cave story

a review of Cave Story (Doukutsu Monogatari)
a videogame developed by studio pixel
and published by studio pixel
for linux, Microsoft Windows, nintendo dsiware, nintendo wiiware, the macintosh operating system x and the nintendo 3ds
download the full game for free here
text by tim rogers

4 stars

Bottom line: Cave Story is “better than art -- it's science.”

Oh scared old world, with such skeezes and hobos in it. One need only graduate from university and spend fifteen minutes in an office before one realizes that 99.998% of the thumb-fingered jackasses who “professionally” “do” anything on this planet aren’t any good at what they do. It’s kind of hilariously tragic that the people we keep saluting on this here list of what we consider to be the best twenty-five games of all-time happen to just be people with common sense, though hey, you know what? Most people don’t have common sense, especially in the entertainment industry, where everything is so spreadsheeted and calculated and market-researched (they literally need someone to tell them, “Sports fans like sports games”); in this bloated and bubbling world, people with common sense are extraordinary. Let us pause to reflect.

(wait thirty seconds before reading next paragraph)

Seriously, you don’t even want to see what some of the Very Detailed Spreadsheets utilized in The Modern Game Development look like. Every Japanese game development studio has literally an entire section devoted to sitting there and thinking up the stupidest questions possible. They write these questions in a very long spreadsheet. Usually, in order to avoid looking incompetent, they make it so the “questions” don’t look like questions. They accomplish this by taking the question marks off the ends of any sentences that end in question marks. You end up with a whole spreadsheet entitled (for example) “possibly necessary sound effects”, where column A is a list of numbers, column B is the name of a sound effect (“sound effect of machine gun bullet hitting stone wall”) and column C is the description of the sound effect (“the is the sound effect of a machine gun bullet hitting into a stone wall”); column D will be a suggestion of what the sound effect should sound like (“should sound like a machine gun bullet hitting a stone wall”), column E will be its “priority level” (in Japan, this is a trick question: the priority level will always be “A” or “S”, the same way you can get a Medium or Large drink in American McDonalds, yet no Small), column F is the name of the person (randomly) assigned to make the sound effect, column G is the name of the person in charge of saying whether or not the sound effect sounds good or not (the column title is sure to indicate that this task can only be completed when said sound effect is “finished”), column H is to include a numeral (from zero to one hundred) representing the degree of progress made on this sound effect (this column will be updated weekly), and column I is to contain the word “OK” or “NG” (“no good”), as typed in by the director (usually the director’s assistant, acting on scraps of details she overheard as he conversed with his wife on the phone during his bi-daily pedicure). Columns A through G tend to be updated and fiddled with religiously. The rest of the columns usually go to hell. At a game developer where I might have worked before, list-management was part of a the job title of a particular perpetually gum chewing Small Man who never removed his unfashionable hat (a pork pie hat, for god’s sake, with little chains sewn into the sides); for the duration of his tenure, he listened to J-pop on tiny earbuds at a high volume while clearing his throat every five seconds for twelve hours a day. On lunch breaks, without removing his hat, he would stay put in his chair, head tilted back, towel over his face, in dire hopes that someone might see him and presume that he was a hard worker, and then whisper to another employee “That list management guy is a hard working” while the two of them were urinating and The Boss was taking a silent stuff in the stall behind them. Speaking of stuff: on this man’s first day in the office, he went to take a dump, and when he emerged from his two minutes of righteous bideting to see me standing there in front of a urinal, doing slow business, he shouted the perfunctory Japanese office greeting, went to the sink, lathered up, and proceeded to rub his hands against one another with the vigorous energy you’d use to skin a horse with a square of sandpaper. He kept up this momentum for literally six straight minutes, as I stood at the urinal with my penis literally and figuratively in my hands, waiting for him to go away. I looked over my shoulder, at his reflection in the mirror: beads of sweat were forming on his temples, emerging from his hat. He looked himself in the eyes, and then looked over his reflected shoulder at me, screamed the perfunctory Japanese in-office greeting, yanked his hands out of the sink, and bolted from the bathroom with the water still running. This wasn’t the only time this happened, and not just with this guy.

