Proudly presents…

Dead Letters: Cave Story

with ♥ from Froge


Well, this is the last letter I’m sending out for the year. And for several months next year, too. Giving my appreciations, speaking my mind, is a good trait to have when you want to remain grateful for all the goodness in life. But for the format of these letters, where I am forced to be intimate, I find it so stifling to write, because I find I must be nice to you.

Not that I have a problem with kindness, nor the intimacy involved in sharing a… what did I call it? A bleeding heart? Well, I’m alright with the blood as well. I’m more intimate than most men, I find, no matter how insincere I seem, and how unserious I am. The problem, I find, is with the pronouns. When I say “you”, I do not mean you. You, after all, are a concept — a fictional construction of graphics and data. The reader of these letters? I’m not writing to them. It is awkward to say “you” when “you” is not what I mean.

I am not one to follow arbitrary traditions that damage all they touch. It is therefore that I am canning “you” and instead referring to you — or rather, it — as what it is. I discovered Cave Story in the middle of 2011 when the Nintendo Channel — a conglomeration of free advertisements and news courtesy of the Wii, though with some topics of interest such as speedruns and challenge runs — covered it as part of a sort of Let’s Play series of different downloadable Wii Shop titles. I was but an ignorant lad back then, unaware of the wonders of the PC, and so this game, alive since 2004, I felt obliged to buy.

We all know about Cave Story, don’t we? The history of it is long and varied, with such a simple game having bred such a large and varied fanbase, lasting over decades despite being the same title released over and over again. As Zero Punctuation pointed out: “Cave Story is a platformer/shooter – type thing developed by someone or something called Pixel. It was originally freeware; it is now sold on Steam for 14.99. So whatever Pixel was, it was apparently playing the fucking long game.” From humble beginnings as a virtual unknown, to getting pimped as one of the only WiiWare and DSi games worth a toss, we can now appreciate it for what it is today: once again a virtual unknown as it fades in and out of the public consciousness depending on whether or not someone important remembers it.

It’s understandable to base our faulty memories of indie games on their lack of marketing prowess, though given how Cave Story was given the spotlight in Nintendo Power and other gaming magazines over multiple issues (in the good old days where you had to wait for them to come in the post, and subscribers got exclusive covers that didn’t look like the dogshit on display at the grocery store), I’m not sure that’s a fair statement to make. Cave Story was bigger than ever in 2011 and 2012, with ports coming out of the woodwork, questionable decisions being made, and the entity known as Pixel having made more money during that period than the near – decade’s worth of time the game was free to download. Heck, it’s still free to download; all you get with the new stuff is butchered graphics.

The concept of an old title getting a fresh pair of boots and making its way in the world through being ported to absolutely everything isn’t new at all. DOOM runs on everything under the sun, Quake is a close second, and third place goes to all games which are also free software and will therefore be ported to everything from bootleg Chinese mobile phones to at least one model of refrigerator and – or graphing calculator. I’m not sure what position in the third class Cave Story would be in, though given how it runs on everything from Xbox to Motorola cell phones all due to some nutty, nutty fans, I think it would occupy a high place in that hierarchy.

The normie’s interaction with the game goes something like this: if they were a kid in the early 2000s, the gaming scene in 2004 would have praised it as far and wide as it could be praised, because everything was dismal back in those days and we were desperate for anything that would run on the 1998 white desktops that our parents owned and were too poor and ignorant to get anything worth a hecky. If they were a kid in the 2010s, they would have checked out Nintendo news, saw this cool new indie game coming for the Wii and DSi, and checked it out, before they had to re – buy it for the next console in accordance with Nintendo’s policy that you don’t actually own the games you pay for.

After those watershed moments came the mistakes. Cave Story+ for Steam contained not only the butchered graphics, but also a butchered translation that seemed to be changed for no reason but change for change’s sake, which is a special type of creeping cancer that infects developers like vines withering and dying down the walls they once inhabited, before they suffocate the devs and decompose them until the fungi of bureaucracy form. Cave Story 3D was just Cave Story in 3D, which charged forty dollars for what amounted to a graphical mod and a questionably – necessary level that nobody asked for and was just kind of there.

This was in the Dark Ages of 2011 and 2012 when there was no Freeshop, bootlegged 3DS games required a flashcart imported from China, and where you could talk about Nintendo without having to bring up how they are still one of the most antiquated and culturally evil companies working in the games industry today, and their success is due to unthinking sheep who care more about their dopamine hits more than they do the health of their own fucking human culture. Well, to be fair, you still can. You’d just have to be damaged.

But even though these fellows were living in 2011, we have seven years (SEVEN!) worth of hindsight, and with the privilege to ignore what we were forced to buy way back then, in favour of getting off The Pirate Bay today. Where back in the day we had to watch corporate – sponsored propaganda (also known as “advertising”) to see what was worth playing, we now have the privilege to play absolutely anything we damn well want to at no cost to us, and we are all better human beings for it. Apparently some people are against this idea, although I cannot figure out why. Maybe it makes them feel good in places their parents told them not to touch.

