Cave Story 3D would've been an absolute editors' choice for anyone who dares call himself a gamer, in spite of the game being free on the PC and available for purchase as a decent Wiiware port or on DSiWare.
But then the Steam release happened, and the game went from a must-get 3DS classic to ... a still wonderful game. It was just done better on another system, topping the beauty of the 3DS port with expanded gameplay. The developer may have cannibalized itself with the timing of releases, and the results are sad for fans of the greatest Super NES game that never was, all beautifully converted to 3-D.
Cave Story was originally — and is still easily available as — a free PC game. Originally released in 2004, it's a nonstop joyride through all the best elements of the 8-bit era, incarnated into one game that easily demonstrated the power of old-school gaming at its best.
And the whole thing was done by one man in his spare time.
As the phenomenon around the game slowed over time, the developer moved on to other projects, until a new company formed around building a Wii port, which released to general critical acclaim last year, in spite of a painful bug with the much-touted remixed soundtrack. The DSiWare port later that year mostly flew under the radar but was apparently a significant improvement. Only now, another year later, does the game see a true retail release.
The basic gameplay casts you as an amnesiac, pale-skinned little guy. Walk through a few rooms of instant-death spikes, steal some sleeping gunsmith's beam pistol, and you're off through, more or less, Metroidvania with a bit more Metroid. Individual levels connect less than you see in many games, but you'll still be curving through a large, seemingly endless network of caves, trying to find out who you are and saving the lives of an innocent tribe of lapin sapiens (talking, clothes-wearing bunnies known as the Mimiga). Each zone feels perfectly built, with a good mix of comedic elements to keep the tone from getting too dark, even as you are introduced to one of the most monstrous villains in gaming memory, and to a world that, for all its cuteness, is subtly very horrifying. (A snake-like humanoid named Cthulhu even pops up to say, "Hi" as you pass by.)
All this is combined with good old-fashioned gameplay perfection with tight controls, a simple weapons upgrade mechanic, and an incredible number of secrets, all ported faithfully even as the game got a graphical facelift. The difficulty curve starts off fairly hard compared to many modern games but curves gracefully, with few spikes (outside of boss fights, where it should be expected). By the end, the true final zone greets you with a cute and entirely accurate sign that reads, "Welcome to Hell!" as the game up turns the increasingly sadistic undercurrent.
Developer Nicalis knew what it was doing. When it started a 3DS version of this classic, it started by getting the gameplay right so that the game plays identically to the classic. Then, they redid the backgrounds and levels by replacing the 8-bit sprites with 3-D models that nicely capture the feel of the sprite-based originals, using a polite minimum of visual effects to make the details seem right. The character models were similarly updated, though Nicalis was nice enough to include a Classic mode that switches all moving objects' models with the original sprites. The classic soundtrack is only available in an updated form, but fortunately, the update keeps with the classic tone and plays wonderfully. The 3-D effect is completely optional, but when enabled, it allows you to clearly see what is and isn't in play; the game minimizes 2.5-D effects to avoid confusion. Scenery pops out and ducks in, but your gameplay is on the screen at all times.
The good news is that the updates are beautiful, they work, and they don't break things. All of the classic gameplay is there, perfectly rendered on your 3DS screen. The bad news is that the classic gameplay is all there — and that's pretty much it. There are only a few new unlockables (including a Disgaea 4 reference in the form of Fuka's Prinny cap) and a couple of new optional areas. Mostly, it's the same classic with a graphical update.
Unfortunately, that's where the problem comes because of what came out barely a week after Cave Story 3D: the Steam PC and Mac release, Cave Story Plus, which adds a comparably beautiful, slightly more authentic-feeling HD update, a mix-and-match of the original soundtrack, the fixed Wii version update soundtrack and new play modes. It's a lot for less than one-third of the price of the 3DS version. What this means is that the retail release is only a good deal if you want to see a beautiful new take on the classic graphics and/or if you want a definitive gaming classic on the go.
Admittedly, this game's value is only bad when compared to the Steam release. The main campaign lasts a reasonable five hours if you're going at a typical clip, but the number of secrets — things you may only discover from web guides years after having played it the first time — make this the kind of game you can come back to again and again, each time discovering new things and new joys.
So if you want the maximum bang for your buck, get on Steam and grab that version of Cave Story. If you want an excellent action game on the go that captures the best elements of the glory days of old and does so with a style that is rare nowadays, get to a retailer or store and get Cave Story 3D. If you haven't played this game yet, you are missing out.
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