Qt3 Classic Game Club #17: Cave Story


Cave Story is a sidescrolling action platformer, originally released in 2004 as a free download for PC. It was developed over five years by Japanese indie Daisuke Amaya, better known as Studio Pixel. It’s a story about caves! And rabbit-people. And robots. And dogs. And Balrog. It is not a story about a dying Japanese shoot-'em-up dev, or a spinoff of Portal 2.

(Cave Story is the sort of game that works better when you don’t know anything about it going in, which is why I don’t want to say too much about the game itself here. I also don’t recommend looking at guides or anything until you’ve finished the game at least once.)

Some backstory, to give a bit of context for why I picked Cave Story instead of a beloved classic 4X or CRPG or whatever: I’m kind of an awful person to be picking a game for the Classic Game Club, a series about PC gaming. I was completely surprised when I was picked for this session, after making a couple of short posts about how I did incredibly poorly in my first-ever game of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri; aside from various shareware DOS games from Apogee, id, and Epic Megagames, I didn’t really do PC gaming growing up, and most of my more recent PC experience is with games released well after the timeframe the CGC is designed around, so I already knew I was going to have a rough time picking a game. I’ve always been more of a console (and especially handheld) guy, so I never followed PC stuff during the glory days the CGC has largely covered. Even after I started having non-dial-up Internet access about a decade ago, I didn’t have anything close to current PC hardware, so I didn’t bother paying attention to new major releases, and most of my PC gaming within the CGC-relevant timeframe was limited to emulation and lightweight freeware titles. Cave Story falls into the latter category; a friend in IRC recommended it at one point almost a decade ago, and so I gave it a shot, and loved it. I hope those of you who haven’t played it yet love it as well!

As mentioned, the original PC version of Cave Story is freeware, and can be downloaded from Studio Pixel’s site (first link, near the end of the page), with a translation patch available from aeon genesis. There’s also a commercial version available on Steam (and several non-PC platforms), but it costs more than the $10 CGC price cap, and (in my opinion) has an inferior translation to the aeon genesis patch.

I own this on several platforms but haven’t really gotten into it yet. Looks like this is my chance, probably go with my 3DS copy.

I bought this as part of Humble Indie Bundle 4. Well, Cave Story+, anyway.

Here was my brief experience with it:

So at that point, I thought the whole “Cave Story is great” thing was just some kind of big game equivalent of a RickRoll, and I was the victim. So whenever someone mentions Cave Story, I giggle, and stay quiet, so as not to give away the game.

But this getting chosen for the CGC means my interpretation was wrong?

There’s definitely more of a game there than that, Rock8man. I put a few hours into it last summer, and judging from the achievements list that was maybe a quarter of the game (4/~15 bosses defeated). And then never returned to it, since I wasn’t finding it very compelling either mechanically or story-wise.

WarpRattler, I’m curious about the “the game works better when you don’t know anything going into it” statement, since it’s not the first time I’ve seen that. When I did some due diligence on whether the game was worth playing at all, the first review I saw explicitly asked people to play the game first and only then read the review. So I went in expecting Frog Fractions, and got a pixel graphics Metroidvania with a seemingly incoherent story. Can you give any hints about how far along in the game the hook is? And would it spoil too many things to know anything more about the nature of the reason-to-play-the-game-that-can’t-be-named? Like are we talking plot twists, gameplay twists, subverting expectations, general insanity, etc? This isn’t really my genre, but if it’s supposed to get better and if I can find the old save, I might give this another try.

Finally, at least in Europe the game is significantly cheaper in the Humble store than on Steam (15EUR vs. 8.5EUR).

First, Rock8man: Cave Story is not an art game or a non-game or anything like that. It’s an indie platforming shooter of surprising depth. Sounds to me like maybe you just didn’t figure out the button to go through the doors? (Which is up or down, can’t remember which.)

I’ve played a lot of Cave Story, though not all the way through (well, I got one of the easier endings). To be honest, I don’t know exactly what WarpRattler’s trying to protect us from with his warnings. I guess one thing about Cave Story is just that it is full of little gameplay surprises (keep in mind that it’s made by one guy–even the amazing music is his!). I suppose there are plot spoilers out there? Is that what you’re thinking of, WarpRattler? I don’t think of it as a game that relies on a twist or any secret special moments particularly, so don’t go into it expecting that.

