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Cave Story
System: PC :: Rating: N/A :: Players: 1
Genre: Platformer :: Released: December 2004

By Aaron Robinson
23 October 2008 Cave Story is a strange little game. It took Pixel (the young Japanese developer who created it) over five years to finish. At first glance, someone might question why, considering it's an 8-bit platformer reminiscent of the early Metroid and Castlevania days. But it doesn't take long to see just how much polish has gone into every detail of Cave Story. Despite being available for close to four years, it's taken me until now to finally see why this little freeware title has been receiving so much fanfare. But even after waiting as long as I did, I'm still amazed at how well-designed this game is.

Cave Story puts you in the shoes of the ambiguous (and silent) Quote. Quote, it seems, doesn't have any idea about who or what he is, so it's up to you to explore the world and find out. But you won't be exploring for long before you're thrown into a war between a group of rabbit-like creatures called Mimigas and a power-hungry scientist who calls himself The Doctor. Despite their best efforts, the Mimigas are losing the battle, with each captured Mimiga becoming a new lab experiment for The Doctor. Luckily for them, Quote just so happens to be a fantastic warrior, so it becomes your job to help protect the villagers and prevent the evil scientist's plans from coming to fruition.

For a platformer, the story is surprisingly fleshed out. There's tons of dialog, and whilst most of the cast only gets a few lines, all of the major characters are provided with backstories and personality quirks. It goes a long way towards shaping the otherwise good story into something great, and I genuinely wanted to help the cast of characters. Just be aware that while the cute character designs and oddball humor might give the impression of a lighthearted story, it really is incredibly dark. Characters will get abused and killed, and it can be a little unsettling.

Whilst you start the game weaponless, you'll build a nice cache of guns (and even a sword) as the game progresses. Each new weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you'll be given plenty of opportunities to find out which weapons work best for any given situation. There are some light RPG elements in this aspect, too. Enemies often drop energy after being felled, and collecting enough of this causes your weapon to level up, making it noticeably stronger. Weapons have up to three levels of power, with the highest level typically granting it special properties. The rocket launcher, for example, will shoot multiple rockets at once when at full power, and the machine gun can propel Quote upwards when shot towards the ground. To balance this out a bit, you loose energy yourself when you get hit, so be prepared to see your weapon lose and gain levels repeatedly during the tougher boss fights.

The controls are pretty much perfect. Jumping and firing, scrolling through weapons and accessing items are all done with ease, but it's the physics of how Quote controls that will draw you in. Quote doesn't fall so much as float when coming down from a jump, and it makes platforming a much calmer experience. It's slow enough to give you plenty of time to react, whilst being quick enough to not feel sluggish as you try to reach new locations. It helps that the level design is fantastic. You'll be introduced to deathtraps and environmental hazards early in the game, but they don't become hard to navigate until long after you've come to grips with the controls. Really, the biggest difficulties come from the enemies themselves, so it's nice that you're given those weapons.

There's a wide variety of enemies, too. Even the occasional palette-swapped enemy will often have different abilities from their strangely colored brethren. Cave Story doesn't take the Gunstar Heroes mantra of throwing a constant stream of enemies at you either. There are stretches when enemies are nonexistent, and there are stretches when enemies fill the screen. But it's never more than you can handle at any given moment. As nice as regular enemies are, the boss battles are on a whole different level. As your weapons get better and your health expands, the bosses grow bigger and more aggressive to accommodate that. There are more than a few bosses that fill the entire screen, keeping you occupied with bullets, explosions and lesser enemies, whilst trying to prevent you from blasting their weak spots. Despite how hectic the battles can get, they're never cheap. All bosses follow some kind of pattern and will leave big enough windows to dodge attacks, so defeating them never comes down to blind luck.

It's worth noting that Cave Story doesn't have a checkpoint system, only save points, which means you'd be best to save often if you don't want to lose any progress. It's not much of a problem, but boss fights tend to have dialog beforehand, and it can be a bit frustrating to skip through the same text repeatedly. There's only one save slot as well, so if you're the kind of gamer who likes to keep multiple saves, you might find it a little restrictive. It's a shame, because there are dialog options that can alter the outcome of events later in the game, and these aren't always apparent the first time through.

The graphics seem caught halfway between the 8- and 16-bit eras; there's a huge color palette and the character and enemy designs are fantastic, but a few character sprites (like Quote himself, strangely) aren't particularly detailed. To make up for this, major characters get their portrait shown during conversations, which change depending on the character's mood. But even with the heavily pixilated visuals, the art style shines right through, especially in the more elaborate boss designs and environments. It may not offer the most technically impressive visuals, but there's a special charm to the way everything is designed.

Much like the graphics, the music is also reminiscent of NES games. And I've got to say, almost every song from the happy trombone-toting Balrog theme, to the calm keyboard track that plays as you enter an abandoned village is perfect. It's honestly one of the best video game soundtracks I've heard, with every song receiving a level of polish that would put most modern soundtracks to shame. Pixel has done some great work here, and I'd almost recommend checking it out just for the music alone.

I can't recommend this game enough. It's an action-heavy platformer with a surprisingly good story, nifty graphics and excellent music and it's available for free. The retro style means that just about any computer can run this, and even if you're not a PC person, there are unofficial ports to just about anything with a screen. Heck, there's even an (admittedly, not free) WiiWare version due out early next year. If you're interested at all in old school platformers, I implore you to give this a shot.

Final Grade: 9.5/10


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