I’ve never met Pixel, one-man development studio behind Cave Story, though I’m pretty sure he wasn’t that guy. Just thinking about that guy gives me a perfect sense of why men like Pixel tend to work alone, and swear in interviews that they never want to get involved with game development on a “professional” level. Mr. Pixel, we here at Action Button Dot Net salute you, slowly and hard: more important than the fact that you are a man, you are also just one man. During spots of free time while working a “software engineering” job at a company he won’t name, while raising a family, this Japanese salaryman coded portions of a videogame that, seven years later, ended up being literally flawless — in that it was exactly what its creator had in mind — in terms of graphics, play mechanics, level design, story, and even music. Johnny Greenwood, multi-instrumentalist of the band Radiohead and Actual Human Genius (we don’t even like Radiohead, to be honest, and we’re comfortable calling the man a genius) would later remark on his blog that he had played Cave Story, and he considered it art. The man is a composer-in-residence at the London Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, for god’s sake! That’s a pretty high compliment! That’s more than a high compliment: Greenwood is a composer-in-residence at a philharmonic orchestra; philharmonic orchestras perfrom classical music; classical music is “art”; if Johnny Greenwood thinks one particular game is art, then we’ve just proven that games are art after all. Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick.

Now, a paradox: as once said in an interview with Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex: “‘There’s a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person,’ says Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex.” Single men have been wrongly paraded as heroes for years — Yuji Naka is universally believed to be absolutely responsible for all of Sonic the Hedgehog; Fumito Ueda is often handed the credit for Ico on a silver platter; some people probably subconsciously assume that Hideo Kojima probably drew the hecking box art for Snatcher, or believe that he was involved with Zone of the Enders in any way at all. So it is slightly sad that, when Cave Story arrived on the scene in 2004, none of the Major Mainstream Media Outlets picked up on the Jesus-crushing enormity of the reality that absolutely every aspect of this gorgeous, perfect videogame they just experienced with their whole body and soul was made by one man; even so, they refuse to believe it was possible. Yet it should never be all that amazing, really — and we say this as the highest compliment — games aren’t movies. If one aspires to design a game, one needn’t even hire actors. You can do it all by yourself — so why shouldn’t you? “Auteurs” in movies will always be bound to stars, and grips, and makeup artists. In games, one needn’t even hire a pimple-faced boy to fetch one’s coffee. Pixel likely fetched his own coffee. That is artistic freedom. Someday, this will come to a head. That someday is probably soon — Pixel’s little work of pop-art here has inspired so many to think outside and all around the boxes they didn’t know they were living in. Good things are already coming of it; they will keep coming. No matter how good they are, however, they won’t make Cave Story less great. If Super Mario Bros. is our so-far “Mona Lisa”, Cave Story is at least a (slight shudder) Mickey Mouse.

Let’s talk about it as a game, then:

Actually, man, I don’t even know what to say. Cave Story is perfect. It’s perfect in the way so few games can be perfect: it’s perfect because one guy made it, and he knew exactly what he was making because it was exactly what he wanted to make. There exist people in this world who will groan and call film directors like Quentin Tarantino “selfish” or “self-absorbed” because they’re only making the movies they want to see. It’s kind of creepy to think about why someone would say something like that. These people assume that every film director considers their self superhuman and that their opinions matter “more” than those of regular humans, though really, how can someone get more “down to earth” and “human” than Tarantino? How is making a movie you know you’d want to see worse than firing up Microsoft Excel and drafting a screenplay for a movie that marketing analysts tell you they think other people might want to see? Like, seriously. We’re perhaps not alone when we say we prefer the human approach. We should probably stop here, before we start apologizing for Kevin Smith. (Grace, call my lawyer and put him on hold while I finish writing this.)

