This is the second of two posts on Cave Story. You can read the first one here.
Cave Story is a masquerade. It poses as a charming retro sidescroller featuring a plucky robot boy and a race of bunny-like creatures called Mimigas. Built over a period of five years by a soft-spoken indie developer nicknamed Pixel - who cites his greatest reward from the game's success as "I'm looking forward to my wife becoming more interested in my game creations," - Cave Story has 'feel-good' written all over it. Six years after its release as freeware, Cave Story has reemerged on Nintendo's family-friendly box, dressed up with a graphic makeover that renders those cuddly Mimigas more adorable than ever.
Let none of this fool you. Cave Story is a bloodbath. This apparently modest little game tells the story of a wizard subjected to horrific torture and driven to madness, who finally burns down his kingdom and murders his wife and children. Cave Story is about engineered genocide. It's about a race of humans destroying foreign villages from afar with robotic devices. It's about victimized people willing to make themselves killing machines if it increases their chances of defeating the enemy. Cave Story features a central character named Misery.
Storytelling aside, there is nothing little or modest about Cave Story. Pixel's immaculate levels present challenge after challenge, invite playful exploration, and reward a variety of strategies. Something about these levels feels perfect, as if every block was carefully set in place with a clearly defined purpose.
The shattered egg corridor is a model of inspired design. You return to an area you've visited before, but transformed and full of new enemies. Giant bugs shoot dual energy balls and follow you through walls. Dragon zombies hurl fire; stalactites fall from above; narrow winding paths require careful attention, and precision platforming is a must.
Each of these enemies (and many others throughout the game) emerge naturally from the storytelling. The dragons are zombies because they failed to hatch from their eggs properly, due to all the harmful activity surrounding them. Various weapons and methods can be effective, even in boss fights, so you rarely play "guess what the designer was thinking" in Cave Story. Progress is linear, but your strategy for overcoming each level needn't be, and each opened area may be revisited and further explored.
If you wish to play through the entire game using only the original weapon you receive at the beginning, you can. If you wish to play without saves, restoring health only through resting, you can. It's possible to complete the shattered egg level all the way to the boss without killing a single enemy. Possible, I said. Not easy.
Possible because Cave Story is so perfectly balanced. It offers a stiff challenge to experienced players, especially if you unlock the Sacred Ground; it's chock-full of secret areas and goodies to satisfy collectors and completionists; and it ramps up in difficulty so gradually, doling out new weapons and power-ups at just the right pace, that diligent newcomers can gain their footing and progress.
Balance only matters if a game plays well, and Cave Story controls like a dream. Your character (named 'Quote') leaps, glides, and lands no less elegantly than those who dwell in the Mushroom Kingdom. Weapons are responsive, easy to use, and often multifunctional. The machine gun, for example, can enable Quote to float when it's fired pointed down. Every inch of this game, from controls to art style to sound design, is polished with a high-gloss sheen.
Cave Story contains three very different endings. We like replay value, and this game offers it in spades, but Cave Story's endings function as more than replay incentives. Choosing one - the easiest and, consequently, most destructive - denies me roughly half the game. Another path offers peace and redemption, but in this murderous world, such a conclusion is incredibly difficult to achieve. Given the story this game tells, that seems right to me.
If you reach the Sacred Ground (a secret area at the end of the game), you will meet the tortured wizard Ballos, the man who gazed upon the spectacle of his loved ones dying...and laughed. He is waiting for you. Final bosses are always waiting for us, but this one feels at once familiar and different. Ballos longs to be released from the horror of his existence. "Long, long have I waited… Waited for the one who would finally subdue my magic’s fury… Now, kill me! Or I-- shall kill you!!”
What ensues is a battle I have yet to win, but I'm determined to find my way. A fitting end to a game that draws us into a brilliant, chimerical, but ultimately very dark cave.