Publisher: NIS America / Developer: Nicalis / Price: $39.99 / Played on: 3DS / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Fantasy Violence]
Cave Story began its life as an indie game distributed across the internet. An action-adventure platformer in the vein of Metroid and Castlvania, the game emphasizes exploration and rewards lightning fast reflexes and solid gaming dexterity. If you missed Cave Story in its many cross-platform incarnations over the last few years, and you’re looking to feed your 3DS with a game of actual quality, then you should get Cave Story 3D.
Cave Story 3D is pretty straightforward in a lot of ways: players take control of a silent protagonist who explores different levels for items and upgrades to move him forward through the story. Most of the time, you can’t get to the next part until you find just the right weapon or have the exact right upgrade, so a lot of backtracking and experimentation is a must.
But there’s enough variation on that blueprint to make the game unique and very fun to play. The game utilizes an interesting (though sometimes a bit frustrating) weapon mechanic that adds a twist to the standard Metroid-vania platformer formula. As you acquire weapons, you collect upgrade points from killed enemies, allowing you to max out your weapons at three levels. But when you take damage and lose health, you also lose weapon points, resulting in damage downgrades and a loss of effectiveness in battle. Because of this, the game keeps you on your toes throughout, motivating you to avoid damage as much as you can—again, encouraging twitch reflexes and punishing mistakes severely. Expect to die a lot. In fact, they should’ve called this game Save Story—neglecting save-stations means losing tons of progress if you make one misstep.
The above-described weapon/health system, along with swarms of punishing enemies and challenging level layouts, means that the game isn’t really meant for casual gamers despite its casual-friendly appearance. Some might be turned off by what’s essentially a double-punishment for taking hits, which also makes boss-fights even trickier. But as frustrating as your many defeats can be, these obstacles mean that victory tastes that much sweeter. There were plenty of times during my play-through where I straight up yelled out, “Yes!” when I managed to get past a tough boss or level.
And that’s the beauty of this game: it takes relatively simple elements, like platforming, and leveling up, and puts them together in a tight, polished, and deep package. Simply progressing through the game shouldn’t feel this rewarding, but it does. Because of how well all of the gameplay elements come together, Cave Story awakens the pleasure centers of your brain and keeps you coming back for more despite the punishment.
Cave Story is very, very strange. The game doesn’t really hold your hand when you start, and just throws you into the deep end. To summarize, you play an unnamed, amnesiac protagonist, who discovers that he’s a robot soldier from the surface world. As the story unfolds, you meet the Mimgas, who are bunny-people (or, if you talk to fellow IG writer Lawrence Sonntag, puppy-people) who live on Mimiga Island, which is also inside a cave…or something.
The Mimigas are being abducted and experimented on by the Doctor, and it’s your job to save the little beings from him and his minions, Balrog (who’s like a…robot toaster?) and the witch Misery. Along the way, you’ll learn more about the bizarre world and its history. Fortunately, the game seems aware of its own weirdness and has fun with the strange plot twists through fun dialogue and characters.
Of course, sometimes there’s no getting past the insanity: at one point, while exploring a secret room, I found one of the female character’s panties. According to the game’s description, they had no use, but there was a little pink flower on them.
Ultimately, though, the odd story is a real draw, half because it’s fun and compelling, and half because you really want to see what craziness they’ll come up with next. In fact, there are multiple endings depending on how you play, so the story helps boost the game’s replay value, too.
The game’s controls are simple and really tight. Whenever you miss a jump or screw up, it’s not because of poor controls or their implementation—it’s generally just a failing on your part. Usually there’s just enough juice in your jumping abilities to get to the platform you need to hit, and if you can’t make it, chances are there’s a switch you need to hit or an upgrade you need to find. The game’s great controls help to mitigate the pain you feel when you screw up and die. At the end of it all, you know that your failures are yours and not the result of janky control in a broken game.
This is the one area in which the game stumbles. Overall, the game’s visuals are fun and colorful, with unique looking enemies and characters and beautiful looking levels. But the presence of 3D—which includes 3D-rendered graphics on a 2D plane—can sometimes trip up gameplay. Some blocks that are in the background look like platforms because they’re tough to distinguish from the actual platforms. It can be difficult to figure out which spots are safe and which aren’t, and that’s one big frustration that you can pin on the game’s design.
In addition, playing the game with 3D turned on doesn’t make it any better at all—in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes bits of foreground will obscure the view of what you’re doing, and with 3D turned on, the effect is even more jarring. This was a game that simply didn’t need to be ported into 3D, and its side-scrolling platformer mechanics don’t ever have cause to make any sort of use of the extra dimension.
On the other hand, the game takes advantage of the full 3DS screen, unlike the DSi version of the game which loses a bit of space on either side. Moreover, the depth added to the revamped visuals (whereas previous versions of the game were flat, 2D-style sprites) looks quite good. Just be careful of the aforementioned spots that can trip you up.
The game’s soundtrack is catchy and fun, helping to set the tone for each level or room you find. Some songs convey a sense of adventure and exploration, while others emphasize important plot points or moments of comedy. The game’s sound is definitely a highlight.
The biggest hurdle towards recommending this game for the 3DS is the fact that it’s so widely available on other platforms, and for less money. The Wii Virtual Console offers it for $12, while you can purchase the non-3D version of the game for $10 right onto the 3DS via the eShop. The game is undeniably good, and the 3D-rendered graphics give the game a professional-looking polish most of the time. But the less-than-great 3D effects and comparatively high price tag take some of the luster off this otherwise great package.