Let’s try talking about the game again:

Why did Pixel make this game? Like, why the heck? The amount of loving attention to detail that went into this game indicates that the man, beyond a shadow of a doubt, possesses the mental fortitude befitting a researcher in a facility in Antarctica, delving into the permafrost, seeking the Cure For All Cancers. Why did Pixel bother making a videogame, when God had given him this situational opportunity to Literally Save The World? At the very least, the man could have sought out the Ultimate Toothbrushing Solution — a three-second-a-day quick rinse that eliminates the need to brush your teeth, while also keeping them sparkling white. (It’d be like those antibacterial hand-wash-lotion things, only for your mouth.) Instead, he made a videogame. We can only theorize that his reason for making a videogame instead of something objectively beneficial to the human race as a whole was because he had a computer at home, and not a chemistry set. “Employment” in a “Japanese Office”, as you may have heard, usually involves sitting in a chair for fourteen hours a day scrolling a spreadsheet up and down — same as any office anywhere in the world, except with this added pseudo-obligation to do “overtime” every night, especially when you’re not busy. Pixel was likely getting home tired every night — riding a bicycle to and from the office — so he’d get there, sit down, rest his hands on his pillow-like keyboard, and hack out fierce code, just pouring the contents of his brain out into this game. Eventually, it was playable, and even more eventually, it was great.

We still haven’t started actually talking about the game:

Recently, this game called Braid was released; the technical and game design aspects of it were mostly the work of one man, named Jonathon Blow. It’s said he “spent” $180,000 of his own money developing it. Commenters on Kotaku immediately jump to the conclusion that Blow is “arrogant” because his “$180,000” figure is merely an approximation of the salary he’d have been getting paid if he’d chosen to apply his job skills for those three years instead of slaving tirelessly and paylessly at a project he believed in. It’s somewhat sad people consider him “arrogant” for saying what he said, because we happen to know for sure that Blow is a talented computer programmer with more than half a life’s worth of experience, meaning that if he’d accepted a job as a full-time programmer, $60k a year is the minimum he’d have been getting paid if he’d just been fresh out of college. Thus, $180,000 is a conservative figure considering the three years he spent developing the game. Still, though, you have to wonder about Pixel. You get the impression that quantifying Cave Story‘s “opportunity cost” is the last thing he’d ever do. Making it was something he did for fun. Nothing more, nothing less.

Seriously, we’re going to talk about the game now:

Cave Story succeeds on all counts because there’s hardly any “professional” “thinking” put to it. Pixel imagined some game mechanics. He imagined a world, he imagined some characters. He imagined the guns the character would shoot. He imagined a quaint little-kids-with-finger-puppets story. He programmed an engine wherein a character could move around and shoot a gun. He then pooled his existing inspiration, quit looking for excess inspiration, and plunged deep into the heart of Creating Something. We can imagine that he sat at work every day completely forgetting about his game, only remembering it as he turned a nonspecific corner three minutes away from home. He’d eat dinner, maybe chatting with his wife, and then think: “Yes. Tonight, I’ll continue work on the gun physics.” Cave Story was likely made with no “urgency” at all. We imagine Pixel’s wife walking in and asking what type of cheese would go best with the apples they were planning to bring to her parents’ house on New Years; Pixel probably paused for a whole three minutes, maybe did some research on the internet, and decided on Gouda. Five years later, the world had a game that literally, objectively, could not possibly exist as the product of a corporate culture.

It doesn’t seem like we’re talking about Cave Story as a game just yet. In fact, however, we are: Cave Story‘s existence as a 100% independent product is, in a way, both the cause and effect of its immortally perfect game design. We have applauded, as of late, game developers with “common sense”. In this very review, we have mentioned the spreadsheet mentality of the Modern Large Game Publisher. The parenthetical sentence in which we say that game companies actually hire people to tell them that “Sports games appeal to sports fans” was more than a rhetorical device: it was a report of fact. There’s an objective truth hidden, somewhere deep inside Cave Story‘s kiddy pool of mechanics: that videogames can and will be planned and polished, though the absolute conviction of one man is exponentially more powerful than the givings-up, sighings, and signing-on-the-line-which-is-dotted-ing of a committee of professional quitters.

When asked about his favorite games of all-time in an interview on the subject of Cave Story, Pixel replied:


“I think I used to play an inordinate amount of games. Ever since I decided to make my own, though, my play time has dropped dramatically, and these days I haven’t had any time for games.

I think anyone who plays Cave Story will figure out which games are my favorites.”


