I’m finally giving up on ignoring indie games. They just won’t go away. I’ve gotta deal with them eventually, so it’s about time I start playing some. I thought it’d be fitting to make one of my first forays into the space with Cave Story, a title that pre-dates the modern indie movement.
Cave Story was more relevant 10 years ago thanks to using a retro style that had seemingly been abandoned by publishers. Now, there’s no shortage of games that tickle that retro itch. But if you take all Cave Story’s nostalgic elements and throw them aside, there’s still an impressive game underneath.
Cave Story doesn’t simply emulate titles of the past. A lot of retro side-scrollers weighed the player to the ground and reduced mobility, which would rack up the challenge. The small and relatively fast character you play as in Cave Story easily maneuvers between enemies. Later on there are opportunities to take advantage of vertical space with an upgradeable jet pack and a machine gun that can be fired downwards to propel the character into the air. The character’s mobility adds some freedom from the ground and flying right over enemies while raining bullets down on them from above just feels good. I haven’t played that many retro side-scrollers, but I haven’t seen many games that offer the level of control that Cave Story does.
Speaking of upgrading, the weapons in Cave Story have three tiers of levels. Collecting little shards that enemies drop upgrades your weapons. However, taking damage reduces the level of the weapons. The player has a health bar, but it almost becomes a secondary factor. Losing the upgrades on your weapons feels even more devastating than just flat out dying. It helps that the game is forgiving and saves your weapon levels at save points, but losing a level can completely throw you off in a pinch. This system creates a unique incentive for players to avoid damage to stay empowered.
I didn’t particularly like Cave Story’s plot, at least not as much as the gameplay. It’s about some bunnies that get experimented on to be used as weapons. The premise just didn’t resonate with me. However, how it’s presented is one of the game’s strongest feats.
Early on, a lot of the characters are talkative as the scenario is being set, but the game drastically cuts the amount of dialog later. The story has a minimalistic approach by giving characters just enough lines to establish a likeable personality but keeps their purpose or goals from becoming overbearing. The dialog provides just enough information so that the visual storytelling doesn’t come off as overly vague while still letting the player fill in the blanks on their own. All of this combined creates scenarios where a character’s actions in the story become even more potent without any supporting dialog for them.
There’s a lot more to Cave Story, but these elements in particular set the game apart for me. Its presentation gives the vibe of retro love letter, but tearing away the pixely art and chippy tune music doesn’t change the fact that there’s a fairly unique game underneath.