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“Cave Story” Mines Gamers’ Collective Memory and Comes Up With Gold

“Cave Story” Mines Gamers’ Collective Memory and Comes Up With Gold (photo)

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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.”

04022010_cavestory2.jpgAll 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.

04022010_cavestory4.jpgAmong 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?

04022010_cavestory3.jpgBoth 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.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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