Alright, then, let’s put on our detective hats and badges and draw our pistols in the name of love:

Super Metroid: Pixel is obviously a triple-A fan of Super Metroid, because his game is structured around a semi-hostile hub with access points to several uniquely textured stages. The main character is a robot with a gun; the enemies tend to be hostile flying flora and fauna. One of the guns in the game can be charged by holding down the fire button, like the Charge Beam in Metroid, and one of the guns can be used like a jet pack, boosting the main character’s altitude if fired at the ground in mid-jump. This feels somewhat like the Screw Attack in Metroid, coupled with the general idea of using bombs to boost the character up when rolled into a ball. Furthermore, the player earns a missile launcher early on; the only permanent-effect pickup items are missile capacity upgrades and maximum health upgrades, which also exist in Super Metroid. Furthermore, the missile stock upgrades, as in Super Metroid, increase the maximum missile capacity by five.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Many players assume that Pixel is also an admirer of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, though we believe otherwise. Know that there exist two types of games: Cake Promisers and Carrot Danglers. Cake Promisers (we take this term from Portal, which is, ironically, a Carrot Dangler) impress upon the player a non-existent promise of some amazing reward at the end of the game. This promise — abstractly — affects the player’s subconscious in such a way as to compel him to do things such as place bombs in front of every wall or burn every tree just to see if there might be something hidden. The end goal of Symphony of the Night is to “defeat Dracula”, though the implications of this are never measured. You’re killing him because he’s there, because he’s being resurrected, because he’s evil; the “story” hides the details from the player in a manner that may be mistaken for “gracefully”. Ultimately, though, it’s only “hiding” because it doesn’t know what it’s doing. The player ends up believing — whether they put it into words or not — that the kleptomaniac behavior they regularly engage in during the course of the game will actually have some impact on the experience on the whole. In other words, Symphony of the Night is chock full of optional stuff — hundreds of weapons that the player doesn’t need, little Monster Closets and big Monster Shelves with Something Shiny at the top. This isn’t entirely a Terrible Thing, of course: playing Symphony of the Night, at the very least, feels fun. Dracula’s Curse, however, is a Carrot Dangler. The player’s goal is always right there in front of his face. Every enemy encounter — every skeleton standing on a platform on the upper right of the screen brainlessly throwing bones — is more than just an enemy monster: it is an impediment to the player’s progress. This might seem like a tenuous explanation — hear us out: in Symphony of the Night, enemies are “things that can be defeated“; in Dracula’s Curse, they are always obstacles. Furthermore, Dracula’s Curse offers the player a choice of four characters, each character with his (or her) own move set. One character (Grant Danasty) can climb walls, for example. Cave Story does Dracula’s Curse one better, by giving one character a diverse set of moves, not all of which need to be used at all times.During the course of the game, the player will be offered upgrades, or new weapons. Turn down the jet-thruster machinegun, and you stand the chance of earning the super-powered charge-up pistol. You do not, however, need either to finish the game. This is very important (this is crucial).

The Entire Megaman series. If we had to pick one Megaman game that obviously inspired Cave Story, it’d be Megaman 3, though we won’t bother getting into exactly why. The main lesson any and all game designers can and should take away from Megaman is the way the weapons and abilities are distributed to the player. In the beginning of the game, the player is offered the choice of one of eight robot bosses. Choose one to begin a stage. Battle your way through the stage to meet the boss. Beat the boss to get a new weapon. Use the new weapon in the next stage you choose (or don’t). Half of a Megaman game’s appeal is the Overlying Puzzle: the weapons earned from end-of-stage bosses all possess distinctly different properties, making them effective against certain other bosses; thus, the game designers have obviously decided that there is an objective Best Order in which to tackle the bosses. However — and this is the most important point — the player is never required to beat the bosses in that order. Metal Man’s saw-blade projectile will make quick work of Wood Man (obviously), though any player willing to Go The Distance can defeat any boss with any weapon — even the standard weapon. What we Professional Game Designers call “The Megaman Problem” (literally just made that up) is that the player might not want to figure out which order is easiest, and might spend an eternity believing a game to be much harder than it really is. Pixel illustrates, in Cave Story, that he innately understands the glory of the Megaman design and its potential problems: in Cave Story, you receive new weapons when the story wants you to, and you fight bosses at regular intervals. Any boss can be defeated with any weapon. Some weapons are better-suited to defeating some bosses; however, the player will never find himself not in the possession of this weapon. (Furthermore, the Super Weapon is appropriately hidden: you’re not going to find it unless you’re good enough at the game to complete entire large sections of it with only the weakest weapons in your inventory.) That is to say, In Cave Story, the Overlying Puzzle is soluble by trial and error (die, switch weapons, try again) or by simple utilization of skill.

