a cult hit as it did, but I'm damn glad it got the recognition it deserves because it's actually one of the best sidescrollers I've every played, period.

So skip ahead to, oh, around 2008 I guess. A company known as Nicalis decided to get in touch with Pixel and figure out some way to release this phenomenal game on the Wii as a downloadable game. When I first heard about this, I was pumped. Not only would I get to play this game as I felt it should be played (on a console with an NES-style control scheme), but I'd also get to experience it with jacked up art, revamped music, and a few new game modes to boot. Now, those weren't all announced right off the bat...Nicalis did a slow leak of information over the course of trying to get the game released on the VC service, which unfortunately took a very long time. Rumours of release would come out one week, and then be canned the next for unknown reasons. As a result of this lengthy release process, Nicalis and Pixel decided to release the game with all features intact that were originally meant to be DLC, at a price of 1200 Wii points (so 12 bucks, basically).

The other good part about them releasing the game this way is that I finally got to pay for this wicked product! Usually people don't like to pay for things, in case you haven't noticed...but I've wanted to pay money for this creation from the get go, cause it happens to pull all the strings that make a video game enjoyable for me.

So onto the review.

This game is a sidescroller with a 16-bit visual style. A lot of people say it's 8-bit in style, but the color palette is way too vast to possibly ever be an NES-style game...but that's just me getting technical. Rather than a level-by-level sidescrolling game, Cave Story is more in the vein of Super Metroid (the game that inspired Pixel to make Cave Story) or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, meaning you have a large world to check out and powerups to find that increase your ability to explore even further, which can, in turn allow you find more powerups. However, the map is not as convoluted as both of those games, and so each distinct area has a flow that seems to help establish where you should be going. There're a bunch of secrets to find and items to get along the way, with only the most hardcore players likely being able to find the ones that are really tucked away. These can simple things such as capsules that increase your maximum health or missile capacity upgrades, or super-secret inventory items that can be helpful or have no purpose at all except to acquire them.

The controls for the game are simple, and feel right at home on the sideways-held Wii Remote. The directional pad moves your character or allows you to aim your weapon, which can point in four directions...however you can only fire downward if you're in the air. Pressing the 1 button will fire your currently-equipped weapon, while pressing the 2 button will cause your character to jump. The + button pauses the game and brings up a screen with your collected weapons and items, where you can choose to equip or unequip weapons and other items, and the - button will bring up your map (once you locate the map system). Finally, the large A button and the B button on the back of the remote will switch between your weapons on the fly, so you don't have to pause the game to switch between your instruments of death. Everything is there that is needed, and it all works damn well. The only problem I've noticed is that the map doesn't seem to work correctly in some rooms when you have the game set to display its new art style rather than the old one...however this didn't bother me much because I never really use the map anyway, I just happened to notice it when I was screwing around every so often.

So you run, and you shoot things that try to attack you with your weapons, of which there is a good variety. Your first weapon that you acquire is a simple pistol that fires ranged shots when you press the 1 button, but later on you'll find other weapons that shoot fireballs along the ground, or fire powerful missiles through the air. However, the interesting thing about the weapons is that they can be upgraded. When you destroy an enemy, they will often drop yellow triangles that give you weapon experience when you pick them up. When you get enough, the weapon you're using will go up a level, up to a maximum of 3. This makes your weapons more powerful and gives them different qualities. For example, the Bubbline gun fires one bubble with a very limited range each time you press the 1 button when it's at level 1. Upgrade it to the second level, and you can hold the button down for a steady stream of bubbles that do more damage. At level 3, as you hold the button down, the bubbles with surround your character and gradually pop, firing a projectile in the direction you happen to be facing at the time. In addition, when you let go of the fire button, ALL bubbles on screen will pop and fire off...so what appears at first to be a rather tough weapon to use becomes ones of the most versatile ones in the game if you level it up.

And it's a damn good thing you can level them up, because the enemies and bosses in this game'll give you some trouble if you're not careful. Some of them're easy...but later on you'll run into some brutal boss enemies that make for some very frantic fights, which I like a lot. Bosses happen to be my favourite part of games like this, and unfortunately, bosses just aren't tough enough these days, for the most part...but I won't get into that right now. Having weaponry maxed out for these bosses is a huge help for blowing them away...but alas, it's not that easy. Whenever your character takes a hit from an enemy or boss, you lose weapon experience and so if you take enough hits, your weapon levels will be right back down at 1. This reminds me of Blaster Master's overhead sequences, where you could find gun powerups, but also lost them if you took a hit. This prompts you to be extra careful as you fight, making sure to dodge as many attacks as you can because there's twice as much consequence when you get nailed. The best thing about this is that it makes you really try to avoid everything, and you find yourself pulling off some really awesome moves to protect yourself. Makes ya feel all good inside.

