Developer: Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya
Article by Michael Ayles | October 8, 2009
You could be forgiven if, the first time you booted it up, you didn’t think much of Cave Story. Things certainly start out in an understated fashion: After a brief scene of a man in a lab coat chuckling to himself in what appears to be the ruins of an ancient throne room, you are dumped to a simple black menu screen with little fanfare. As you fumble around with the keyboard looking for a way to get things started (the Z key, for some reason, being the one that starts the ball rolling), a catchy little ditty begins the process of digging itself into a part of your brain that it will never relinquish. Once you start the game, you’re shown a second scene of a man locked in a room with a computer terminal, and then you find yourself, appropriately, in a cave. No explanation, no motivation, no abilities at your disposal other than walking and jumping. And so, off you go.
It’s an introduction that smacks of humility, suggesting an author who doesn’t want to hook the player with flashy animations or high-stakes drama. Rather than start you off in a warzone full of burning buildings and exploding helicopters, the main character is dumped into a tiny room without so much as a weapon to fire. Humble indeed. Then again, the low-key nature of this introduction could viewed another way: as a sign of confidence, a measured opening that doesn’t strive to impress because it doesn’t need to. Because deep down, even though he probably wouldn’t admit to it, the author knows that he has created a work of quality and that any player willing to invest a bit of their time into it will be amply rewarded.
Daisuke Amaya, better known to the Internet as Pixel, is clearly a fan of the golden era of console video games. Everything about Cave Story, from the music and graphics to the level design and story, is entirely his doing. And everywhere you look, you can find a love for old games, as well as nostalgia for simpler times. Big, chunky pixels are the order of the day: the lo-fi graphics may have made sprite work faster (the hero himself stands a measly 15 pixels tall), but they also suit the tone of the game perfectly. The gameplay is a simple 2D run/jump/shoot affair with only a handful of items and upgrades to complicate matters. The soundtrack evokes chiptunes from the NES and Commodore 64 eras without blatantly copying them, using original themes and sounds to create a score that could have come straight out of some forgotten part of your childhood.
It’s all meant to evoke the golden age of video games, to pay tribute to the simple and fun games of our youth that were, underneath the surface, surprisingly deep and impeccably designed. Pixel has been quoted as saying that anyone who plays Cave Story will be able to tell what his inspirations were from the game itself. Certainly, the exploration and collection of items call to mind games like Zelda and Metroid (the latter having clearly inspired the “you got a doodad” music that plays when you pick up a life capsule), while the action draws from games like Mega Man and maybe even Super Mario Bros. or Contra?. Anyone who grew up playing those games will quickly feel at home in the confines of Pixel’s cave.
But what’s truly amazing about Cave Story is that it doesn’t simply emulate the classic games of old—it surpasses them. Playing Cave Story is like discovering one of the greatest games from the 8- or 16-bit eras 15 years later, almost as if you somehow missed out on Super Metroid or Mega Man 2. The graphics, as humble as they seem by modern standards, consist of beautifully detailed sprites and backgrounds; the fact that they were all designed by one man lends them a cohesiveness that greatly adds to the look of the game. The gameplay is exceptionally solid compared to the bulk of independent games, but it also holds up favorably when compared to the finest action games released for the NES. The level design and pacing are top notch, balancing highs and lows in a package that’s over with well before it can wear out its welcome. Even the story is darker and more complex than anything you would find on an 8-bit system, yet it manages to avoid being excessively baroque or melodramatic.
The soundtrack deserves special mention; Pixel not only wrote all of the music in the game, but he did so using a music creation utility that he coded himself. The software uses short instrument samples that are looped and pitch-shifted, resulting in a soundscape that is reminiscent of the synthesized music of the late '80s yet uses unique sounds that aren’t lifted from an existing console or computer sound chip. The tracks themselves are nothing short of exceptional: From the ska-tinged "On to Grasstown" to the decidedly videogamey "Mischievous Robot" or the melancholic "Moonsong," every piece of music is beautiful, effectively underscoring the scene that it appears in.
Cave Story is a remarkable game, made even more exceptional by the fact that is the work of a single person. Beautiful, cohesive, and above all, fun to play, it serves as a reminder of everything that was good about video games 20 years ago without being a simple imitation of the works that inspired it. Pixel's labor of love is a joy to play for anyone who has ever enjoyed the medium, and there's no doubt that it deserves a place among the best games of all time.