Spelunker. This is a game set in caves. Also, the main characters share a slight physical resemblance.

Blaster Master. In Blaster Master, the player controls a little guy driving a big tank. We here at Action Button Dot Net hereby disclaim that we relish any opportunity to mention a game in which the player controls a vehicle in side view (Choplifter, et al). However, this isn’t the reason we mention Blaster Master: we are mentioning it because it is, despite adventurous trappings, a very linear, stage-based game wherein the “branching paths” of stages seldom “reward” the player in empirical ways. To be blunt, it’s a matter of conscience. The level designers were clearly freeballing everything, with their only overbearing concern being to not be a jackass, to not make the player feel hated even when they were being punished. In Blaster Master, the player can get out of the tank and navigate narrow passages. In Cave Story, the player can use his machinegun rocket boost to reach otherwise inacccessible passageways. These passageways are not necessarily (nor usually!) the “easier” way to move toward the goal. They are just an “alternate”. Alternately: Cave Story and Blaster Master share visual motifs: just-barely-iconic caves and stalactites, high-class ancient temples and pillars, juicy-looking plant-life. Each features a kind of lazy, kitten-stroking, tea-sipping omnipresent dread in their visuals and sound.

Clash At Demonhead. This is a slightly obscure game; we almost included it at the bottom of this list just to look cool, then figured we’d probably get death threats for including a game that some (dumb) people hadn’t heard of and not including Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The fact of the matter is that any pasty ass can love Ocarina, though it turns out that the only people in the world who have even heard of Clash at Demonhead tend to possess impeccable taste in games and/or make excellent videogames themselves. Cave Story‘s distinct brand of pixel art, music, and general atmosphere exudes Demonheadliness. (Video reference.) The quirky story (Demonhead is about a “secret agent” in a vaguely fantastic world), the flow of dialogue boxes, the chunk of the synth, the craft of the tiles, the delicate quality of the level design, and the stickiness of projectiles make Cave Story feel like a game made by a man who has played Demonhead, whether he’s trying to impress us with that or not.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a game Pixel couldn’t have not played. Link to the Past‘s sense of challenge escalation and its punchy exploration / dungeon duality no doubt impressed upon Pixel a certain sense of balance. The Zelda games, for better or for worse, are the most polished pieces of entertainment software in existence (you can quote us on that), even if half the time it’s turds that are being polished. Previously we’ve addressed the Zelda series’ lock-and-key mentality regarding “puzzles” versus “things you can do”: level designers might be brushing up a dungeon for as long as three years, fiddling with the idea of turning that ten-foot-long empty space into a spike pit and putting a hookshot panel on the other side simply because it is a fact that the player possess the hookshot at this point in the game. This amounts in the player going, “Oh, hookshot”, opening the menu, equipping the item, and using it to swing across the pit. In addition to being mostly devoid of such profusely gaseous moments, Link to the Past possessed actually clever puzzles. There’s a possibility that Pixel wanted to make his game as “complex” as Link to the Past with regard to skill acquistion; he might have figured early on that it would be too much work, and so subconsciously decided to instead apply a Zelda level of polish to a distinctly un-Nintendo kind of challenge escalation model.

Lode Runner, Bomberman, Dig-Dug, Bubble Bobble: all the just-barely-iconic post-Pac-Man puzzle-action games of yore clearly left a heavy impression on Pixel’s psyche. In all of these games, the player possesses very few performable actions. In all these cases, the game explores the action in stages that gradually grow elaborate, while never expanding beyond a set size. Bomberman is a sublime example of this kind of game design: the first several stages are all precisely the same layout: it is only the number of enemies that increases. All of these games, in an effort to one-up Pac-Man‘s simplicity, possess a certain Action Button fine quality that makes them not as accessible as Pac-Man and all the more lovable because of it. You might have spent dozens of hours playing Dig-Dug, and never really knowing what the hell was going on. You knew you were winning because the game kept telling you you were winning. At its core, Dig-Dug is a game where you must kill all the enemies while avoiding touching them; however, while attacking enemies, you cannot move. The crunch of Dig-Dug is in the act of pumping the enemy full of air until they burst. It’s the kind of thing we love over here — we love stopping in place and slamming a button in the face of danger nearly as much as we love holding a button and then letting it go. This kind of simplicity is teeming from every pore of Cave Story: whether you know these games or not, you play through Cave Story and keep telling yourself that you can’t believe how amazing it is, partly because you can’t quantify why it’s amazing, and partly because you know it is.

