#14: Cave Story
Cave Story would deserve a place on this century's list of most important games even if it were practically unplayable. Thankfully, Studio Pixel's retro-inspired platform shooter is as fun and thoughtfully crafted as it is influential.
Hard as it may seem to believe, there was no such thing as an indie games scene a decade ago. The idea that a small team of people could create a meaningful and worthwhile video game had essentially died with the advent of 3D accelerator cards, and the growing scale of high-end games with realistic (well, "realistic") visuals demanded massive teams and even more frightful budgets.
And then along came Cave Story, which trickled onto the English-speaking web under its Japanese title of Doubutsu Monogatari and slowly, quietly made a profound sensation. Cave Story didn't have a massive team behind it; "Studio Pixel" was actually just one man, Daisuke Amaya, who got a bit of help from some friends but otherwise created this game all on his own. And what a game it was: A sprawling, tightly crafted platform action game with distinct physics, secret endings, and — here was the real kicker — graphics that hadn't been fashionable since about 1993. Cave Story was a game that arrived a decade too late, and that's what made it great.
The appeal of Cave Story didn't lie in nostalgia, though many imitators certainly seemed to think so. While its minimalist graphics definitely came off as something of a throwback, Cave Story doesn't quite feel like it belongs on any other platform throughout history. It looks a little bit like an old PC game, except the color palette is too expansive. It controls like an NES game, but it lacks the distinctive look of that platform's best. It sounds kind of like a Genesis game, but different, and it certainly doesn't have the same visual style as anything ever made for Genesis.
"Cave Story was a game that arrived a decade too late, and that's what made it great."
No, Cave Story isn't specifically calling back to any particular bit of the past. It's more about the spirit of the old days — the idea that one person, with enough dedication, could create a truly spectacular video game. The "retro" graphics resulted from sheer pragmatism; Amaya lacked the time and resources to create more elaborate visuals, so he adopted a clean, simple style whose cartoonish proportions packed a ton of personality while creating the illusion of lively animation with minimal effort. The squat character sprites allowed Amaya to create a compact game world with plenty of room for movement, hidden secrets, and multiple pathways. Everything about Cave Story screamed quality, despite its dated appearance.
But Studio Pixel didn't simply create a masterpiece of an action game in Cave Story; Amaya also helped solidify the indie scene. His work stood as a testament to the fact that, with enough passion and some very smart creative choices, one man could in fact create a game that holds up to the best of the classics. Cave Story's idiosyncratic physics gave the game a feel all its own, with a simple power-up system and a wealth of distinct weapons that offered a remarkable amount of flexibility for approaching battles and rewarded smart play — taking a hit from an enemy would power-down a gun, while the golden chips a defeated foe dropped allowed you to crank up your firepower. You could swap freely between different weapons, and some of the most interesting secrets and choices of the game had to do with guns. Grabbing the powerful machine gun early in the game could almost break the experience, granting you not only impressive firepower but also the ability to "fly" with the thing's recoil... but if you snagged that essential tool, you'd shut yourself out of potential alternate story twists down the road.
The story was nothing to sneeze at, either. Despite its minimal presentation, Cave Story told a remarkable affecting saga involving a peaceful race of rabbit people, a heartless plot to exploit and destroy them, and the remnants of an ancient war — one of which, it turned out, involved the (unnamed in the game text) protagonist himself. Depending on your choices, you could see the tale through to its end, abandon your friends for an easy (and unsettling) escape, or seek true peace by conquering the impossibly difficult post-game "hell" sequence.
In short, Cave Story offered incredible depth for a simple, old-school platform game created by a single man. But it played masterfully, and it helped introduce the homebrew sensibility of the humble Japanese doujin game scene to a wider audience, awakening countless aspiring game designers to the fact that they really could do it themselves. - Jeremy Parish