Review by onewaystreet

Reviewed: 08/21/07

An extremely well-polished game with something for everyone.

Really, if you think about it, all good things come with a price. That top-of-the-line 50 inch plasma TV that you want? That'll set you back anywhere between $1500 and $3500 or so. Brand spanking new computer? That'll cost you upwards of $1000. But there is at least one good thing that comes without a single price tag: this little gem of a game. Indeed, Cave Story is just one of those things that, like a new TV or computer, will last you a very long time. Here's the thing, though. This game will cost you nothing except maybe the rest of your free time. Yes, you heard me right. You won't have to buy this game at all, as only a single download (actually, probably two downloads, as the game is in Japanese and a translation patch is necessary, and not always included with the game itself) will likely keep you inside for at least a week or so, if not more.

The game first dumps you, a humanoid creature with green antenna-ears and an awesome hat, off in a cave (as the title of the game suggests, pretty much all of the action takes place in caves), with no recollection of who (or what) you are. As you traverse this cave, you eventually steal a gun, and then jump off a cliff into a village inhabited by rabbit-like mimigas talking about a mysterious girl named Sue and an equally mysterious Doctor. As luck would have it, soon after you arrive in this village, the Doctor's henchmen, a witch appropriately named Misery (who, being evil, spreads misery), and a toaster/lunchbox creature called the Balrog, steal away one of these harmless mimiga creatures for the Doctor's experiments. So, at its core, the story just seems like a rescue mission, to find this Sue (as well as this mimiga) before the Doctor's evil plans can come to pass (and this is only five or ten minutes into the game). However, there's more to the plot than may seem. Many different twists and turns keep this story not only on your toes, but actually caring for the characters, worrying what will next come to pass, something that is rarely accomplished in a game.

Not only is the story deep and engrossing, but the game is just so fun that you want to keep playing. At its very foundation, Cave Story is a simple 2D platform shooter, a-la Super Mario (but with weapons, as jumping on enemies typically leads to your death, and not theirs) or Castlevania, in which you run and jump to avoid enemies and pass obstacles, as well as shooting the ever-loving crap out of whatever is in your way. While most if not all of the separate worlds are linear (full-blown exploration in a 2D game is probably impossible), there is a variety in all of them that makes each world completely different from the others. For example, one of the levels sends you through a desert appropriately named the Sand Zone, where you must search for lost puppies, while another level, known as Grasstown is a grassy expanse in which you must build a bomb to save someone trapped in a janitor's closet of sorts (you'd see why when you get there).

As you progress through the game, you amass an impressive arsenal of weapons, ranging from a simple laser shotgun to a rocket launcher to a weapon that shoots out bubbles. Each of these weapons has their own uses. The shotgun (called the Polar Star) makes an excellent close-range weapon, allowing for easy and damaging close-range fire, while the rocket launcher causes long-range heavy damage to all enemies, including bosses. The incredible variety and versatility used in these weapons ensures that you won't always be using the Polar Star or the rocket launcher, but also that seemingly random bubble weapon which can actually form a shield of bubbles around you as you charge headlong into a group of 20 or so enemies.

In addition to the variety in the weapons, an RPG-style element is integrated onto all of the weapons. Simply put, you yourself don't level up (although there are health capsules that can increase your maximum HP), but instead your weapons do. When you kill enemies, there is a chance that they'll drop orange triangles, which add to your gun's experience bar, located right next to your health bar in the corner of your screen. When this bar is filled, the weapon will level up, and become stronger. For example, the Polar Star only shoots a small laser at level one, but upon reaching level two, it shoots out two lasers at the same time, which do more damage, and at level three, it will shoot out a larger laser which does even more damage. Each separate weapon has three weapon levels, each level stronger than the one previous. However, there's a catch to this. Whenever you get hit, be it by a projectile thrown by the enemy or you walking into a pool of lava, you lose experience from the gun currently equipped (remember, you have more than one gun at a time). Get hit enough, your weapon levels down to its weaker form, forcing you to go through the leveling up process again, which can be very annoying, especially during boss fights, where weapon experience can be scarce. Combined with the fast-paced nature of the game, the weapon system allows even the simplest enemy attack to become quite the experience (pun intended).

When the game isn't throwing enemies at you, there are periods of walking that allow you to just soak in the amazing music in this game. Like the gameplay, the music is something that is just about perfect. Each tune suits the mood of the situation, from the light, bouncy themes of the Grasstown to the gritty, intense boss battle themes (of which there are about five), everything seems to work. Tunes are whistleable when they should be, and somber when they need to be. On more than one occasion, a single song from this game has been stuck in my head for the entire day, and unlike other times when that happened, I didn't try and get another song stuck in my head, simply because, despite being repetitive, the songs are enjoyable all the way through. The only gripe I with the music is that the light and bouncy theme song music is used as a theme in one of the levels late in the game, and feels horribly out of place. While the other songs capture the mood of the situation, this particular instance doesn't. Don't get me wrong, I love the song itself, just not as a level theme. Everything else about the music is perfect.

Aesthetically, the game transports you back to the era of 8-bit gaming. Every sprite, missile, explosion, and laser is wonderfully pixellated, and while it may not seem like the most pleasing thing to look at, it actually is very easy on the eyes. Every sprite flows, be it a boss attack or a laser beam, and since it's pixellated, any speed computer can keep up with it, as long as it can handle the 3 megabyte download. All of the characters are artfully designed, from you, the green-antenna'd aweome hat guy with a giant gun to the Balrog, the evil toaster/lunchbox/minifridge. The bosses are especially well done, many much larger than you, and are often just awesome to look at (I died on the final boss once because I was amazed at how it looked). To put it simply, the graphics are a masterpiece, and when done in 8-bit pixellation, it's even more awe-inspiring. Also, unlike other 2D platformer games (like Mario), there are no physics-defying platforms, each platform suspended by a chain, or ground into the walls (which just have simple cave-ish backgrounds, another reminder that this game takes place in a cave), and it adds a subtle realistic effect to an otherwise unreal game.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of Cave Story that can at times be annoying: the fact that it's a very short game. On average, a playthrough can last anywhere between 4 and 6 hours (ten if this is a first playthrough), which is by no means a lot for a single play. Thankfully, this is used to the game's advantage. Because there are so many hidden things to do (such as a secret dungeon), one cannot possibly accomplish everything in one playthrough. Thus, because the game is so short, it's more enjoyable to play again, and figure everything out. Not often does a game arise that its greatest weakness can be turned into a strength, and Cave Story does it magnificently.

However, probably the most amazing part about this game is the fact that it was developed by a single person. Over the course of five years, Pixel worked solo on this game to make it the best he could make it. Every little facet of this game just transcends an aura of perfection, from the fine-tuned combat system to the deep and engaging storyline from which three different endings are available (with you being able to fully control which ending you get). Everything has the polished, professional feel that one comes to expect from companies like Nintendo, and really, aside from a few slight gripes, everything is just about as perfect as could be.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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