I wasn’t sold on Cave Story after playing through its first proper level. I felt as though I was playing another retro-inspired game that claimed to understand what made the NES and SNES-era special, but only emulated it on a surface level. But I pressed on, and after finishing its second level, I immediately knew I was wrong. Cave Story doesn’t just have the look; it shares the substance that made games like Mega Man 2, Super Metroid, Mario 3, and even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from the PS1-era, some of the best of all time. Cave Story is near indiscernible from these classics, and a modern classic in its own right.
In the opening moments of the game, you’ll find yourself (a mysterious young boy) in a dark cave, with no information whatsoever. This is another aspect of early games that Cave Story gets right; the method of teaching gameplay through play itself, rather than tutorials and blatant explanation. It encourages exploration and discovery in a way few recent games do, and almost always rewards the player for their exploration, further reinforcing the desire to continue doing so. At first glance it’s obvious that Cave Story look gorgeous, and as soon as you boot it up you’ll be greeted by a fantastic soundtrack, both of which only serve to make Cave Story all the better. Surprisingly, it’s fairly heavy on story, and it’s quite fun to experience, introducing a number of likeable characters throughout it’s duration, and providing really entertaining villains.
Cave Story plays exactly like what you’d expect from a 16-bit, retro-inspired action-platformer. The core gameplay feels like Mega Man to a fault, requiring you to time jumps and weapon shots and practice precise character placement as you make your way through the hazards of each stage. As you defeat enemies, they’ll drop either experience for upgrading your weapons (that you can lose by getting hit) or health pickups (health can be increased by collecting certain items). It wouldn’t be enough for Cave Story to just emulate the feel of the gameplay, without providing the challenge of the golden age of games, which it does in spades. This modern game can be every bit as challenging as early Mega Man entries, and shares in that challenging-but-fair spirit.
There are so many versions of Cave Story available on so many platforms that there’s really no good reason to not at least try it out. The very first version of the game that originally released on PC in 2004 for free is still available to this day, and though it doesn’t boast all of the upgrades and added content that Cave Story + on Steam or the WiiWare release do, it’s still great and worthwhile. Cave Story would be more than at home with the heavy hitters of the 16-bit era, and if it were released alongside them in their heyday, it would rightfully stand as highly-regarded as any.