Cave Story 3D might be the hardest review of my games journalism career. The original Cave Story, a freeware game developed by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, is an indie classic; I’d argue that it was one of the main catalysts that put independent games into the spotlight as they are currently. It had an upgrade when it was ported over to the WiiWare and DSiWare services, and many agreed that that version was far and away superior, with tighter controls and updated graphics, while still retaining the charm of the original.
Now, we have Cave Story 3D, another iteration of the revered game, with a complete graphic overhaul to take advantage of the Nintendo 3DS’s visual capabilities. From the moment screens were released, it’s been a polarizing game, and now that it’s out, is it really worth another buy? Well, yes and no.
Unsurprisingly, the main reason why I would wholeheartedly recommend Cave Story 3D to anyone is the story. Even though it’s a retro-themed platformer, the game’s plot is utterly, undoubtedly deep, with charming characters who exude life with every line of dialogue they speak. Cave Story chronicles the adventures of Quote, a character who’s just woken up in a cave on a mysterious island with no memory of his previous existence. As he progresses he’ll discover the plight of the Mimigas, rabbit-like creatures that’re being abducted one by one for seemingly no reason by the sinister Doctor. As with most amnesia-filled quests, Quote eventually becomes the sole savior of the Mimigas, as he uncovers the Doctor’s evil plans.
When it’s on paper like that, the plot sounds very very archetypal and yawn-worthy, and quite honestly, the narrative isn’t exactly treading new ground. What makes it a truly memorable experience though is the sheer character and charm behind the cast; if I had to choose one word to describe them, it would be Miyazaki-esque. The plot is laid out in text bubbles between levels as you speak to various NPCs along the way, and although much of the main characters don’t say anything too insightful or wise, they exude immediate likability with such simple dialogue. There really is a sense that you yourself have literally jumped into a world where the established characters already have a long-standing rapport with each other; they don’t spell things out to each other, as if they’re speaking indirectly to the player, nor do they outright explain occurences, as if they don’t know what exactly is going on. Simply put, they act like actual people, and that in itself is an achievement in a game about robots, doctors, and rabbitmen.
Unfortunately, that’s where the shining, unadulterated praise stops. This is where things get tough, and for one simple reason: every single improvement to the original Cave Story also hurts the original design and charm of the story. Of course, the main offender of that is the visuals. Yes, the oft-talked about, oft-raged-at new graphics. Cave Story 3D has graphics that’ve been rebuilt from the ground up, and credit where credit is due: Nicalis has done an absolutely fantastic job reimagining the Cave Story world in polygonal graphics. However, whether you like it or not is all up to you. Personally, I think it looks much, much better in motion than all of the screens let on. If it looks like a PlayStation era platformer to some of you, well, it’s because it does, but that’s precisely why I enjoy it. Not only do the 3D polygons literally pop, thanks to the 3D capabilities of the 3DS, but Nicalis has also managed to put another layer of 3D detail behind the forefront of the action. It’s meticulous and neat, and very reminiscent of the style of the platforming classic Klonoa series.
Additionally, if you don’t enjoy that, there’s always Classic Mode, which may arguably be the superior way to experience Cave Story 3D. In Classic Mode, the environments are still 3D, but the characters and enemies are all now their original 2D sprites, and it is magnificent. The contrast of the 2D sprites against the 3D backgrounds is immediately striking, and since both are equally beautiful, it’s an inventive way to play the game. Some of the 2D sprites of the enemies are actually considerably larger and undoubtedly more rudimentary than their 3D brethren, which gives every world even more of a surreal, Paper Mario-esque effect. About three-quarters of the way in I switched to Classic Mode, and I kicked myself for not having done so sooner; anything that reminds me of Paper Mario is definitely going to endear itself to my heart instantly.
So what’s the catch then? Well, with the 3D visuals also comes a brand new “camera” system, where the camera is at a default “skewed” angle, and actually slightly pans at a further left or right angle to convey the 3D. Think about how you would draw a cube on a piece of paper, and that’s how the camera is defaulted to show that it’s made with 3D polygons. First time you see it, it’s actually pretty cool; there’s very few 2D games constructed with 3D models that can effectively convey both in that way. As you actually start to play the game though, things can get a little troublesome gameplaywise.
Simple things such as save points and health stations can often be obscured because they’re positioned right alongside a wall, and if the camera is perpetually skewed to that side, it’s common to find items and locations that are almost completely hidden as a result. On more than a few occasions I almost completely skipped over a health station because a big fat side wall was blocking all but a sliver of the tiny red corner of the box.