To be perfectly honest, I kinda think that once you’ve given the game some time to see what it’s all about, looking at a walkthrough can save you a few headaches, as there are a number of secrets that can really change the game for you. But let’s talk about that later.

I was really hoping someone would pick this, WarpRattler! I have Cave Story+ on Steam and DS, but I think I’ll go back and play the original. Probably on easy (does the original have difficulty settings?) so I can speed through and actually see some of the later levels I missed.

I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Metroidvania games (I played Metroid 2 on my Gameboy, and I think I played a few minutes of Castlevania decades ago), but the mystery WarpRattler and Rock8man have presented is too much to pass up.

If this game really is a RickRoll, then here’s hoping for a soundtrack with a catchy tune.

Eww… Right now Cave Story+ is starting up with some bullshit Christmas theme, apparently until the 7th. I’m sure it’s great for the fans playing through for the 5th time, but seems harmful for a first playthrough. At least the snowy terrain in the hub village is really ugly, and I doubt the plot becomes more coherent when an arbitrary subset of images is replaced with Christmas versions. Yeess… You’re playing as Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer. It all makes sense now!

You can turn this off from the options menu (“seasonal graphics”), though some forum posts I’ve seen suggest that a few sprites don’t properly go back to the proper version even with that setting.

I played Cave Story about… um… holy cow… 10 years ago? I can’t remember much about it, I remember having Rock8man’s problem of not knowing how to get through the first door (yeah, I think you have to press UP), I remember it taking perhaps 15 minutes to get its hooks into me, and then I remember playing it gradually over a few days until I reached the end. There were some surprises along the way that could be easily spoiled, yes. I had a great time with it, so it’s always had that “oh, I must play this again sometime” allure.

Great choice. You guys are in for a treat. Excellent mechanics and levels, memorable boss fights, and it oozes charm out of every pore.

I was always impressed that the game was created by just one guy: art, design, music, everything. And I always said that if this game had come out for the NES or SNES, he’d be a multi-millionaire mainstream legend in terms of game development. But I don’t want to talk it up too much and cause everyone to start looking for faults. Just play and enjoy. I’m highly confident you all will love it if you invest a little time to umm… learn how to get out of the first door.

I highly recommend Cave Story+ if you can afford it. You can switch between the original extra-pixely graphics and new graphics from the Wii version. These days I go with the newer graphics. However, I much prefer the original MIDI music. It’s full of character like the upbeat console music that WarpRattler has mentioned elsewhere. Some of the tunes are etched into my memory. Be sure to give it a try!! I’m not sure what the translation differences are, but I personally wouldn’t be too concerned about it.

Steam shows I’ve played CS+ 10 hours and unlocked 46 achievements. Let’s see if any newbies can beat that. :)

Unrelated, I’ve heard this game described as one of the grandfathers of the indie game scene. It caused a lot of people to to get into freeware game development back in the years well before the Greenlight gold rush. You might consider it the “original” PC indie pixel-graphics platformer that has been so popular over the years (now with added procedural content).

Its ok, you can just come out and say you don’t like seasonal graphics because they make Quote black. We understand.

Speaking of the original music, off the top of head my favorite is probably this track:

I thought it matched the design and animation of the boss perfectly.

for those who’ve completed the game

I’m referring to Monster X with his delighful little tank treads that skid to a halt when he changes direction. Although now that I watch that video, I’m pretty sure the effect was more pronounced with the original pixel graphics.

Seasonal art can be turned off in the options menu!

Also, awesome choice, I remember playing through this over a few days when slacking off at work many years ago!

I like this choice a lot. As mentioned in the CGC main thread Metroidvanias are one of my favorite genres. I’ve never played this one, and admittedly probably wouldn’t have left to my own devices. I find your mention of not knowing anything being a bonus peculiar, but I’ll roll with it. Granted I tend towards the far end of not caring about spoilers so… yeah.

I look forward to experimenting with this game, hopefully it’s not merely a curiosity for its place in history and rather holds up as a worthwhile experience on its own.

So out of curiosity, what are the major differences between freeware Cave Story and paid version Cave Story +?

Wikipedia has a good summary:

An enhanced PC version titled Cave Story+ was released by Nicalis on the Steam service on November 22, 2011. This version contains all the additional modes from the WiiWare version, a remastered soundtrack, as well as the option to toggle the style of graphics between the classic style and that of the WiiWare version and the music of the original game, the WiiWare port, or the 3DS update. It also features an exclusive ‘Wind Fortress’ level.

