Without “Cave Story,” there’d hardly be a modern-day indie scene. Developer Daisuke Amaya (a.k.a Pixel) coded the whole thing in his spare time over the course of five years. “Cave Story” debuted as freeware on the Internet in 2004, winning the gooey affections of gaming’s retrophiles almost immediately. It’s the Platonic ideal of the kind of lo-fi old-school love affair that tends to crop up in independent game circles.
Aamaya’s work calls back to classic, uncomplicated play styles in the way it looks, performs and sounds. The sprite-based pixels recreate the visuals of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console that was ubiquitous in Gen X-ers’ homes in the ’80s. The mix of exploration, shooting and platforming riffs on NES-era game design, as seen in the “Metroid” series with a bit of “The Legend of Zelda”‘s RPG chatting-up thrown in. Finally, the great chiptune soundtrack somehow creates a plucky mood and worms its way into your head the same way the “Super Mario Bros.” theme did.
So what’s a new edition of this labor-of-love throwback doing on the Wii, then? By making “Cave Story” available for download through its WiiWare marketplace, Nintendo may be making the tacit admission that it represents the kind of game that the House of Mario doesn’t really make anymore. On its way to near-insurmountable market domination, the Wii’s become the console of retirement homes, holiday parties and soccer moms. Games that show up on the Wii are largely safe, non-threatening affairs, to the point where dreck like Carnival Games becomes hugely successful. Yet, the punishingly demanding difficulty of the games that laid the foundation for Nintendo’s longevity is almost non-existent on its current console. Insanely hard titles like Mike Tyson’s “Punch-Out,” “Mega Man” and “Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins” have little in the way of spiritual successors in this era of “Wii Sports,” “Wii Fit” and “Wii Play.”
All of that makes “Cave Story” the benignly neglected grandchild that Nintendo doesn’t know terribly well but will ask after every so often. And like any guilty grandparent, Nintendo will occasionally dole out some largesse to make themselves feel better. Hence, “Cave Story” winds up a WiiWare download.
That explains (sort of) why “Cave Story” is here in the first place. Which makes the next question, “Is it any good?” Of course it is. Nintendo has the benefit of cherry-picking a proven success. That said, having survived in the wild on its own merits, Amaya’s work receives serious upgrade mojo from boutique publisher Nicalis. The graphics have been polished, the soundtrack remastered and an option to play as supporting character Curly Brace has been added.
But the overall experience remains as Amaya initially designed it. The structure’s similar to NES-era classics like “StarTropics”: battle and explore your way through a succession of areas, talk to the people you meet, collect items like keys, weapons and ID cards to open up the world. Also in keeping with the way these things go, “Cave Story” is pretty unforgiving at times. Jumps need to finely calibrated lest you fall to insta-death onto some spikes. Getting hit by enemies not only takes life away from you but also downgrades your weapons. Backtracking through an area means you have fight every beastie that you killed on the way there.
In terms of narrative delivery, “Cave Story” tries to find the happy medium between modern-day games, where story is simultaneously under-valued and over-explicated, and old-school games, where plot points came at players in haphazard bits that often didn’t make sense. The game opens with Kazuma, a lonely brother waiting for responses to his instant messages from his sister Sue. He talks about having escaped, but from who or what isn’t immediately known. After a small intro, the player begins adventuring in Mimiga Village. Mimiga are adorable, rabbit-like creatures who’ve been preyed upon by the evil Doctor. This surname-less bad guy kidnaps Mimigas and experiments on them.
Among those who have fallen are the warrior Arthur, whose shoes you kind of step into. Those responses that never come from Sue key in on the emotional simplicity that carries throughout “Cave Story.” It’s about protecting loved ones. However, there are no “Bioshock”-style moral quandaries in the game. Even the bad guys — vampy witch Misery, dunderheaded muscle Balrog and the rest — are cute and lovable. But Amaya weaves in some poignancy, too. The village leader frets aggressively when young girl Toroko gets captured and the characters all carry little bits of loss in their dialogue messages.
Meanwhile, as you play, you find out that you’re an amnesiac refugee from a war that took place on the surface. Darker secrets come to light about the island, as well as some of the people you meet, and the whole thing winds being more sprawling than you’d think at first blush. The gameplay ramps up significantly as you go on and the tension of the boss battles will make you appreciate the more forgiving difficulties of today’s games.
What’s “Cave Story”‘s point, then? Why create something new in an old vein? To remind us why we fell in love with gaming as a medium? Sure, there’s that, and the game works on that level. But “Cave Story” also reminds us that love, whether for an artform or for a person, is also often hard-fought and frustrating. Will the generation growing up on “Wii Sports”‘ bowling and the wild gesticulations of motion control have a gaming passion ingrained in their hearts the way earlier generations did? More importantly, as regards “Cave Story,” will they be able to take that love and recreate it and synthesize it into something of their own?
Both in its text and meta-text, “Cave Story” serves as a commentary on the shifting sands of technology and memory. Playing through the game reminds us that it’s not just what we experience that makes us what we are, but also how we experience it. “Cave Story” on the Wii may not herald the coming indie revolution the way the freeware version did. But it may just remind gamers — and Nintendo itself — of the kinds of experiences that get people hooked on pushing a bunch of pixels around on a screen. Amaya’s said that he isn’t currently on a game and has no plans to do so. We may not ever get anything else from him. It’s a safe bet that we will get a game from someone who’s played “Cave Story” and was never able to forget it.