Nintendo Fall Media Summit: Cave Story

I’m two minutes into the Cave Story demo and I’ve died probably six times. First, there’s this patch of red spikes jutting from the base of a jagged mountain, and I keep timing the jump incorrectly, running straight into it. Then, a pair of bats fluttering up and down at the mouth of a cavern makes it incredibly difficult for me to get enough of a running start to clear a small pond. Oh, and there’s this door with an eyeball that insists on killing me every time I try to go through it. Maybe I’m just out of practice, but jeez, this game is difficult.

Like Mega Man 9, Cave Story is an obvious nod to the old-school, practice-makes-perfect game design of yesteryear. Originally developed single-handedly by cult favorite game designer Daisuke Amaya (or, as his loyal followers refer to him, “Pixel”) as an online freeware game in 2004, Cave Story is getting drafted to the big leagues as a WiiWare title in early 2009, developed by Nicalis and complete with slightly updated graphics. Gamers pining for a nostalgic gaming experience after completing the blue-bombers latest should be very, very excited.

Producer Tyrone Rodriguez of Nicalis told me that Amaya was a big Metroid fan—but he didn’t really have to. Cave Story simply feels, in many respects, like Samus’ first adventure on Brinstar. It’s a side scrolling adventure game full of difficult jumps, collectible upgrades, big bosses, ominous caverns—even the sound that accompanies the discovery of a health upgrade sounds strikingly similar to Samus’ finding an Energy Tank. Still—Cave Story is very much so its own game, and a bevy of features and game design choices help to reinforce that.

Unlike Metroid, gaining experience and leveling up plays a big role in Cave Story, but unlike Castlevania, you don’t directly level up your character. Rather, your gun gains experience and gets stronger the more you use it. So, instead of simply collecting weapon upgrades to make yourself stronger, you have to combat enemies, garner experience and, eventually, level your gun up. Your gun becomes decidedly stronger after gaining a couple of levels, starting out as a pea-shooter that only goes halfway across the screen, and becoming a full-blown, heat-packing, um, energy ball rifle. This doesn’t mean that the game is completely devoid of collectible upgrades. Rodriguez reassured me that, later in the game, players will discover, amongst other things, a jetpack and an oxygen tank that allows them to breathe underwater.

As I said above, the beginning of the demo is very hard. Death is nothing but a slight error away, and without a weapon, enemies must be avoided at all costs. Rodriguez told me, however, that the first ten minutes of the game is intentionally difficult, as per the original freeware game’s design. I’m not really sure why Pixel would do that, but my best guess is that he’s trying to weed out players who aren’t serious about playing the game, like an embittered college professor or something. Nonetheless, as soon as I discovered a weapon and adjusted to the games decidedly old-school controls (press down to go through a door?) the game got very fun—while remaining quite challenging. Killing enemies requires simple pattern recognition and the ability to line up shots mid-jump. The platforming sections require almost perfect jumps. The demo’s boss made very short work of me. But really—in an age where games are getting far too easy, this level of difficulty and necessity for practice could turn out to be very refreshing. It worked with Mega Man 9—we’ll see how it works with Cave Story.

Judging by what I played and the original version’s surprisingly large and almost unwaveringly dedicated fan base, Cave Story is definitely a game to look forward to. I was pleasantly surprised by the game’s overall charm—its old-school look and feel is, in an odd way, refreshing, and I’m all for a new two-dimensional adventure game that doesn’t revolve around vampires or energy-sucking alien parasites. We’ll see how the game fares as a WiiWare title when it releases early 2009.