Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Cave Story+

I'd love to go up to Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya and get him to teach independent video game developers how to make a fucking video game, because Cave Story is a damn fine game that blows the competition out of the water before it even existed. Before Braid's success lead indie developers to believe that pretentiousness was synonymous with quality, Cave Story lead us to believe that beneath the smoke and mirrors that began to form with AAA games lied independently developed games with genuine creativity, ingenuity and a sense of wonder that came with games in the past. A passage through an immersing game world full of things that'll kill you and things that drive the adventure further, Cave Story relishes in old school tropes without essentially being an NES game on your PS3. Instead, it's a retro game with modern touches that actually matter, becoming an experience of its own that still has yet to be topped.

A good video game is one that doesn't waste your time with unnecessary bullshit. If it did, it'd be Assassin's Creed 3, which is a bad game. But Cave Story plops you into a cave with no recollection of how you wound up on what would eventually be revealed to be a floating island. No overly long exposition or anything - BAM, onto the island, you wake up, you explore a bit and you find out from some friendly natives that you have to stop the evil Doctor from taking over the world. It sounds like the setup for the plot of most 90s JRPGs. But like a good 90s JRPG, the story opens up as you progress through the game. There's more to the Doctor's plan than simple global domination which gets revealed towards the end of the game. The characters you meet along the way are all connected in a way that leads to these chain of events. Tragic events will happen, but like any good hero, you'll right the wrongs that have been committed. Even though this game is like five hours long, there's plenty of depth to be found in the story and it becomes a rather enamouring tale of stopping a power obsessed lunatic from achieving his evil desires. For reference, it does in five hours what a typical post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game tries to do in 30-40 hours. I sometimes forget that this is an indie game because it's just trying to tell me a story instead of shovelling pseudo-philosophy down my throat and expecting me to believe that it's art. Cave Story has a damn fine story with brilliant pacing to let nailbiting dilemmas and big events happen with enough breathing room between them to let them sink in, all within its five hour length.

It's downright insulting how retro inspired games are either fucking I Wanna Be The Guy trial and error bullshit or Braid “man this is soooo deep” crap, because games like Cave Story gets shit fucking right! It takes Metroid, makes it a bit more linear without it being obvious that it's more linear (sounds like Pixel's been playing some Half Life on the side), and makes backtracking not feel like a chore! Shit, even the best Metroid games can't do that! But I'm getting ahead of myself - Cave Story is a sidescrolling adventure game where you run, jump and shoot your way through a game world that expands as you find items that allow you to access areas that you couldn't before, unless a story event plops you elsewhere. Imagine that, a sidescrolling platformer that's driven by the plot. You'll be revisiting some areas at times, but you'll find that things have changed; enemies have gotten stronger and the terrain is a bit different. You may even fight a boss that wasn't there before! Now, it might not sound like much, but given that it's rooted in Metroid-like gameplay, backtracking is sometimes a necessity and as such, it's nice to see some change so that it doesn't get monotonous. That's not to say that all backtracking is like this – there's one part where you have to go back and forth from getting an item and using it on something a little while away, and then going back to get the item and using it on something on the other side of the map. That part was tedious. But that's the exception to the rule – you'll often have to revisit the central village area but it usually contains the next part of the plot. Towards the end, you'll revisit an earlier area, but it'll be massacred and full of stronger enemies. That about covers how much backtracking you'll do in this game.

The levels aren't massive and a fair amount of the game is pretty linear, but it doesn't stop you from exploring the different nooks and crannies to find health and ammo upgrades. It also doesn't stop the game from doing a splendid job of giving off the illusion of open level designs. It's done to a tasteful degree, so there's no wasted space and doesn't feel like an empty sandbox, and since there are some goodies, it rewards players for being curious. Hell, at some point in the game, depending on what direction you take in a level, you'll either have a shot of getting the good ending, or will have to content yourself with the not so good ending. Deceptively conning the player into believing that this will be a linear game with big worlds, only to drop a bombshell of not only multiple paths but also multiple endings can either be clever game design or bad game design. Thankfully, Pixel is a fucking genius and managed to integrate this in a way that feels natural. Obviously, some areas will be more linear than others; obviously, some areas are going to have branching paths and obviously, some areas will be inaccessible if you don't do certain things right. What that means is that replaying the game is encouraged in order to get the other ending. Getting it is a bit cryptic, but if this game has taught you anything at that point, it's that curiosity is rewarded with neat stuff.