Additionally, interacting with items, people, and doors can be occasionally frustrating due to the new perspective. Interacting with objects is as simple as pressing down on the D-pad, but since the camera is almost always skewed to an angle, it can often be nitpicky. Opening doors means standing slightly to the left or right of the door, not directly in front; trying numerous times to do something as simple as opening a door is irksome and makes me feel a little mentally handicapped, to be honest. Same goes for exploring the surroundings: sometimes you’ll need to recover objects in the environment or interact with them, and since the “hitbox” for interacting with them is so small, it’s easy to miss objects. Add to that the default skewed angle, and it’s almost like playing any Professor Layton game and deseperately stabbing at any and all surroundings to find that one person/robot you need to talk to. Luckily I’d already played through the original, so I had a pretty good idea of where to go and what to do, but even then I found myself getting stuck only because I was one step to the left of where I tried to talk to some dude.
I haven’t even touched on the gameplay as well, which once again runs into a paradoxical improvement/detriment. If you’ve never played Cave Story, it’s a 2D platforming shooter with exploration elements. It’s basically what would happen if you mixed the best of Castlevania, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. As you progress through the quest you’ll find different weapons, each with their advantages, which can be upgraded two more levels via gold triangles dropped by felled enemies. You’ll use all of them plenty, and you’ll learn to use them extremely well, as the game can get table-flippingly difficult, and forces you to get more proficient at wielding specific weapons. Believe me, when there’s a bunch of frog-looking things and hornet-esque pests all rushing you, you’ll learn quick to use the rapid fire Polar Star over the slow-rolling, low trajectory Fireballs.
Controlling Quote with a gamepad, as opposed to a keyboard, feels great; mapping out the weapon switching to the shoulder buttons is especially effective, considering you’ll have to quick draw different guns rapidly in the later stages in order to not die. The button layout comes naturally to anyone who’s played a retro Nintendo game before; one button shoots, and one button jumps, and that’s all you need.
The problem comes not with the button layout side, but the directional control aspect of the 3DS. Cave Story 3D is not an analog control game, meaning there’s only a “stop” and “run” input when Quote is walking. Additionally, Quote can only shoot in four directions, not eight, like we’re used to in recent games. How is this a problem? Simply put, the circle pad is terribad at controlling Quote. The game was not meant for analog control, so the moment you unknowingly drift the circle pad up or down, Quote immediately looks up or down. During hot and heavy combat, aiming in these situations can be beyond annoying; I can’t count how many times I’ve died because my thumb drifted up ever so slightly and made Quote shoot up instead of forward. Nicalis gave the game a graphical overhaul; you’d think they’d also implement an eight-way shooting mechanic to improve the gameplay on an analog input device as well.
But hey, no biggie, that’s why the 3DS also has a D-pad, right? Well, okay, the D-pad does work significantly better, and feels absolutely perfect…except for its placement on the 3DS. The D-pad is so low and unergonomic on the 3DS that within twenty minutes of invested gameplay, my left hand and wrist felt like it was turned into some painful arthritic claw. That one’s on the 3DS and its ill-conceived design, so it’s a pass for Cave Story 3D, but nonetheless, it’s an issue that needed to be addressed.
So, now here’s the ten million dollar question: is Cave Story 3D worth buying? In spite of all the improvements embedded with flaws, I would have to say yes. Through it all, this is a question of whether or not the narrative is worth the shortcomings, and I would still have to say it almost certainly is. Despite some of the niggles I had with the gameplay, I still managed to get through the entire game yet again and have an absolutely great time revisited Mimiga Village and that colorful fantasy world. Additionally, the game is surprisingly replayable, with multiple side quests and endings that’ll be sure to warrant multiple playthroughs. I managed to get through it in about ten hours, and then proceeded to immediately start over so I could get the “good” ending; as someone who normally couldn’t be bothered to replay even the best games in the world, that’s a very good sign.
Now, is Cave Story 3D worth buying for $40? To that I would lean towards no. The improvements are “improvements”, and beyond the graphical upgrade it’s still the same Cave Story you’ve been playing for years. It’s a great “sidegrade” of sorts, but quite frankly, if you want to experience the best Cave Story, you’re better off waiting for a price drop, or heading to the eShop and downloading the DSiWare version instead. I feel dirty saying that, but in this rush of holiday AAA monsters, there unfortunately just isn’t room for a full three-dimensional Quote, especially for the price.