Review by Reptobismol
"Neither sound issues, nor sloppy text, nor freezing shall keep this game from being excellent."
A pessimist has the pleasure of being both right and wrong as events play out, and more than a few were pleasantly surprised to learn that Cave Story was not vaporware after all; given its incredibly lengthy delays past its numerous projected release periods, followed by silence, even the most diehard of fans had begun to question their faith in the development team. Not only had Nicalis thwarted those claims, they even managed to release the game within the first quarter, a feat I myself had insisted was impossible. All was not peaches and cream, however. By putting the naysayers in their place, Nicalis had rushed Cave Story's development, thereby leaving numerous issues unresolved, both big and small. While the product may look or sound shoddy, especially to fans of the PC game, it must be stressed that the gameplay suffers only as much as one will allow. The original game was so well made that, to me, someone who had never even played the freeware version, its flaws are easily tolerable; the gameplay, incredibly addicting; the overall experience, enjoyable.
The gameplay is often compared to the likes of Metroid, and for good reason; at their core, they are extremely similar. You are placed in an unfamiliar area and are allowed to freely move around, exploring and shooting down enemies in your path, making progress through a combination of discovery and satisfying small objectives. While movement may seem awkward at first, at least compared to other action platformers, control is otherwise tight and highly responsive. Like Metroid, your arsenal and health are expanded via scattered items which must be found, or earnings from boss battles, and many may be ignored if you wish to test yourself. Unlike Metroid, however, your arsenal can frequently if not drastically change throughout the game, as some weapons can be acquired only through obtuse methods, such as decision making. Some of these effects are permanent and may leave you feeling shortchanged depending on your style, but through repeat playthroughs and experimentation, you're encouraged to try all of them and will find numerous uses for each.
Unique to each weapon is a range of three power levels, which alter both the strength and the trajectory of the projectile, often drastically. The mechanics behind leveling weapons up or down are pretty straightforward; you collect experience crystals, triangular shards of different sizes, which gradually fill up that weapons' gauge. As you take damage, the potency of the attack determines how much of that gauge is depleted. Obviously, this places an emphasis on avoiding damage at all costs, as the ratio of experience lost to experience gained can be pretty sizable. It's worth noting, however, that among the more useful weapons in the game, this effect is often negligible, if not totally irrelevant, or even beneficial. How do you accrue experience, you ask? By killing enemies, of course, and occasionally by way of capsules placed at specific points in levels. Naturally, more powerful enemies drop more crystals or larger variations.
Also unlike Metroid is the heavily text-based progression of story and events. The closest comparison to Cave Story might be Metroid Fusion, in which you're given a slight sense of direction along your quest and are always aware of your present objective, even if it's as simple as making it from point A to point B. Even still, the aptly named Cave Story goes above and beyond Fusion by producing something that far more closely resembles a climactic storyline than the average Metroid provides. In fact, it almost resembles something out of your basic RPG; you are a robot, who awakens inside a cave with no memory of how you came to be; quickly reaching a village, you learn that a race of rabbit-like creatures named Mimiga are being kidnapped by a despicable character, known merely as "Doctor", to be used as tools of destruction. In voluntarily helping them, you learn much more about their plight, the island itself, and some insight into your background. The story is almost entirely driven by a large quantity of character dialogue, none of which from you, a silent protagonist.
Speaking of characters, I found nearly all of them to be likable. Their personalities are complemented well by changes of expression in their profile, shown every time they speak. There's enough charm to have you feeling amused when certain things happen, or empathetic when plights befall others. One minor thing to set Cave Story apart from other shooters, which I particularly love, is the enemy design. Being more than used to Man vs Alien/Insect/etc-type shooters, it's refreshing to be killing swarms of deadly enemies that aren't also hideous or grotesque in some form. Instead of giant wasps, you've got giant cat-like bedsheet ghosts. Instead of cockroaches, you've got Critters, a species of relatively benign enemies best described as little round things with dot eyes. Cave Story isn't the first shooter to feature many cute enemies, but it isn't what I'm used to, so the change resonated well with me.
Yet another gameplay element not usually found in shooters is an extensive key items list. Whereas the extent of Metroid interaction involves using particular weapons and abilities on various things, Cave Story will have you looking for keys, ID cards, trinkets, and the like. Whether it's opening a door or simply being obliged to do someone a favor, many areas will have some sort of fetch quest. It's worth mentioning that, unlike many full-fledged RPGs, these fetch quests are not at all monotonous, and there isn't enough backtracking to become annoyed with. In addition to your generic keys, the game also boasts a large number of useless Easter Egg items, found by doing random things at very specific times; the timing for these is quite strict and it's very easy to permanently miss out on the bulk of them. In fact, you'll likely find most of these by accident, just by inadvertently fulfilling the requirement.
It is with this abundance of easily and permanently missed assortment of items that I come to a major point of this game: the almost mandatory need for multiple runs. As previously mentioned in regard to weapons, the methods of earning some of them is rather obtuse; to say that of the best ending is a huge understatement. It is nearly impossible, even when stopping to think before the most minor of actions, for an unknowing player to fulfill the prerequisites. There are several steps to be taken at several different points in the game, and skipping one of them automatically nulls your chances. Numerous and frequent save points provide both a blessing and a curse, as while you'll rarely have to make up a lot of lost progress, it also all but ensures that you screw yourself out of something. While not a flaw in the slightest, given that this game is reasonably short and gripping, thereby compelling you to begin a new file, I'd expect many players to have no idea they'd missed something without having looked it up. Not to discredit peoples' intuition, but a player isn't going to look into something they have no reason to suspect is there.