It's not all about exploring as you'll be required to fend for yourself. Whether it's against the wildlife that attacks you first or the forces of evil, you'll have to shoot them down. You're given a decent variety of guns – you start off with a blaster and along the way, you'll find a bubble launcher, rocket launcher, machine gun, throwing swords and the motherfucking BFG. Each of these weapons have their uses, like how the blaster is good for your first weapon but your machine gun is just generally better as it has rapid fire for quick and easy damage. The throwing swords deal a fair bit of damage if it lands on an enemy, although you can only throw them at a medium distance. As a plus, it repeatedly deals damage for a couple of seconds. The rocket launcher deals a good amount of damage, although it doesn't have much ammo. As you kill enemies, you can collect experience points and upgrade your weapons, which will make them even stronger, although getting hit – because we can't have blood or anything – will result in you losing some experience points, so... don't get hit. More often than not, it's not too hard as it's generally easy to read enemies' and bosses' patterns after a while, though some of the bosses are just pricks and will annihilate you unless you have a specific weapon upgraded, but since it has a good chance of hitting you, well, all that needs to be said is good luck. At the very least, the difficulty scales at an incremental rate (except for this one boss about three fifths into the game), they get craftier and more damaging with their attacks. At the same time, the fights can get rather exhilarating as they attack you quickly, methodically and with the intent of deflowering your sphincter, especially on the hard difficulty mode where you can't obtain any health upgrades. Due to this, the boss fights are fantastic and wind up being the most exciting parts of the game, especially the final boss guantlet.

This game gives you the option to either play it with the old school graphics from the original freeware game, or with tweaked up visuals. While the old school graphics look good, the retuned graphics are definitely better looking as the character sprites are given more details and the shading is applied more smoothly. In fact, the newer version looks smoother in general. The old school graphics look good when you consider that Pixel was originally going for that 8 bit but not quite 8 bit look as there's a fair bit of shading on each of the sprites and backgrounds/foregrounds, but given the choice between blocky graphics and not so blocky graphics, choose the latter. Yes, the former may sound the most like it'd give you feelings of nostalgia, but the latter, like I said, is just smoother around the edges and gives everything more detail, which should also cater towards feelings of nostalgia. In general, Cave Story's graphics is an example of fantastic pixel art in motion.

For the most part, it's the same thing with the music – you can either listen to the old school soundtrack, a remixed version and an original soundtrack. The old school soundtrack goes well with the old school graphics, but if you're playing with the touched up graphics, the remixed soundtrack is more suitable because the remixed soundtrack, while it has some chiptune parts, is given a more modern touch by having mostly uncompressed instruments like painos, bass guitar and drums. Either way, the songs are short-ish but they manage to really get you going. During gameplay, it's peppy, it gets you pumped up and makes you want to fuck shit up, and it only amplifies for the boss themes! Then the music that plays during the cutscenes are moodier, with some ominous stuff to foreshadow a terrible event and more sinister stuff for the reveals of evil plans. Oh and yeah there's this new soundtrack but it eats dick. Instead of being catchy and upbeat, it's generic and does about fuck all for the game. Plus it doesn't really suit the look of the game; feels more like it's meant for a game that's not meant to be retro than one that celebrates retro tropes. Did I mention it blows ass? Yeah, head for the remixed old school soundtrack immediately.

In a scene I often feel lethargic about, Cave Story is a damn fine example of getting it right. It's a fun experience full of upbeat tunes to keep you going while you keep on coming back for the intriguing story. That's the kind of game I ask for – one that doesn't fuck about with bullshit that doesn't work. Most games in general can't seem to get the idea that you ought to show and not tell, to eventually reveal the story as the game progresses, to make proceedings either as enjoyable or as riveting as possible, and finally, to make sure everything is delivered in a way that keeps things fresh. This is even more evident with the indie scene – some games get it right like Limbo, Shank and Deathspank, but most other indie games really bugger that up by being made for psuedo-intellectuals and wind up boring the everloving crap out of me. Sure, it might not sound right, but that's because modern day mediocrity and quasi intellectual bullshit has sprayed me with rum over the years... so yeah, support good games by buying a copy of Cave Story and playing it.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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