Once you put eyes, arms, and legs on a bar of soap, it's not really a bar of soap anymore, is it? --Pixel
Eleven years ago a Japanese college student named Daisuke Amaya began working on a game he called Dōkutsu Monogatari, or Cave Story. At the time he was studying computer programming, but had never designed a game. "One of my dorm-mates knew how to make games, so I started learning from him."
Amaya (better known as 'Pixel') spent the next five years drawing characters, building levels, refining gameplay and controls, creating a story, and writing dialogue and music. In 2004 he released Cave Story as freeware on PC, and ports of the game soon appeared for Linux, Mac, AmigaOS, Xbox, PSP and GP2X. Within a year, Aeon Genesis translated the game into English, word-of-mouth spread, rapturous reviews appeared, a popular tribute site emerged, and Cave Story became one of the most successful indie games ever made.
Fast forward to 2010, and Cave Story has appeared on WiiWare, developed by Nicalis in collaboration with Pixel. The new version contains a new English localization, enhanced graphics, new music, and additional play modes. Nicalis wisely retained the original music and visuals, and both are available as menu options. You can even mix the two, choosing the updated graphics, but keeping the old music, for example.
So why all the fuss about Cave Story - a non-linear retro run-and-gun platformer with shades of Wonder Boy, Metroid, Gunstar Heroes, and Mega Man?
Because Cave Story is a stellar example of masterful 2D side-scrolling design. Because it controls like a dream. Because its story puts more notable classics like Super Metroid's to shame. Because Cave Story trusts the player to construct meaning from his experience rather than handing it to you on a platter. Because it's insidiously addictive fun.
And because Pixel made it. I suppose it's possible to separate creator from creation, and maybe there's objective value to maintaining a critical distance between art and artist. But in the case of Pixel and Cave Story, why should we? The Cave Story story is inextricably linked to the Pixel story, and I say that adds a certain richness to the experience of playing the game. Is Cave Story a terrific game regardless of the backstory of its creation? Absolutely. But, for me at least, my appreciation for the game is enriched by my awareness of its meager roots and its humble creator.
Pixel describes himself as an 'office worker' who rides his bike to work every day. He's a software developer, but spends none of his professional time on games. "At home, I help with household duties and child care. Any personal software development of mine takes place primarily late at night."
Married and raising a family, Pixel can't devote a lot of time to designing games, which he describes as his 'hobby', so he must work slowly and methodically. "...There aren’t many resources I can put in to my hobbies, but with that little resource I am slowly making an RPG. Even that barely moves forward, so it may be impossible to create a Cave Story that surpasses its predecessor."
Given the success of Cave Story, one might have expected a sequel to appear in the six years since its release, but Pixel appears to be in no hurry. "There is an order of priorities for me, that's: Family > Myself > Work > Hobbies." When asked what kind of game he might create with an unlimited budget and a team of developers, Pixel appears disabled by the thought. "I have a habit of thinking what can be done within limitations, so nothing comes to mind if you give me an unlimited budget."
I can't help thinking artists in general would do well to adopt a similar mindset. As my grad school teacher - renowned director Liviu Ciulei - liked to say, "Don't tell me you want freedom. You wouldn't know what to do with it if you had it." Boundaries inspire artists more than they restrict.
I can't help rooting for a guy like Pixel. If you own a Wii and have 12 bucks to spare, I encourage you to buy the game and reward him for his efforts. Indie games predate Cave Story, but there's no question Pixel's game is a pivotal title in the history of the movement. If you prefer to play Cave Story on PC (or peruse other ports), you can download a free copy here.
I'll return in my next post to discuss Cave Story more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about the game or its creator, I hope you'll share them.