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[Game Review] Cave Story

When someone says ‘indie’, there’s a few titles that come to mind as inherently indie. Super Meat Boy, Fez, Limbo – when you get asked to name an indie game, there’s few games that come to mind quite like Cave Story. Made by one guy, over many years of painstaking work, Cave Story is the ultimate story of indie success. Only one question remains: does it still earn that label, or is it less good than we all thought it was, like a kebab that tasted great drunk but less good sober?

Cave Story is the, well, story of a little robotic figure called Quote – ironically, the little shit never speaks. You wave up alone in a cave, and your story begins. So at the very least, the title checks out. It’s typical pixel-platformer indie style, with a few different guns that you can collect, each of which have their own uses. As you defeat enemies, your gun can level up to do more damage and have slightly different attacks than before. It’s quite a fun way of experimenting, and the maximum level of 3 isn’t that much of a bother, either: taking damage causes you to drop some of the exp. triangles that power your gun, and so it drops in levels when you’re hit. I like this system, because it means that you’re never overpowered, as one hit can turn your one-round super fuckoff cannon into a shit-pistol; this also makes experimentation more worthwhile.

In many games that have weapon upgrades, Dark Souls being perhaps one of the most notable cases, people tend to upgrade one weapon – that weapon then passes a certain point where any upgrades to old weapons would be worthless because of how much effort it’d take to make them as good as your main weapon. However, since there’s only 3 levels and you can constantly lose levels, I found myself thinking “sod it, I’ll try the buttplug rifle for a bit instead”, and then I’d use that for a while before getting hit and changing weapons again. It’s a fun way to ensure constant variation in weapon use – of course, after a while everybody gravitates towards the rocket launcher and the machine gun, one of which does stupid levels of damage and one of which lets you fly when aimed down. I’ll let you decide which is which.

Speaking of flying, Cave Story switches up the platforming. The early parts of the game are characterised by some annoyingly precise jumps, but later on you can get a booster, which lets you fly in a specific direction. Depending on the story route you take, you can get a prototype version or the finished version of the booster, and if you only get the prototype, having the machine gun that lets you fly becomes even more useful for the later platforming sections.

The game’s plot, then, since Cave Story has one, and it’s not too shabby either. Quote ends up amongst a race of rabbit people, and soon learns that a mysterious figure called the Doctor, and his minions Misery and Balrog, are kidnapping rabbits and using the powers of science and red flowers to turn them into monstrous mutants. And so, when some of his new rabbit pals are duly kidnapped, it’s Quote’s duty to locate the rambunctious bunnies and blast the hell out of them. …And also the Doctor, if he can be arsed.

Along the way, Quote explores the entirety of the strange cave/island where everyone is seemingly trapped, discovering the secret scientific experiments going on within, and putting a stop to the Doctor’s schemes. He’ll also meet Curly Brace, otherwise known as ‘best girl’. But the plot doesn’t stop there! Cave Story is built by choice upon choice – there are several critical incidents in the story that can take on multiple routes based on your choices. For example, choosing to escape with two guys will end in you dying. Choosing to not fight the Doctor will end in you dying. Actually, lots of choices end in you dying. But on a more serious note, you can also do specific things to, for example, save Curly Brace from death and thus get the best ending, or find specific hidden items that don’t do much for the plot, but are good to find nonetheless.

Generally, Cave Story is a deeply explorative game, but at the same time, fiercely linear, which kind of irritates me. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not as metroidvania as some of the sections seem to lend themselves to, as if several parts of the game got the wrong memo and became more convoluted than the inner workings of Rube Goldberg’s homemade PC.

Another thing that Cave Story has in common with another game I’ve talked about is suffering from the same disease: ‘great game, shame about the final boss fight’. Nefarious had a shitty final boss fight that really marred the whole experience for me, despite me loving the rest of the game, and honestly, Cave Story’s got the same issue. It’s not necessarily that the fights are bad in Cave Story’s case – there’s just 4 or 5 of them in a row with no healing. It’s a very taxing conga line of assholes needing shooting, and I just cannot put in the effort. I eventually managed to beat it, but it took way longer than it should’ve, and I definitely wasn’t in a happy mood doing it. You have to memorise every in, every out, for every section of every fight, and in order to learn the patterns of the later bosses, you have to make sure you have enough health to tank their attacks and learn the patterns, which means beating the earlier bosses as health-efficiently as possible. It’s a fucking nuisance, to put it simply.

Don’t let it discourage you, though. Cave Story is charming like a attractive barista, and whilst it’s got some less fun moments, the lovely art style, excellent soundtrack and downright amazing boss fights (the final gauntlet might be tough, but that doesn’t make it any less badass) will constantly motivate you to keep playing. The story is touching, and surprisingly absorbing for a single person’s efforts. Cave Story’s got heart, and for that it should be applauded.

Just take some advice from me. Do NOT try to do a no-damage playthrough. You will hate yourself, you will hate the game and you will hate literally everything in the world by the end of the first section.

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