One Giant Leap, 2004: Cave Story

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: Cave Story give the NES-style platformer a second wind, and quietly begins a revolution

Over the past ~10 articles we’ve been covering the evolution and arrival of the 3D platformer1. We’ve come a long way from the days of Metroid and Mega Man; platformers these days are large, complex affairs, featuring dozens of developers and cutting edge graphics. And things don’t slow down from here; in a few short years the advent of HD will cause the highest-budgeted studios to reach escape velocity, making absurdly detailed games that take 100s of developers 5+ years to produce. Yes, we sure have come a long way since Pac-Man!

Listen I had to, it’s like a natural law or something

But, it would be wrong to slip into a Futurist mindset here. Art isn’t about cutting edge technology, and art doesn’t go obsolete. There was still room for more in the old style of platforming. And if the big studios weren’t interested in pursuing it, someone else was.

And by “someone else” I really do mean someone.

Cave Story is a retro-styled platformer developed entirely by one man, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, an at-the-time amateur developer working in his free time. This sort of thing is, historically speaking, not uncommon in the PC space. Lots of games in the 80s were made by hobbyists, and even in the 90s there were plenty of hits from small studios operating without a publisher’s backing. Even Cave Story’s freeware status wasn’t unique (Doom‘s first third was famously available as freeware). But by 2004 even this was something of a throwback. Video games had professionalized2 and the little guy couldn’t compete on the same footing as the established brands any more3.

Which makes Cave Story feel very distinct. By 2004 video games as a popular medium have existed for just long enough for something to recognizably be a throwback to an earlier era. Cave Story has blocky, pixelated graphics, evoking older platforms while taking subtle advantage of modern hardware where appropriate (the color palette here isn’t limited in the way SNES or especially NES games were). The gameplay is also retro, calling back specifically to two pillars of NES-era platforming. From the very first screen, you’ll be reminded of Metroid. Like, look at this:

You start at the door, but you can’t go right because the blocks are in the way; you have to go left to get a gun that can then blast the blocks away and let you progress to the right, which is famously The Thing What Metroid Does. The similarities don’t stop there; saving works the same way as Super Metroid, restricted to dedicated rooms. You have a missile weapon that has limited ammo, unlike all other weapons, and it can have its capacity expanded via upgrades found in the world. Hell, even the sound for getting a health upgrade is a callback!

But despite all these Metroid-y elements, the game itself isn’t much of a Metroid-like, as it’s unashamedly linear. Instead, the moment-to-moment gameplay feels more like Mega Man, with an emphasis on shooting various creative guns, a focus on positioning4 and a risk-reward micro-loop relating to health pickups (i.e., do you navigate the treacherous area for a health recovery that won’t even pay for itself if you mess up getting there?). It even has instant-death spikes! (Alongside more friendly ones that simply hurt you)

But Cave Story is not simply a mashup of old classics. I absolutely adore its weapon upgrade system. Your guns start out at Lv 1, but can be leveled up to 3 to become more powerful. You do this by collecting pickups that spawn from defeated enemies, and, crucially, taking damage causes you to lose experience. This system is a perfect fusion of new (mild weapon upgrading was also a defining trait of the contemporary Ratchet and Clank games) and old (lots of old games punish you by debuffing your weapon if you take damage), forcing the player to pay attention to every encounter without being so punishing as to be discouraging. Plus there’s just something inherently satisfying to the way those yellow triangles bounce.

And beyond gameplay, Cave Story has a great story. Honestly, the first truly good story featured in this series. It’s a story told at the margins; you’re a robot who arrives at a mysterious location with no memories, and that’s kind of where you remain. There’s a whole lot of details, about the rabbit-like Mimiga, an evil doctor who wants to use them as a bioweapon, a floating island, a prior war you may have been a soldier in, a magical, cursed crown…but all of them come in bits and pieces. It’s not enough for you to ever feel lost, but it’s incomplete enough for you to always feel like this is a story that doesn’t just exist for your benefit. It feels real, and like you’re simply one participant.

It also has a pretty major branch that I’ve never fully experienced5. Cave Story has a few non-obvious choices that turn out to have hidden implications. For instance, at one point you can talk to Professor Booster, causing him to give you jetpack shoes. But if you do that, he’ll die later in the game when he falls in a pit, and also you won’t get the stronger jetpack that you need for the bonus, secret final area. This secret area also requires you to turn down an offered weapon upgrade earlier in the game, for Reasons. It’s…well, it’s certainly the sort of thing a single hobbyist makes for fun.

Cave Story was, naturally, an underground hit for a while. It had a fan-made English translation available pretty quickly, but it’s still not the sort of thing that’s gonna blow up overnight. Cave Story didn’t really become a household6 name until it received a mildly updated, paid release on the Wii (and a little later on PC) in 2010. By this point, Cave Story‘s influence and legacy were already being felt; as it turns out, there was a lot of latent appetite for retro-styled 2d platformers, they were a genre the AAA industry didn’t show much interest in, and they were easy enough for small teams with limited budgets to produce. And thus, the indie platformer was born. Quite the legacy for a little hobbyist project.

Stray Observations:

  • Cave Story has a really odd jump arc; like most games you gain more altitude if you hold down the jump button, but this window lasts an especially long time here. The result is an incredibly long-lasting, floaty jump, one where you can jump on top of a block directly above you by zig-zagging in midair. It’s a bit unusual, but I’m not complaining; jump physics are one of the most deceptively difficult things to get right in all of game development.
  • The paid versions of Cave Story were published by Nicalis. There’s a potentially apocryphal story that follows these versions, claiming that Pixel was ripped off by a bad contract and Nicalis effectively stole the rights to his baby. What isn’t apocryphal is Nicalis’s history of leaving indie developers out to dry, as well as abusive behavior by founder and CEO Tyrone Rodriguez. The original freeware version of Cave Story remains available; one way or another I recommend not spending money on Cave Story.
  • Another benefit of being a retro throwback is Cave Story‘s banging chiptune soundtrack.

Other 2004 platformers of note:

3 years after Sonic Adventure 2 we get the first “major” Sonic game developed for a non-Sega console with Sonic Heroes. This game goes in a unique direction, with the player controlling a team of three characters at once and swapping between them at will (so, switching to Tails to fly over a gap, or Knuckles to punch through a wall, that sort of thing). It’s also purely focused on the main action stages, without the maligned alternate gameplay styles of the Adventure games. Unfortunately, Heroes doesn’t quite stick the landing; the choice to launch on all 3 major consoles plus PC wound up overtaxing Sonic Team’s capabilities, resulting in a buggy, kinda janky game. Thankfully that’ll be the last time Sega overestimates Sonic Team’s technical capacity (she said, lying)

Elsewhere, Sands of Time gets a sequel with Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within. This is another “darker and edgier” sequel that was so popular around this time; the game’s M-rated now, with a greater focus on violent combat, plus I think there are Godsmack songs? This one has a reputation of being a bit regrettable, but having just recently endured the combat in Sands of Time I say sometimes drastic measures are called for, and Warrior Within also has a reputation for much-improved swordplay.

Next Time: It’s summer, so let’s head off to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp with Psychonauts