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Heart of Darkness Presents:
A shining example of how an indie platformer should be made.
Ah, Cave Story. Released in 2004 as an independent platformer/shooter, it's a fantastic blend of gameplay, music, and story. What makes it even more impressive, however, was that it took Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, a Japanese businessman, nearly five years to develop the entire game; and when I say everything, I mean everything. The art, music, engine, and even the music program used to write the tracks was made solely by Pixel. And his dedication shows.
The premise of the game is simple. You start off alone, in a cave, not knowing who--or what--you are. Shortly after you find your first weapon, you're given a quest: protecting a race of rabbit-like creatures known as Mimigas from an oppressive tyrant simply called the Doctor. Not long after you're given your mission, tragedy strikes, and a Mimiga child named Toroko is kidnapped by the Doctor's minions, and it's up to you to save her.
Although the story sounds simple and a tad cliché at first, it begins to ramp up to something amazing, and in a fairly short time. There are a few decent plot twists in the game, and, while they don't change the basic "you must stop the Doctor" part of the mission, they will indeed change your impression on some, if not all, of the major NPCs in the game, as well as the protagonist himself.
The characterization in Cave Story is also top-notch. Most of the characters in the game are not stock characters; each character has his or her own motivation, morals, and even attitude towards the protagonist and other NPCs, making your perspectives change for each character as the game progresses. From the passively hostile Sue, who's trying to find her family, to the bumbling Balrog, one of the recurring boss characters, each character has a unique backstory that provides interesting insight to Cave Story's universe.
Environments, although small, are incredibly varied--and full of enemies and power-ups.
Gameplay wise, Cave Story handles like a charm. Jumping is incredibly floaty, but this make for some incredible platforming experiences. It plays like a Metroidvania game, as it's broken up into several different areas with expansions to both your health meter, your defenses, your jumping ability, and some of your weapons, too. The weapons, the core of the gameplay mechanic, also handle incredibly well. Every weapon, except for one, uses a simple EXP system to increase its power. EXP points, dropped in the form of golden triangles, add to a single weapon's EXP gauge; when the gauge fills, the weapon levels up (to a maximum level of 3), increasing weapon range, power, and firing speed.
The weapons are also highly customizable, as well, which allows for a few different playthroughs with different weapons. The Polar Star, the first weapon you receive, has three separate upgrades, but only one upgrade can be received in each playthrough. Some weapons can also be skipped entirely, and weapons can be traded to some of the NPCs for different weapons. There are about ten different weapons available in the game, and the protagonist can hold anywhere from one to five weapons at any time. All of the weapons feel useful, too, and actually deal quite a bit of damage, which helps a lot in this game.
The game is also impressive artistically. Although the sprite animations are horribly pixelated, this adds to the charm of Cave Story rather than detract from it. However, the graphics take the passenger's seat to the real art in this game, which is the music. Each theme fits the exact mood of each scene and character, and some of the arrangements range from invoking a peppy feeling (such as the main theme) to a more somber mood (Moonsong). There are thirty-six original tracks bundled with Cave Story, and while some are far better than others, each track adds a lot to the mood of the game.
A 24-minute arrangement of twenty six original tracks. For some of the best ones, check out
Moonsong (13:40), Hero's End (15:41), Last Battle (19:22), and Running Hell (21:56).
This does not mean that the game is without it's share of flaws. For one, the game only has one save slot; if you want to experience every weapon and each of the three endings to their full extent, multiple playthroughs are required. The lack of additional save slots makes this harder to achieve, as you'll be playing from the beginning each time, which becomes quite tedious. In addition, the game is short; it's possible to beat this game within five hours, so don't expect to be playing this all weekend and still have a significant chunk of the main campaign left to play.
The game also features a ridiculous learning curve. While the game starts off easy, you'll quickly find that some of the bosses are insanely hard, especially as they incorporate the area's latest environment into play. This could be anything from fans and water to small rooms and cramped corridors filled with enemies. And, if you choose to pursue the game's optional ending, you'll be faced with not one, but two areas that require ridiculously accurate platforming in very narrow areas that are filled with spikes and enemies--oh, and your weapons will also be downgraded to level one, no matter what they are.
The optional area, the Sacred Grounds (endearingly called Hell by fans), is both a plus and minus to the overall game. Even though it adds a lot of challenge to an otherwise fairly easy game, it requires a very specific sequence of events to unlock. And, the game doesn't give any hints as to what that sequence of events is supposed to be. This gets a little frustrating, as missing even just one event generally means you won't be able to run Hell, which is already a feat in itself.
However, these flaws do little to detract from the superb presentation of this game. Cave Story is just fun, pure and simple. If you've never heard of it or played it, now's the time to do so.
Bottom Line: Enduring presentation, endearing artwork, a compelling storyline, and a fantastic soundtrack make Cave Story a must for any gamer's library.
Recommendation: Get it; it's free. Even if you don't like it (which would be shocking, to say the least), you're out nothing but a few hours of your time. The game can be downloaded here.
Heart of Darkness is an amateur game designer and reviewer. When he is not online, he can be found playing games, being a professional student, or using a machine gun to fly.