And this all happens as you advance a story that you discover more about as you continue. At first, you have no idea what's going on...you wake up in a cave and go steal some sleeping guy's gun and venture out into the world. Very shortly you run into a group of rabbit-like animals called Mimigas, which is what the main story of the game revolves around. There's a bunch more to it, but obviously I can't write about it because this game was released just yesterday after all, and I don't wanna spoil anything huge. That being said, I can say that the story is definitely neat, and there are characters you start to like as well as hate, which is something that's hard to establish in a game such as this...I thought it was pretty damn well done. In addition, you'll find that this game has three different endings you can get, which is great for completionists who want to see each one. The other thing that helps this out is that there are three save slots, which works out perfectly. These endings are very different from each other, and achieving one of them actually means you have to miss out on about a third of the rest of the game.

The sound in this game is very well done, with effects that sound very true to an old 8 or 16-bit game. The interesting thing about the WiiWare release is that the art and sounds were all redone, but at the same time, Nicalis has provided you the option to choose to play with the original art and/or music, or to just stick with the new look and soundtrack. I definitely appreciated the redone spritework, which made the game look sharper but play exactly the same as the 2004 PC version...however I wasn't a fan of the redone music, and I thought it felt weak compared to the original soundtrack, so I switched to the original tunes after giving the new ones a decent shot, I feel. Every piece of music seems to fit the area it's in, whether it be a serene location with a soft melody, or a frantic onslaught of enemies and obstacles with a pacing rhythm that urges you on...and many of these tunes'll be stuck in your head long after you're done playing.

Oh, and the extra modes! Don't forget about those! These were originally supposed to be DLC, but everything was slapped into this one game and released all at once for simplicity's sake. Included along with the story mode, you have Sanctuary Time Attack, which lets you run through a timed area in an effort to finish it as fast as you can. Heck, you can even pick and choose what weapons and powerups you take in before you go for it, so if you really want to be an asshole to yourself and test your mettle, you can only take one weapon for yourself, or limit the amount of health you go in with! People do in fact like to do this kind of thing, so I imagine there'll definitely be gamers out there pushing their limits on this mode.

Next, there's Boss Rush, which is exactly what it sounds like. You fight every boss in the game in a specific order, with a chance to stock up on powerups in between such that you have the same items on you as you normally would if you were progressing through the game. Again, this is optional...you could take all of the bosses on with just your Polar Star and 3 hit points if you really wanted to! You're timed for this as well, so if you're one of those people that loves to be the fastest in the world, then I'm sure this'll drive you nuts. I'm pretty pumped about this mode, because like I said, I love bosses.

The final mode is Curly Brace mode, where you play through the game as one of the other main characters, Curly. I haven't given this one a shot yet, but I plan to very shortly.

The Story mode itself will probably take you about...5 or 6 hours on your first (full, non-one-third-of-the-game-missing-ending) playthrough, I would say. I think that's about how long it took me when I first played the computer version a few years back, but after a few runthroughs you can chop that time down quite a bit, and I managed to play through it on Normal difficulty yesterday over the course of about 4 hours. That being said, this is a game you will definitely play again, especially if you want to find everything or complete it on all of its difficulty settings. There are three difficulty settings for the main story...Normal mode plays just like the original release. I haven't tried easy mode yet, but Hard mode involves being stuck throughout the game with only 3 hit points (there are no health expansions) and no missile launcher, which was great for decimating bosses in quick time. Oh, and the bosses take more shit than usual, so yeah. Gonna fire that up next and try my hand at it, but it's gonna be damn tough!


The bottom line:

Overall, this game is awesome, and it has a ton of features that make it a really stocked download. Sure, it's 12 bucks...but it's worth every damn cent because of all the options you've got, all the different ways you can play through the game, and the extra modes that come packaged in with the download. Easy mode is there for people who aren't too into hardcore sidescrollers but are willing to give them a shot to see what they're like, while the Time Attacks, Boss Rush, and Hard modes are there for the people who really love games like this and want to really test themselves. Purists can play through with the original art and music as an option, but the updated visuals are really cool and bring out details that one might not have noticed with the lower-resolution sprites. My only real problems with the game are that the new music was disappointing (although I should really play through the whole game with the new music to see what the rest of the tunes are like...but I got to the Sand Zone and just had to switch at that point), and the map system is glitched. Although I said that the map thing wasn't an issue for me because I don't use it that much, the fact is that there are some people who would and it might mess them up a bit.

But those are very few and trivial shortcomings for a game with tons to offer...sharp control, tons of secrets to discover, and a multitude of game modes. All of this is wrapped up in the charm and feel of an 8/16-bit retro-styled package that a gamer like me just can't resist, or at least shouldn't be able to. Buy this game...or heck, if you can't afford it, go and find the original free one, get the translation, and play it on your computer...just make sure you experience this piece of art at least once.

There are those few shortcomings that I mentioned, but they don't really hamper the gaming experience enough to put a huge dent in the score of this amazing retro-styled game. Cave Story is loaded with the heart and soul of classic gaming, and Pixel and Nicalis should be applauded for releasing such a damn masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm gonna rate it a 9.5/10

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