When I was considerably younger, I had no disposable income but way too much free time. So I did what any sensible young gamer would do: I looked for free games on the internet. Back then, pickings were pretty slim, and the only downloadable games worth playing were severely limited shareware. Most of those, if they were any good at all, were not worth the registration price.
A dozen or so years later a truly great freeware game had finally come out. The game was Cave Story, and it had been painstakingly designed by one individual (who goes by Pixel) and later translated by Aeon Genesis. It comes across as a game that might have come out for the NES in its prime; simplistic graphics and basic music may lead you to believe this. But the game is a rich Metroid-esque action game that has great replay value and lots of secrets.
It may have been a stylistic decision by Pixel, or it may have been a matter of practicality, but the straightforward sound and graphics do not adversely affect the game; the visuals are more than serviceable, and actually have a fairly distinct art style. Music seems basic at first, but there are several catchy tunes that I still find myself humming two years after playing the game. In fact, rather than using an existing music system, Pixel created his own ORG format and released the system he used to compose the music.
Cave Story begins fairly simply – you get a normal blaster-type gun and start blasting away at small bats and the like. As you pick up certain power-ups from enemies, your guns gain points and eventually level up – they either fire faster, more powerful shots, or you can fire more shots at once. If you get hit, your current weapon’s level goes down. This is a great mechanic that I’d like to see more games use; it rewards more careful progress.
Controls are quite tight, which is great for a game that requires quick reflexes. Most of the game is downright easy if you have a gamepad (using a keyboard is somewhat trickier). Bosses, however, are difficult in a good way; if you die, it’s usually because you made some major mistakes. This, combined with the tightness of the controls, makes Cave Story a great game difficulty-wise. The only exception to this is a hidden boss – against him, you must play almost perfectly to win.
This hidden boss is very difficult to locate. Suffice it to say you aren’t likely to find him the first time around. You may uncover a few of the hidden weapons, and you may wonder about whether a couple plot points are changeable. The hidden things are probably best found on your own, as they’re mostly not too complicated. There are even a few hidden items that don’t seem to do anything at all – they’re just there.
The difficulty of the game is so well-designed that it is possible, though incredibly difficult, to go through the entire game without picking up any life-packs (leaving your max life at 3; most enemies by the end of the game do 5 damage). The two hidden areas are difficult even at a normal max HP; one of them is even timed (my personal best is just under seven minutes) and you can keep trying it over and over again.
Plot progression is made through interesting cutscenes. The game starts off playing the amnesia card, but it’s carried out pretty well. Most characters are fairly likable, although you may never learn what some of them actually are (for example, one enemy character somewhat resembles a mutant toaster).
As is usually the case in fan translations, the game received a great localization. There’s not really much to say about it; the story is enjoyable and varies between comic relief and the serious story overhead.
The ability to decide between certain weapons on any given playthrough gives the game a slightly open ended feel. Some of the weapons require that you trade in a current weapon or two, while others are hidden. The weapons in the game are well-designed and are quite different from one another. Each is useful for different situations or play-styles, so you can choose your weaponry based on how you play.
Although it appears bland at first glance, the world of Cave Story is actually varied and interesting. During the course of the game, you travel through a wide variety of regions – from sewers to a giant farm to the outside walls of the floating island that serves as the setting – that really completes the feeling of adventure.
Finally, as strange as it may seem, I’m not normally a big fan of adventure games. I enjoy exploring, but most such games tend to restrict you to an area in an artificial way, such as “Those doors are green so you need super missiles.” I find this takes away much of the fun of exploration. In Cave Story, most of the alternate paths or hidden areas aren’t obvious. There is room for exploration in each individual area, but much progress in the game is linear. As a result of this, there’s no fake exploration – if you need to go somewhere next, that “where” is usually immediately obvious instead of being some door 20 minutes away you can unlock with your new doodad.
All in all, Cave Story is a great entry into the action/adventure genre. The fact that it is free makes it that much better. Plot, music, graphics, and gameplay are all enjoyable, making it a great game to try out.
You can download Cave Story and the translation patch at Aeon Genesis here.
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