The difficulty is moderate to average, largely in part due to the generous supply of save points. Your worst enemy will be curiosity, as you wander into a room or screen not having experienced the enemies or hazards there, and are soon overwhelmed. The Sand Zone is quite possibly the best example of this; even when an NPC warns you of the Sand Croc, an enemy which ambushes you, you won't know just how quick or powerful it is until you err or otherwise tempt fate. Were it not for these frequent save points and permanent restorative points in every level, the difficulty would be quite high. While enemies can and do drop hearts upon defeat, the health restored by these is marginal compared to the damage you take. The health gauge is also kept low enough throughout the game that enemies can make short work of inexperienced players.
The absolute best thing to come of this port is the updated graphics. While many equate this game to 8-bit NES caliber, I think it far more closely resembles something of the early SNES-era. The intricacy and detail in the terrain, backgrounds, and especially sprites is very sharp and pleasing to the eyes, to an extent I believe the NES simply can't reach. The change in resolution allowed Nicalis to greatly improve the pixel art, smoothing out the features of characters and adding little bits of detail everywhere. By all means, opt to use the new graphics with this game; they are a delight.
It almost makes you wonder if Nicalis wanted to focus the bulk of their efforts on revamping the look. In fact, I wouldn't have questioned Tyrone if he said that was his highest priority. Because, unfortunately, the new music comes nowhere close to impressing me. While it's been said that something went wrong with the implementation of the music, thereby causing instruments to be omitted entirely such as drums, I have to go by what was presented, and, it's poor. The old music doesn't suffer the loss of sounds, but has looping issues, on top of a bug that can cause tracks to be played on top of one another, such as a boss theme overlapping the stage theme. I've experienced that one myself, and while the problem was short lived (ie: the boss' reign of terror was short lived) it stuck out like a sore thumb. The old music is otherwise without fault, and you'll find that Cave Story has an incredibly catchy soundtrack, covering a wide range of melodies. Whether the setting calls for something cheerful, gloomy, ominous, or hectic, the music nails it. The tracks used for the various "action" segments such as fleeing, boss battles, and danger are especially good. The looping issue doesn't actually bother me much and because I both use the old music and happen to like it very much, and encourage everyone to do the same, this should be very easy for newcomers to Cave Story to overlook.
The sound effects present another problem. Not in that they're bad, but that they're much too loud. The typical resolution to this, that being to simply lower the sound volume, only adds to the problem; sure, the music isn't drowned out anymore, but particularly awful sounds, like the shrill bouncing of experience crystals, are STILL much too loud. Plus, the lowered volume lowers sound effects with nothing wrong so much that they're inaudible. You'll be hearing those bouncing crystals on an extremely frequent basis, I might add. While this definitely annoys me more than the music ever could, again, it's not so bad to really sully my opinion of the game.
The worst bug in every aspect and easily the biggest indicator that this game was rushed involves the game freezing spontaneously. By most counts, this is directly related to the map, which is also deemed to be buggy in itself. Basically, people would view the map of an area and then enter a door someplace, and the Wii would immediately freeze, not accepting input of any kind and forcing the player to cut the power. Because I've never used the map even once, I've never encountered this bug, and I'm of the opinion that there's really no reason to be dependent on a map for this game in the first place. No area is anywhere near the complexity it would take to get lost. Upgrades are not particularly deviously hidden, keen eye or not. I frankly saw no reason to ever open it in the first place, so I didn't. That said, a bug that causes freezing is still a major issue that never should have gotten out the door. There's talk about various things being patched for the EU release, notably the music, but this thing also has to go. Hopefully (or, rather, if Nicalis has any common sense) the NTSC version will also be patched and re-uploaded, so no one has to inadvertently deal with this. The map being irrelevant is no excuse.
As for additional modes, Cave Story was originally intended to have DLC, but Nicalis wisely nixed that decision, as the additional modes do not warrant spending extra money on. Curly Mode, as the name implies, allows you to play the entire game as Curly Brace, one of the more prominent secondary characters. This mode provides numerous changes throughout the text (Curly does not stay silent) and some sprite swapping, but otherwise the gameplay itself remains unaltered. There's Hard Mode, which removes all Life Up enhancements except for one, and the Missiles, the number one boss killer. This is little more than enforcing some of the stipulations behind a minimalist run, as opposed to allowing the player to simply ignore the upgrades. Then there's Boss Rush, arguably the neatest of the additions, and it's exactly as it sounds- topple every boss one by one, as quickly as possible- but with an added feature: in the waiting room-style area before each boss, you're given the opportunity to expand your arsenal with the weapons you'd acquire during a normal run, as opposed to merely replenishing your gauges. Lastly, there's Sanctuary Mode, which allows the player to speed through the final and hardest level of the game; unfortunately your weapon set leaves something to be desired, as you can't use the Snake or Missiles, both of which especially important to anyone that has bothered to conquer this challenge with speed, within the main game (the Missiles actually cross the line from "important" to "crucial.")
Final Thoughts: Because Cave Story is such a good game from a gameplay standpoint, with just about everything likable in some form, the rather poor presentation should not be a dealbreaker to anyone that has never experienced it before. If you at all enjoyed any 2-D Metroid game, especially Super Metroid, I'm confident that you'll love this. The small issues with sound effects and text and the like are unfortunate, and the freezing, in all honesty, is simply unacceptable, but there are easy ways around them until Nicalis completes a patch. Whether you wait until then or not, this is an excellent addition to the Wii's online library, and though the absolute biggest difference between this and the freeware version is twelve dollars, I think it's worth supporting such an amazing game. I've read nothing but good regarding the original work by Pixel, and this version still captures what was best about it while making it look much prettier. I haven't regretted the purchase since, and especially haven't gotten my fill, and by the looks of things, nor have the majority of fans.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/29/10, Updated 04/02/10
Game Release: Cave Story (US, 03/22/10)
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