First Impressions: Cave Story

The seminal indie game finally comes to Nintendo

Cave Story is like a Cinderella tale of indie game development, arriving at a time when the conventional wisdom was that the days of a lone programmer creating a complex and compelling game were behind us; it proved that the old spirit of the 8-bit era is still alive and well in the 21st century. Independent studio Nicalis has been fortunate enough to work with the creator, Pixel, to bring this modern classic to WiiWare.

We know this is possibly the most anticipated WiiWare title for many and the wait is nearly over (at least in North America, with a confirmed March 22 release date), but we're happy to tease you with a little preview of the game first. Out of respect for Cave Story's creator, and to not spoil too much for those who have never played the PC version, we won't be revealing many details about the game, but instead share some overall feelings about it which should hopefully address any questions or fears. This preview is based upon the final version of the game which has already gone through the approval process at Nintendo.

When you first fire up Cave Story you're treated to an intro that will remind you of an old 8-bit computer game – a feeling that persists through play in the main story mode conveyed by the visuals and style of play. Although Cave Story is a platforming game, it doesn't resemble the kind of games you normally associate with the genre like Mario or Sonic: there are no coins or rings to collect and you're not simply running from one end of the screen to the other. Instead it's more like the action adventure titles found on old 8-bit computers: the title is very apt as the story component is a very strong part of the game and the narrative provides the hook that keeps players continuing on to the end. As a consequence there's no lives or scores because the goal is to finish the story, which is teased out via conversations with various interesting characters and some amusing dialogue.

The protagonist has no memory and thus the player is much like the character: trying to feel their way around in a strange new world. Levels are quite large and can be tricky to navigate, but it's well worth exploring – not only to find new items that will help you in your progress, but also to learn more of the story, as there are people to chat with in some unusual places. There's no time limit and there are plentiful save points to aid you in case you make a mistake, though both your weapon power and health bar increase over the course of play to minimise their impact. The platforming elements can be a little tricky, but we didn't encounter anything truly testing: a testament to some excellent level design which emphasises exploration over learning special techniques and therefore accessible to players besides platforming mavens.

Graphically, Cave Story is firmly in the 8-bit era and looks like a long-lost Commodore 64 game. Nicalis have updated the visuals, but it's merely in the form of some nicer textures and cleaner artwork – the essence of the original game's appearance is still there. If you want to experience the game as it originally looked on the PC you're able to do so via the options menu. The soundtrack has been similarly treated with some rearranging and improved fidelity – though again, if you want to hear the original music that's also possible.

The controls make full use of the Wii Remote and will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever picked up a controller. The Remote is used on its side with standard movement and jumping controls (alternatively you can make use of the Classic Controller). Holding down the jump button will allow you to jump further and higher, there's a button for firing weapons and you'll use (A) and (B) to toggle through them once you acquire more than one. You can view your inventory via (+) , whilst (-) will bring up a map – after you find the map tool. If we have any complaints it's that there's no way to exit back to the main menu we could determine besides hitting Home and resetting the game, though in reality once you start playing it's unlikely you'll want to check out the other modes until you've seen it through to the end!

Cave Story is such a finely crafted game it could easily stand on its own, but there's a few extras to tempt players of the original game (aside from graphical and aural improvements and new character designs from Pixel). Boss Rush allows players to battle the bosses from the game in sequence via a nice museum-like menu interface. Sanctuary Time Attack levels-up players and then pits them against a challenging level which they attempt to complete within a fixed time limit – a good test for the master spelunker, surely? The only other mode we were able to see was the ability to play through the story with one of the other characters encountered in the game, but it's always possible there's an extra surprise hidden there somewhere...

There's little question that Cave Story will be worth the wait for fans of action-platforming and simply compelling storytelling. Hopefully more than just North America will get a chance to play it soon!

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