Developer: Pixel Studios
Based on: Creating the illusion of nostalgia with painstakingly-crafted fakery.
Mega Man 9 may or may not save gaming. Maybe. But after giving it some thought, I wonder -- does it really need to? In retrospect, Cave Story sort of beat it to the punch.
See, nine out of ten Japanese developers agree that, yeah, their collective brain trust is being taken to the mats by their Western counterparts this console generation. A combination of over-specialization in PS2 programming and head-slappingly inefficient development habits are largely to blame; the new generation of consoles has more in common with PCs than PS2s, and the common Japanese practice of designing an engine from scratch for each new project is impractical at the current level of tech, to say the least. Things are looking up, but for the time being your precious import section is gonna be filled with janky, half-finished missteps like Infinite Undiscovery before Japan clears this particular stretch of bad road.
Meanwhile, Western blockbuster design seems to be increasingly focused on using current-gen power to render ever more veins on the ropey arms of bald guys whose tree-trunk-like physiques are thickened even further by their ubiquitous power armor. Occidental design may have the technological edge, but the bulk of it is as uninspired and joyless as anything from back east.
Man, what a crisis.
Enter Cave Story. In stark defiance of, well, everything, Cave Story is a spectacular creation: Compact yet complete, inventive yet retro, polished despite being the work of a single man. Right; developer "Pixel Studios" is actually just one Japanese guy who crafted the entirety of the game all by his lonesome, a labor of love spanning five years. It's gaming's The Cobbler and the Thief, a single creator's obsessive work, encapsulating everything great about the olden days of a rapidly-changing medium. The difference being that Cave Story, unlike Cobbler, actually made it into a finished form rather than existing as a series of achingly earnest rushes. And, despite representing so much of Mr. Pixel's life and and energy passion, Cave Story is available to play entirely for free in a remarkable variety of formats. Even in English, thanks to the munificent efforts of equally passionate translators. If you haven't played it yet, it's because you just don't care.
Your apathy will be the death of you.
When Cave Story first arrived on the scene in 2004, very few people knew what to make of it. For starters, its title was the rather obtuse (for English speakers) Doukutsu Monogatari, which doesn't really roll off the tongue when said tongue still pronounces "Ryu" as "rye-you." But even more confusingly, the game defied amateur development pigeonholes, being neither a click-n-read-porn visual novel or a radiant-bullet-spray top-down shooter. It was a platformer, a slightly open-world platformer with simple but crisp artwork and music that embodied the spirit and sonics of old-school pre-Windows PC chiptunes. It offered a story, too -- nothing enormous, nothing that detracts or distracts from the gameplay, but rather a simple and poignant little tale that provides the player with motivation enough to keep battling ahead, even when the going gets a little tough. And once you learn that the rather sad ending doesn't have to be the true ending, well, that's even motivation enough to struggle through the fittingly-named secret level of Hell in search of a happier conclusion.
It would be an impressive piece of work even if it hadn't been crafted by one person. Cave Story is no technical marvel, but it captures the essence of what made the best classic games so good. The controls are quirky, but the odd physics exist for a purpose. The hero's jumps are deliberately floaty, as the lazy arc of his leaps allows for clever application of techniques. The force of a certain weapon, fired downward, provides enough thrust to serve effectively as a jetpack, offering a violent new take on the concept of that hoary old Metroidvania standard, the double-jump. The tiny, minimal graphics allow for simple but entertaining effects -- massive numbers of objects moving about the screen, or particle sprays reminiscent of the results of giving into unavoidable temptation in Lemmings and nuking your whole damn squad. And the whimsical character and monster design mean you don't feel quite so put out when the difficulty level creeps up behind you and kicks your ass into next Tuesday. Because, hey, how can you hate something so cute?
The real joy of Cave Story is in interacting with its world; in experimenting. Despite the game's seemingly modest surface appearance, there's enough attention to detail that you can do quite a lot if you've the imagination to try. Walls can be blasted through, secrets uncovered, obvious solutions avoided to unlock unexpected story branches, and at one point you're even allowed to blow the whole popsicle stand and take the coward's exit. It makes for a lousy, unfulfilling epilogue, but that's OK. This is one of those games that you can't help but return to for a second or third playthrough. Because, after all, there's all that stuff you missed the first time around.
And those subsequent plays will truly impress on you the utter, exquisite quality of the entire venture. Cave Story is one of those rare and precious games in which every single element has been carefully crafted for maximum effect. The weapon upgrade path, the enemy placements, the level structures, the seemingly linear story that slowly opens up to reveal the world as a huge, liberating space with purpose and meaning. Even the seemingly overwhelming Hell has been constructed to perfection down to the pixel; it may seem impossibly horrible, but that's just because it was constructed to perfectly humble all comers.
And therein lies the lesson of Cave Story: great game design is about scope. Not scope in the sense of hugeness or mind-blowingly detailed visual design, but rather in the sense of knowing your limits and working within your means. The game's often stark graphic design could have come off as primitive, but its careful presentation makes it feel elegant instead. The old-fashioned platforming could have made Cave Story seem instantly dated, but instead it's a perfect vehicle by which to explore and master the game's enigmatic world. Pixel "Studios" did many things right in the five years he spent designing his labor of love, but the most important of these was knowing where to stop. Cave Story was perhaps the first significant game to use low-res visuals and thoughtfully-limited gameplay as a tool rather than treating them as an embarrassment to be glossed over. The game mechanics themselves aren't particularly innovative; Cave Story is brilliant, but it's simply a refinement of things that have come before. The innovation lies in the way these extant components come together into something at once familiar yet new -- it's retro, but not simply for nostalgia's sake. It's retro because that's what worked.
Certainly not every creator has Pixel's level of skill and vision, as the myriad lousy, half-completed Cave Story rip-offs that litter the Internet demonstrate. But if one man can create something this exceptional, certainly huge teams living off the corporate teat should be able to do no less.
Of course, they won't. Or not often, anyway. But as long as we can have a slow, steady drip of games like Mega Man 9 and Gradius ReBirth, then Pixel's noble five-year sacrifice won't have been in vain.