You’ve most likely heard the old saying that the best things in life are free, right? Well, if you look deep enough, you’ll find that this saying has quite a bit of application in the gaming world as well. This week in Geek Squad, I present to you a game that is not only one of my favorite independently-developed games but one of my absolute favorite games of all time, and what’s best is that you can experience this gem of a game at no cost. I’m talking, of course, about the freeware classic “Cave Story.”
Released in 2004, “Cave Story” was the end product of one man’s labor. Japanese game developer Daisuke Amaya, or Pixel, as he has come to be known, spent five years creating and perfecting everything that went into the game, a fact that shines through all aspects of it.
“Cave Story” starts with the main character waking up in a cave with a case of amnesia. Stumbling upon a village inhabited by rabbit-like creatures known as mimigas, he discovers that the mimigas have slowly been abducted by a man called The Doctor in an attempt to find a specific mimiga named Sue, who is eventually abducted as well. The objective of the game then becomes to rescue Sue, stop The Doctor, and discover your own origins. “Cave Story” is filled with colorful characters, gripping moments and a story so elaborate that you wouldn’t really expect it out of a freeware game.
At the heart of it, “Cave Story” is a 2D shooter with a heavy emphasis on platforming along with some exploration and RPG elements crammed in. Progress through most areas is achieved by blasting your way through, and the game gives you a handful of unique options to do so. Your first gun, the Polar Star, is a standard blaster, not the strongest by any means but easily the most versatile. Over time you attain more situation-appropriate weapons like the Fireball, which shoots out fireballs that bounce low along the ground to take out land-based enemies, or the Snake, which shoots out projectiles in a slithering motion that can go through walls. “Cave Story” features a total of 10 weapons, all with their own different mechanics. One of the more interesting elements of “Cave Story” is the leveling system for these weapons. Killed enemies sometimes drop yellow energy crystals, which collecting will power up your currently equipped weapon to a maximum of three levels. Powering up your weapons generally means bigger and more damaging projectiles, but certain weapons take on new properties as well. These levels aren’t permanent, however, as taking damage will decrease the energy of your weapon, often times even reducing levels. Much like a “Metroid” game, “Cave Story” also features upgradeable health and ammo in the form of collectable expansions, some which are easy to find and others that take some real thinking.
Both visually and aurally, the game is a throwback to old-school side-scrollers but with some extra detail added in. With a stage name like “Pixel,” it’s no surprise that the game is presented through pixelated sprites and backgrounds, but what’s even less surprising is how masterfully crafted these all are. Amaya’s work strikes the perfect balance between detail and minimalism, offering up enough finer points to gawk at during low-key segments while still keeping things simple enough so as to not distract you from where the action is. Characters are drawn stylistically enough to represent their personalities and locations are highly distinct in their variety. The soundtrack is equally impressive, featuring over thirty unique tracks of 8-bit-esque songs that complement and create the characters, plot points and emotions of the story.
Above all this, “Cave Story” is the kind of game that you just keep coming back to. Your first playthrough of “Cave Story” will probably run between the range of five and six hours, with even the most seasoned “Cave Story” veteran taking something around four hours to complete it fully. Chances are that you won’t play the game just once, however, as there’s much you can miss. “Cave Story” features three different endings ranging from bad to good to best, with the best ending requiring you to follow a very intricate sub-plot that is easily missable if you aren’t aware of its presence. The game is also filled to the brim with Easter eggs and some of the weapons are either well-hidden or require trading in other weapons, so multiple playthroughs are necessary to experience all that the game has to offer. Last but not least, you’ll most likely be playing through “Cave Story” more than once because it simply embodies the reason we play video games in the first place: to have fun.
“Cave Story” is a game with fun factor that lasts from start to finish and a difficulty that, while challenging, never borders on tedium. It’s a game that’s jam-packed with enough value to betray its less-than-two-megabyte file size and price tag of zero dollars. Perhaps most importantly, “Cave Story” is the five-year labor of love from one single man, whose dedication and talent are easily apparent to anyone who plays through this masterpiece of a game.
If you’d like to try “Cave Story” out for yourself, visit www.cavestory.org for anything and everything you’ll need to know about the game. Or, if you’d like to learn about the upcoming WiiWare version, visit www.cavestory.com.