This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Cave Story.
Oh scrotum inflammations, is it July already, that time of year when the bite of the Australian winter whistles through the empty Steam listings, and gamers roam the streets, chanting laments, flagellating themselves with the loose USB cords of unplugged controllers and peripherals, their cargo shorts growing thread-bare and crusty in the cold? Yes, it's the usual mid-year post-E3 release drought, when everything takes on the atmosphere of morning on the last day of a mid-to-low tier anime convention.
So as usual, I go to Steam and ask what's popular enough that I can lose a few more viewers by widdling all over it? "Well, there's ARK: Survival Evolved." I played that for a couple of hours and axed a Stegosaurus to death, whereupon its ragdoll turned somersaults in glee at not having to be in this fucking game anymore. "Well, you know what's top seller right now? Rocket League!" Go on. "It's soccer meets driving..." Ok, stop going on. No other three words kill my interest faster, except perhaps ARK: Survival Evolved. Come on, Steam, meet me half way! I've never been shy with my credit card details, so drop the coy act.
And then suddenly, the front page asked me, "Hey, have you replayed Cave Story lately?", which I interpreted as a sign from the heavens. So after clearing up a drink spillage, I downloaded Cave Story again to do a retro review, bringing back memories of the first time I downloaded it in 2004. That's a memento mori for you, isn't it? 2004 being retro now, Surely nothing downloadable is retro. Retro to me is anything that was ever sold on a physical medium, with which you could considerably bludgeon someone to death.
Cave Story is a platformer/shooter-type thing developed by someone or something called Pixel. It was originally freeware; it is now sold on Steam for 14.99. So whatever Pixel was, it was apparently playing the fucking long game. But I have a special place in my heart for the solo-development racket, play Hatfall. Sorry, I'm not sure that was subliminal enough. PLAY HATFALL, YOU PRICKS! What the solo-developed game loses in graphical quality and broader marketability, it makes up for with good old-fashioned heart, and heart and art so often go together, especially when talking in a Cockney accent.
I remember Cave Story being really good, but that was before eight years of nitpicking gave me this discerning, bloodshot, masturbation-dimmed eye. And in replaying, a lot of shit I'd forgotten about started rubbing me up the wrong way anew. The jumping is floaty as arse, a big, chubby arse that farts helium. You climb to the top of your arc like a majestic salmon swimming upstream, and then you fucking drop like you've been swiped out of the air by a hungry grizzly. And the progression has that bad habit of Japanese games in that it's very flaggy. I said flaggy, as in it has a lot of flags. So you'll explore the whole starting area until you find the one map square that makes the story go forward by one step if you stand in it and press the Use button, then explore the whole area again, looking for the next one, which is obnoxious enough in the starting village, where you have to nearly drown yourself picking something off the bottom of a pond before anyone will give you the time of day, and even worse when there are enemies around and you fight your way to the far end of the map, only to find a locked door whose key is in the possession of the guy who sent you on this quest in the first place, but because you didn't specifically ask him for it, rimbly grimbly bim.
But rimbly grimbly bim aside, the flaggy path is used to maintain control of the linear story. If the story is bad, it can be like going through life with a partially-formed twin attached to your leg with a tendency to bellow swear words at formal occasions. But happily, Cave Story has a good story that I don't mind being join-the-dots through. It's the classic tale of an expedition gone wrong, a mad scientist, a monster shaped like a briefcase and a race of cute, cuddly rabbit people being violently beaten against the walls, floor and ceiling, making adorable squeaky noises with every impact. It's a story about characters. And while it's rather thick on the ground for the first half, it knows when to take a backseat as the gameplay ramps up. It's the kind of thing that could only exist in a solo-developed game, 'cause if Pixel had had a friend around, let's call him Graphical User Interface, he might have said something like, "Do you not think all the gritty, violent drama being experienced by these Hello-Kitty-fuzzy rabbit people with heads like beanbag chairs lends a certain incongruity of tone?" That's a mighty pretty mouth you've got, Graphical User Interface.
What I also like about the story is that we're seeing it through the eyes of a guy who showed up halfway through it, whose presence no one particularly minds for some reason and who awkwardly hangs around while all the characters with actual personality discuss events. It's like if the protagonist of Return of the Jedi was the little fish-faced lad who hung out in the cockpit next to Lando Calrissian. It means that little time is wasted on introductions or backstory, and we can cut straight to the fun parts. But the story's still there, just not in a forced "hey, you're totally invested in this struggle and in love with the one hot girl character because we fucking say you are" kind of way.
I've often heard Cave Story referred to as Metroidvania, but I'm not sure I agree that it is, 'cause it's not a terribly explory game. And Metroidvania without central exploration elements is like a high school gob-job without the vague sense of anticlimax. Part of that's the unique weapon system where rather than exploring to find weapon upgrades, you pick up bits of dead enemies and jam them in your gun until someone hits you and they all plop out again. There are health upgrades, but they are all about as hard to find as your mum on a nudist beach. And while there are a couple of secret paths you can take to unlock alternative weapons and endings, exploring will not help you find them, because the first thing you have to do for the super-secret ending is not collect a jetpack, and I sincerely doubt anyone figured that out by themselves. I mean for me, that goes against the instinct so hard that my bones tried to tear themselves out of my hands in protest.
So that's one problem when making a game by yourself: it might make perfect sense to you, but it's entirely possible that you're mad. Maybe run it by someone or look in the mirror to see if there's an axe in your skull, but besides that, Cave Story is an exemplar of solo development. It compensates for its failings by focusing on its strengths: the plot, the characters and good old-fashioned raw gameplay design, with challenge that curves naturally from pimpsicles to "herding honey badgers" hard. Unless you get the secret ending, in which case it's "herding honey badgers on the side of a tall building and ensuring that every single one of them passes GCSE English Lit."
Also the music's quite good: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Wait, rabbits don't live in caves; but then I suppose Burrow Story would have been very unfair on people with speech impediments
'Voxel' would be Pixel's evil parallel universe equivalent