April 13, 2010

Cave Story – A Single Man Makes A Memorable Game

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , , — Michael Tucker @ 6:32 pm

Cave Story

Title Image by Rey Ortega

A lone developer once sat in his home in Japan and committed himself to making the most hauntingly fantastic independent videogame ever. Five years later, he emerged with Cave Story.

A lot of eloquent praise has been given to Cave Story over the years and there’s not much that I can add to what’s already been said, but there are a few things that struck me during my most recent play through of the title in its new WiiWare form and I can’t help wanting to write a love letter of my own.

The nigh-perfection of this simple title made by a single man (Pixel is Daisuke Amaya’s self-appointed handle) was and is far-and-away a greater achievement than anything I’ve experienced from the professional industry in many years – if nowhere else than on a tasteful, emotional level.

As I continue to grow more disenchanted with the incomprehensibly large budgets of the Hollywood-esque games industry and their epics that promise more, more, and more – almost to the point of overwhelming the senses – how can I not feel refreshed by the subtlety of Cave Story’s story telling approach?

It is creativity born out of the limitations involved in developing a 2D game single-handed, and this ingenuity born as a response to the lack of man-power and horse-power is in many ways more impressive than anything a team of artists and a large studio pipeline could produce. As the game begins you know little more than what you see on the screen – a simple pale character with a hat and scarf in a cave. A few minutes later you discover your character has amnesia and remembers nothing before the moment you first took control of him. As you progress, you encounter people who make remarks about your character being a robot soldier from the surface and you discover that everything you’ve been doing has been happening in an island in the sky. Later, a misunderstanding by another character informs you that not only has there been a giant war happening on the surface for a number of years, but that your character was originally sent to the island to eradicate the dominate species of Mimiga that you’ve since befriended.

Image by James Harvey

Already an entire world has been constructed beyond the edges of the screen and yet there is still much more about the world of Cave Story for the player to discover. Keep in mind that all of this information is gleaned in the game from no more than perhaps two or three sentences throughout the entire script. Pixel does not just hint at a larger story than that which the player experiences directly during the game, but with the subtle insertion of these few critical lines of dialogue he creates an entire, active world with a history that has directly affected each and every character in the game. This fits in directly with what Jamie was talking about in his article “The Word, Gaming’s Second Class Citizen” as Pixel uses the games script to fully realize in our minds a world that could not be realized on the screen. Now, take something like the latest release in the Prince of Persia series, where you have absolutely gorgeous backdrops, and yet those static vistas are nowhere near as alive as the world Pixel created for Cave Story.

I find it a bit funny that I’m offering so much praise to his story telling and world-crafting ability when in this 2005 interview with TIGSource, Pixel admitted to having created absolutely nothing for the expansive world of Cave Story outside of the things which the player interacts with directly in the game. Yet even this drives the point further home, because even though that world in no way exists, it does exist.

Image by Derek Yu

There is another aspect that struck me about this lone designer as I learned more about his approach to game and character design. This meek and seemingly simple Japanese man pulls a lot of his inspiration from real life and the things he encounters on a day-to-day basis, sort of like another Japanese fellow at a certain game company.

In a video interview produced by the Nintendo Channel prior to the WiiWare release of Cave Story, Pixel discussed his design process for the game and how he tweaked the controls until every little thing felt just right by his standards. He also joked about his limited drawing ability and how every time he draws a character they end up looking a little bit different. This minor self deprecating attitude also reminds me of Miyamoto’s story on facing hardware limitations when designing Mario using his own limited drawing ability. Furthermore, in the interview Pixel discussed how the design for the game’s most often encountered villain, Balrog, was inspired by a bar of soap. And again, to me this approach seems very reminiscent to the simplicity in design that is featured by a number of Nintendo’s most memorable icons and parallels Miyamoto’s own process of being inspired by objects and activities he encounters in his own life.

At the end of my last play-through of Cave Story, I remember thinking to myself with a certain amount of conviction that the guy who created the game I just completed needs to be taken in to the Nintendo brain-trust. Now that some time has passed since I first had that thought I can begin to wonder if that environment would actually be conducive to someone like Pixel, but nevertheless I admit to no small excitement when I imagine what sort of games could be produced if this man was given access and learned how to take advantage of the vast creative resources of a company like Nintendo. Alas, pipe dreams…

Image by Christopher Reavey

So, after all the feelings of excitement and respect I experienced when I last played Cave Story, one more dominating emotion struck me. This game, this great game, was made by one guy on no budget and not even any real structure or plan going into it, yet it was much less of a mess and way more original and personal than the last several commercially distributed videogames I purchased.

So there was this feeling of disgust, or maybe annoyance, that nagged at me when I thought about what I’d be playing next. Why should I go now and bother with something that promises an open world, or fantastic story, when I know that just like everything else out there it’ll be full of invisible walls and paid actors telling the same story, where the hero categorically wins after the typical rollercoaster plot scenario.

The refined, home-made quality of Cave Story made me all the more aware of how “fast food” so-called new games have become. I’m annoyed with an industry based in the creative arts that churns out those burger and fries experiences by the truckload every year. Publishers hear the majority of their audience when we say we want more of the same by purchasing “Space Marine with Guns X”, but that parody title describes exactly what Cave Story is about and still the merits of the game–the reasons why I remember it as a standout among other titles and why I was so eager to purchase it on WiiWare–come from every aspect of its design and narrative aside from this typically commercially viable tagline. So seldom do we hear about a designer working on a project that is “near and dear to them.” Well, it damn well shows that they’re in it just for the money! Cave Story is every bit a gun game as the big multi-million dollar projects (it even stars killer robot soldiers) so there’s no need for publishers to fund games that are so esoteric they’re bound to fail and then have their PR people tell us “hey, we tried, but you guys don’t buy that stuff.” All I’d like to see is a new game out there that actually wants to show me something new in earnest, like Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya’s pet project of half a decade, instead of just selling me something like nearly every professional studio’s projects after their two years of development time. At the very least, I’d appreciate the illusion that in the process of coming up with the idea for a new game somebody suggested something that wasn’t in a Venn diagram labeled “what people buy.”

So that’s how I would describe my Cave Story experience: Fascination->Admiration->Anger. I piece of work like this that inspires substantial interest about its own process as well as drives critical analysis of its contemporaries is something I would label as nothing less than an outstanding achievement. It comes as no surprise to me then that among the myriad of articles written about Cave Story the general message is almost always overwhelming love for this very personal little game.


  1. And this will be my purchase for the weekend. I’ve got a loooot of catching up to do with Wiiware but I either download this on the weekend or get fined and my “This title needs your support” membership could be revoked.

    Comment by EdEN — April 13, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  2. Has the audio been patched yet? :\ I’m waiting until it is fixed… if it is ever fixed…

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — April 14, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  3. Nope, no audio patch yet.

    Comment by EdEN — April 14, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

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