And maybe it’s true that no one man should have all that power. But we do, so sod it. Is Cave Story, after all these years of ports, good intentions, and slightly dodgey executions, still a good game in its original freeware incarnation way back in 2004? The answer is… somewhat. The gameplay is on the whole okay, the plot progression is absolute ass, and good luck trying to get through the game without crutching a strategy guide from beginning to end. Also, the story has that Undertale problem of being quite simple but being told in such a way where the developers think they’re weaving a vast and intricate tale of intrigue, but in fact takes a trip to Wikipedia to figure out what in tarnation is going on.

The story goes that there are a bunch of red flowers that sprout on an island of rabbit things (they’re called Mimigas in case you want to look up their porn booru tag, as if you didn’t already know) and a research team journeyed forth to study them. One of the researches discovers an evil crown which gives him magic bullshit powers, the subject of which made an evil robot army to kill everyone and everything within in search of the crown. The rabbit blokes ate the red flowers to turn themselves into magic bullshit hulks to eat all the robots and then die shortly after of Flower Death, which nobody remembers anymore and so nobody minds when you play as a robot and start killing them all for increasingly contrived reasons before finding your way to Hell and killing the final boss of Spelunky.

Okay, maybe it’s less simple and more of a mood whiplash, but given how Japan is a land of either nature – loving Zen Buddhists, an über – far – right corporate – owned one – party state run by suicidal wage slaves, or a cyberpunk technocratic hellhole developed by virgin weeaboos impregnating pillows with nine – year – olds on them, it’s all par for the course.

It’s not the typical Japanese weirdness where you have to pet the faces of anime ladies in your tactical high fantasy role – playing game to make them even more appreciative of sending them to their deaths, which was considered such a vital feature that it was the subject of a several – weeks – long manufactured controversy after it was removed for Western audiences, 95% of whom would find it kind of fucked up, and 5% being fucked – up. It’s the more subtle weirdness of Japanese media being tone deaf to Western traditions and not stopping to ask whether or not what they’re presenting, I.E. funny rabbit creatures getting brutally slaughtered against the backdrop of total war, is a little bit incongruous for the tastes of hefty white guys in oversized jorts.

You can say what you want about the bland, uninspiring, milquetoast and blatantly – capitalistic culture of the United States, as if Japan’s is no less cynically driven by profits, focus – testing, and homogeneous company culture: at least you can’t purchase a $230 plastic statue of a pretty high schooler getting upskirted by a naughty ghost creature. You can get a gun out of a vending machine and shoot yourself on the spot, but if we want teenagers with bumpy asses and flat tiddies, we have to go on the Internet and get put on a watchlist! And by “we”, I mean “you cunts down South”. Because if I had to live in a country where you can post child porn masquerading as digital artwork on Facebook and face no punishment whatsoever, I probably would shoot myself.

Yes, I am aware that the vast majority of weeaboo nonsense in Japan is treated with the same incredulity as how we treat weeaboos here. No, I’m not going to stop making jokes about it. You dug your grave, Japan! You lie in it and think about what you’ve done!

And, well, this isn’t a review of Cave Story, but the gameplay is fine. You would expect it to be, given how it is a video game and I’m writing about it. It’s one of those things where you vaguely resemble parts of it playing as a kid, but don’t feel the full brunt of it all until you replay it as a learned adult and find the many goods, and the many bads, of the thing. Upgrades are nice, finding them isn’t, and the physics are really just so – so. The level design has a lot of variety, but at the same time, a lot of things that make you question why the developer put those spikes there, or why there aren’t so many checkpoints, or why you have to travel across the same level three or four times just to advance to the next half of the level.

It’s a game of petty frustrations, and by the time it hits its stride and lets the gameplay take over, it’s 80% finished and all that’s left to finish is the hell that is Hell. If there was a game like Cave Story with just the good bits, such as the long and uninterrupted corridors of nonstop combat, the drawn – out boss fights resembling wars of attrition more than anything, and the jetpack platforming portions which aren’t quite bullshit, but also aren’t easy enough to make completing them feel hollow, then it would be an amazing game. But there’s too much obscurity in regards to how to get to those portions, in how bizarre and disconnected the criteria for advancement is, that any recommendation of Cave Story has to carry a great big asterisk at the end saying that it’s just not as good as you remember it.

Why have I wrote this letter to a game that I’m not quite sure if it’s so decent, so human, after all? Well, we only realise these things when we really think about it, and I think despite all these flaws, we can appreciate the game for what it is, even if it could have been so much more. It really is an important title in indie games history, having been made so early in the medium, and despite this, still manages to be pretty good, and offers a lot of intrigue and drama to a title that, though it’s bizarre to have it, is also gripping for having it.

Cave Story is weird and wonderful, with only the occasional arbitrary roadblock stopping you from enjoying all of its sights, and though it’s not beautiful, it’s a topic of fascination, and I do think you’ll find it fascinating as well.