Get this game: Japan's first and best indie darling, Cave Story

Cave Story [Nicalis, WiiWare]

Japan has always had its own version of an "indie game" scene, but one that's carried a certain amount of "books read right-to-left" unfamiliarity. Speaking very generally, it's never had quite the same amount of experimental flair that's taken root in the West, sticking largely to traditionalist takes on top-down shooters (see especially: Kenta 'ABA' Cho), fighters, and visual novels, distributed as hobbyist/amateur boxed goods.

Which is maybe what made Cave Story such a surprise on its initial late-2004 release. Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya's five-year, spare-time one-man-show was, like its Western kin, a spot-on mix of platforming, shooting and exploring -- a love story to the early 8- and 16-bit games that laid the groundwork for so many indies over the past however-many years (and would itself do the same, with 'Cave Story clone' now a meme of biting dismissal among first-time creators).

Flash forward six years, and to basically no-one's surprise, its long-awaited arrival on WiiWare via upstart publisher Nicalis (after various freeware ports to the PSP, DS, and basically any system that would receive it) sees it no more dated now than it was then, entirely by design. As it turns out, that magic exporatory-platformer mix persists because it's one of 2D gaming's most satisfying tropes: perfect for easing players into a world before ramping up the difficulty of certain challenges just as they get comfortable with the last.

The story of Cave Story is as cheerfully incomprehensible -- even for as memorable and iconic as its characters have gone on to become -- as it is adorable, but its story is also entirely secondary to what's made it an enduring indie hit. More important are its finely tuned mechanics: an upgradable weapon system that takes damage as your character does, the classic structure of a roped-in but eventually surmountable world.

But most important, Cave Story is what all the best indie creations were and are: a shining example of an auteur-driven work -- a game that could have come from no one but Amaya himself, and managed to retain its coherent vision undiluted by outside interference.

Take or leave the value-adds included by Nicalis for the its commercial debut (which, to be sure, do give the game better approachability and replayability), Cave Story is and was a creation that simply "got it right" then, gets it right now, and is one of the Wii's truly essential works.

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