Gunstar Heroes left its mark as well. We’re not 100% positive that Pixel was a MegaDriver, though something about the Treasure aesthetic suits him. The way enemies tumble down slopes in Cave Story recalls bombs fluttering to earth in Gunstar Heroes; the way energy crystals scatter when enemies die vaguely recalls MegaDrive-era Treasure bosses, with multiple spherical body segments. More than this, there’s the simple physical joy of the weapons: they all feel like they belong in their own games. The joy of this is manifold: you can literally play the whole game with just one weapon, and enjoy yourself. You can also enjoy yourself possibly even more by switching weapons on a whim. Each weapon provides a different potential solution for each up-popped situation. We have the zippy pistol, where each hit feels and sounds like a newspaper colliding with a brick wall at the speed of sound; the Super Mario-inspired bouncing fireball, which one-ups Mario by being thrown higher and potentially bouncing upward; the sword, which, when charged up, spawns cluster-bombs at the point of impact, forming a temporary shield of sorts; the machine gun is fast and effective, and lets the player fly when fired downward. Each weapon is endowed with a risk-reward dynamic that defies simple mathematical explanation. The arc of flight when using the machine gun to propel yourself upward is tricky and slippery as anything in a Mario game. Furthermore, the gun overheats if you fire it too much, meaning you’ll have to find a safe place to land every once in a while. Even further furthermore, the machine gun is exceedingly tricky to fire upward while even thinking about jumping: the physics blast you back to earth. Each weapon in Cave Story enhances the player’s perception of the character — as a videogame avatar, not as a “person” — without being conceptual or showy. The “gimmicks” on display are subtle; they’re the kind of gimmick that only a true, noble, unthinking genius can think up; if Katamari Damacy‘s ball-rolling mechanic is Madonna’s “Cherish”, Cave Story‘s machine gun is the chord progression from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

It’d be a stretch to assume that Pixel had ever hated a game. Any negative opinions Pixel harbors toward any aspect of any videogame are quite plainly answered in Cave Story. Most righteous among these trumpet calls is the system for upgrading weapons. A lesser game — classic Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden — would require the player to whip arbitrary objects like candles to pick up hearts, which would replenish the player’s stock of ammunition for side weapons. “Modern” Castlevania games (which Pixel has likely never played) encourage the player to be a sociopath, as opposed to a mere kleptomaniac: kill dozens of the same kind of enemy, and you might (might!) earn the ability to use its attack weapon. In the modern Castlevania games, optional weapons and necessary weapons are obtained in different ways, though they share the same ammo pool. What’s more, though hearts will recharge the special meter, it will also recharge on its own. Buried within this is a fundamental flaw we’d actually feel idiotic to have to point out (if you don’t notice it, call your local fire department: your clothes may also be on fire). Cave Story‘s system of weapon upgrades is fantastically simple — so simple that Pixel probably put no less than ten seconds of thought into it, so fantastic that it will get ripped off in several future games. Basically, each weapon (with one exception (kind of)) has three levels of charge. Usually, when you defeat an enemy, he’ll drop energy crystals. Pick them up to charge your weapon. The little bar representing the weapon’s charge level goes up. If it goes up enough, it reaches level 2. On level 2, the pistol’s range increases, and the shots get bigger. Eventually, it goes up to level 3, unlocking the largest and longest-range shot. Above level 3 is “level MAX”, which grants you no extra abilities — just comfort.

