First released six years ago as a freeware PC game, Cave Story is the original standard bearer of the burgeoning indie scene, and one of the most beloved retro-styled games ever made. Now faithfully re-made for WiiWare, it finally has a chance to reach a mainstream audience and show what all the fuss is about.
Unlike more recent indie games, though, Cave Story isn’t an easily marketable avant-garde creation built around an identifiable central gimmick. It’s a more traditional experience, rooted in classic game design, and therefore less able to grab attention. It’s the sort of thing you can read a hundred rave reviews for, but won’t truly comprehend the brilliance of until you’ve played it for yourself.
Designed and developed by just one person over a five-year period, the original version of Cave Story is a love letter to the way games used to be. Masterfully pin-painted pixel art brings apparently simple characters to life in ways rivalled only by the greats in the field, like Lemmings or Super Mario Bros, while a Metroid-style structure adds layers of depth, a ton of satisfying secrets, a sense of exploration and an unravelling organic narrative that is not evident in still screenshots. Add in a clever game mechanic, whereby each of your equipped weapons can level-up by collecting the shrapnel of destroyed enemies (or level-down whenever you lose health), and you have a game that’s as smart as it is nostalgic.
Some say that Cave Story is the greatest SNES game never made, and we’d struggle to disagree. The exemplary sprite work, even in the respectfully redrawn Wii version, coupled with the Nintendo-rivalling gameplay, makes you feel as though you’ve discovered an old retro classic, un-weathered by the passage of time. Like that tiny handful of select classics, Cave Story can also stand up against nearly any contemporary game you care to mention, and is perhaps most comparable to Resident Evil 4. Not that the gameplay is in any way similar, of course, but there’s a rocketing pace and constant delivery of truly memorable set-pieces and many unexpected moments, which both legendary games have in common.
Only an ill-advised endgame difficulty curve stops us calling Cave Story a totally flawless videogame. It is a game best experienced, not described, and we’d rather you discover exactly why it’s held in such high regard for yourself. If you need further convincing, then consider this. Though the original is free to download on PC, Cave Story still feels like a steal at 1000 Nintendo Points.