Since it seems there’s been some confusion: The reason you want to play Cave Story blind is because it’s got various secrets that are a lot more fun to discover on your own, not because of story spoilers (which are mostly minor and/or predictable). This includes the somewhat arcane method of reaching the incredibly difficult bonus boss at the end of the game. (Another reason I chose Cave Story: I never beat said bonus boss. He’s going down during these next two weeks.)

Disregarding my own well-documented issues with the term, I’m not really on-board with calling Cave Story a “Metroidvania.” Two of the defining elements of the genre are non-linearity (or the illusion thereof) and environmental gating, and Cave Story features neither of these. I’ll go more in-depth on these after we’ve gotten a bit into the first week.

Yes, I wrote that in the very next paragraph. But I also wrote that it allegedly didn’t really work, and can now confirm that. Even with the seasonal graphics off the equipment crates are now gift packages, one of the rabbits is wearing a Santa costume, the rocketbike in the Bushland area is a sleigh, etc. The only way to properly turn these off is to use the original rather than remastered graphics.

I couldn’t find my save but replayed from the beginning a bit further than I remember getting last time, beat the first boss after getting the machine gun. Compared to the few modern Metroidvanias I’ve played (e.g. Outland, Guacamelee), Cave Story just feels really dated in all the wrong places. Much more so than you’d expect from the release date. Makes sense if it’s a 8/16-bit console homage, but I completely lack the gaming background to appreciate that. So I’ll probably give up at this point, but will continue following this thread. Clearly people really love this game, maybe this discussion can help me understand why :-)

The good:

The music is great. The pixel graphics are charming. The weapon leveling system is cool.

The bad:

I don’t like the movement physics at all. The jumps are really floaty, and the movement is kind of slippery. At least so far all the items are pretty boring. There’s been 5 weapons, no new traversal options, and a bunch of items that just gate content but have no mechanical significance. And the game doesn’t do a very good job of respecting my time as the player.

Hey, how about killing those same trivial trash mobs again with exactly the same weapons, so that you can get another copy of a consumable item? Fun, fun, fun. Or how about killing them for the 10th time just due to needing to traverse through the area. Now, at least on easy and early on you could just mash the fire buttons and run through the area with the assumption that on average you’ll regain almost as much weapon XP and health as you lose. Except that there are instakill hazards around, and if you just try to power through the area rather than play carefully, you a badly timed hit might throw you into one of those hazards.

I hate the the text dialogs in the game. Keep a button pressed to see it slowly scroll by, and scroll by, and scroll by, with no option to skip to the end. And what’s up with that save system? If you want discrete save points, fine. If you want to hide most of those save points in little rooms to force a full enemy respawn after saving, fine. But if you’re anyway going to respawn all the enemies on every single area transition, how about autosaving at those points? The current system feels like the worst of all worlds.

I agree that “Metroidvania” is not the right descriptor for Cave Story. (Sorry to all those who were looking forward to it for that reason.) It’s a platform shooter that’s relatively linear.

One fascinating thing about Cave Story is that it is not restrained level-to-level by a fixed feature set. I might be wrong, but the consumable farming that jsnell mentioned only happens that one time. In a later level there are objects you need to collect from secret or not-so-secret places around the level and return to an NPC. (There are actually some better examples later, but I won’t go into them.) These mechanics or gameplay dynamics will really only show up once and then be left behind in favor of whatever new thing Pixel wanted to do next. In most commercial titles, you wouldn’t develop a system just to use it once.

jsnell–You say you have the machine gun. So did you try shooting down when it’s fully leveled up? No new traversal options?

Too bad about the annoying holiday graphics. I’ll be playing on original, myself (on Cave Story+ since there are no difficulty settings for the free version, I discovered).

Hah, jsnell, it’s great to hear a modern perspective. You even mention “traversal options” which I don’t think was even part of the gaming lexicon until after Cave Story’s time. I could probably agree with all your complaints but I don’t remember them bothering me. I think the last time I played this was a couple years ago too.

Normally I’m the one who can’t wrap his head around old classics these days, so I’m glad I was able to enjoy this one! That always feels like dodging a bullet.

I have to correct myself from earlier: the original graphics look great too. The new ones almost look too sharp now. I thought for sure that’s what I had used the last time I played. Maybe not.

I’d love to hear more about this with examples in a spoiler tag. I’m not always in the camp that “older games are better” but now jsnell has me curious to dig into that aspect.