The “comfort” comes from knowing that every time you get hit, the currently active weapon loses power. In other words, as long as a weapon has power, you can fire it infinite times. If you get hit, it loses power. If it drops below a level, it loses ability. Kill more enemies and pick up more crystals to power it back up. In short, the energy crystals are everything, and the only way to get them is to beat enemies. The joy of leveling up a weapon isn’t nearly as great as, say, leveling up in Dragon Quest and being told that your hero’s strength increased by five points — though it’s far more poignant because the levels can be swatted away, leaving you to scramble for more crystals. The dynamic creates a unique psychological friction: you will find yourself powering up weapons and then switch to other weapons that are not powered up, out of fear of losing power on those other weapons. You will begin a boss fight using the weapon you don’t intend to use to defeat the boss, seeing how long you can survive, before switching to the weapon whose power you fear losing. Out in the rolling, bubbling stages, weapon power ebbs and flows; when you make it all the way through an environment without being hit, you have more than one general reason to feel good about your performance. To sum up, Cave Story shuns kleptomania by dangling the carrot of power in front of your eyes at all times; you never need to go out of your way to power up, nor do you ever need to power up, period. The machine gun only lets you fly when it’s on level 3, though you don’t ever need to fly. There’s always another way.

The mechanics in Cave Story are as interestingly nuanced as the move set of a character in a finely tuned fighting game. The level design, with its share of stand-offs, set-piece-like skirmishes, and big boss battles, exploits the nuances on delicate levels. In any single-player action game, the main character’s basic actions should be polished enough to make you believe with all of your soul that if there were a two-player deathmatch mode where each player controlled the player character with his basic move set, it would still be fun. If your character isn’t exciting to control in the context of a “man versus himself” conflict, why should it be fun to kill anything else? Action games in general have a lot to learn from fighting games. Dynasty Warriors, for example, never seems to understand this; Cave Story does, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

Cave Story flows forward smoothly; though areas may appear labyrinthine at times, you can never feel lost. You will always know where you need to go, and even if you didn’t know where you needed to go, you would always know where you can go. If you’ve played nearly as many games as Pixel has, you’ll feel Legacy of the Wizard, Xanadu, Guardian Legend — all these old, mildly obscure games that some people pretend to love so much that they actually do end up loving them. Pixel, in his gaming years, had quite obviously delved into the still-ticking heart of PC-Engine / (Super) Famicom-era game design, with its little quirks and tricks and frighteningly hidden secrets you’d need a deeply-game-loving friend to ultimately unearth; consciously or not, with Cave Story, he exhumes the bones of dozens of almost-perfect games and arranges them in the most logical order; we can even sense a familiarity with story-centric Japanese role-playing games like Final Fantasy IV in the way Cave Story‘s scenario unfolds. The only interview we’ve seen with Pixel doesn’t ask him why he decided to start making games. It does ask him if he plays any games these days, and he says he doesn’t, though he’s certain there are some good ones. That can’t possibly just be politeness. He’s got to believe that. Let’s all believe that with him.


design by reroreroPixel says in interviews that he got through the development of his game with a lot of help from internet forum-posting friends. Some of them play-tested segments and told him if he was on the right track. I wonder if that was necessary. Maybe it wasn’t. Is it too much to say that a man can possibly make a videogame with absolutely no help from the outside world? People on indie-game-development forums will tell each other to have your stupidest friend play the game, to see if they can figure it out. Is that really necessary? That Pixel was able to transform his love of the just-barely-great games of yesteryear into such a sophisticated package is a testament to the man’s science-like genius. When asked how he made the music for the game, he says that he “put some notes together” and listened to them; if they sounded good, he kept them, and if they didn’t sound good, he threw them out. I don’t think this description is exaggerating in any way. I genuinely believe that’s how he made the music, and I see no reason why he couldn’t make an entire game the same way. The even bigger question, perhaps, is whether or not Pixel’s wife has ever played the game. I wonder if she’s a gamer. Not a whole lot of games make you think of another man’s wife’s opinion in them. Even if she’s a non-gamer, do you think she’d have been able to play Cave Story and know it’s something special, the way a person oblivious to basketball could see Michael Jordan circa 1992 and know that he was good at what he does? Very few videogames exude that kind of virtuosity. Super Mario Bros. is one of them — Cave Story is another.

–tim rogers


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