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Games to play in quarantine: ‘Cave Story’

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Hey! I’m Noah, and I’m here to tell you about games that I think are worth sinking time into while most of us are spending spring quarter at home instead of on campus. This is a time of stress and uncertainty for all of us, and one thing that has always been able to provide solace, at least for me, is video games. Since the start of quarantine, I’ve been taking a trip down memory lane to revisit some of the games that have stuck with me over the years. Hopefully me writing about them inspires you to give them a try as well. I’ll be writing about games (mostly narrative-driven, freeware games) on a semi-regular basis, and if you get a chance to play any of them or have any recommendations, feel free to shoot me an email!

For anyone who plays video games, my go-to recommendation is always “Cave Story.” And for anyone who doesn’t, I still recommend “Cave Story.” Why? There isn’t really a piece of media quite like it. Not because it singlehandedly spawned the entire indie game genre. Not even because it makes a strange cameo appearance in “The Suite Life on Deck”‘s season two episode “Goin’ Bananas.” What makes “Cave Story” special is how every aspect of the game, from its gorgeous art style to its memorable soundtrack, is proof that this game was made by someone who was intent on creating something that would stand the test of time.

That someone was Daisuke Amaya, who began the game’s development as a side project in college. Although his time in college eventually came to an end, he continued to work on the game as a passion project whenever he wasn’t doing work as a software engineer. It took Amaya a total of five years to complete “Cave Story”, and all of the game’s programming and assets were done solely by him. In 2004, after all the hard work he had put into the game, he published it as a freeware title for anyone to download free of charge.

Fast forward to 2010: I was in middle school and had met a friend through an online gaming forum. We would play games together on Xbox Live, and one day when we were chatting on Yahoo Messenger, he recommended this game called “Cave Story” to me. I didn’t know much about it at the time, and when I first started playing I thought it was a long-lost Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) title like the games that it emulates. But despite its retro, 16-bit aesthetic, I soon realized just how timeless the game was.

The game begins in, like its name suggests, a cave. And like its name also suggests, it tells a story. Most of the games that I had played by 2010 adopted the classic Mario Bros. minimalist formula: good guy kills bad guys, saves princess/world. But from the get-go, “Cave Story” offers this rich, vibrant world full of characters with unique personalities. Underneath it all is this compelling narrative about colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources. It can be gut-wrenchingly sad at times, but there’s also parts where you rescue an old lady’s puppies and where you talk to a bunny-man named Santa.

I don’t want to spoil the plot of the game; “Cave Story” is better experienced than talked about. And that distinction is what stuck with me the most after playing through the game 10 years ago. I was an avid reader and loved reading fiction books, but there was something different about the way that “Cave Story” presented its narrative. From the beginning of the game, nothing about the plot is directly given to you. By navigating throughout the game’s stages and talking to its characters, you have to develop an active role in piecing together the context for what is going on. Once the pieces of the overarching narrative coalesce, the feeling of revelation that you get is unparalleled.

The player’s active role in unfolding the story culminates in choosing one of several different endings, each of which dramatically affects the game’s world. Over the course of the game, you develop a connection with its inhabitants, mostly due to the incredible charm that Amaya instills into every pixel of this game. From the lushly rendered backdrops to the adorable Mimiga rabbit-people that inhabit the game’s sci-fi setting, the game sucks you in and then asks you to make decisions that profoundly affect the outcome of the world and its inhabitants. This idea of choice in games has made its way into more popular indie titles like “Undertale” and “The Binding of Isaac” as well as mainstream games like the “Mass Effect” series. But the way that “Cave Story” weaves it into its core gameplay is unmatched.

Speaking of gameplay, it took me quite a few playthroughs to really understand what makes “Cave Story” such a pinnacle of game design. I think what it does that other games don’t is play with the player’s expectations in a way that feels fresh with every playthrough. “Cave Story” is designed with the parameters of the NES in mind, from its 16-bit aesthetic to its old-school soundtrack. But at every turn, the game manages to surprise you and make you rethink what exactly it is trying to be. In the first area, you steal a sleeping gunsmith’s gun and blast your way through critters and bats, only to arrive at your first exit door. But this door has an evil eye and is actually hostile to the player, like the aforementioned bats and critters. There isn’t another entity like this in the entire game, and it just serves to keep the player on their toes, right from the start. This playing with expectations continues throughout the game, as the tone manages to carefully toe the line between ominous and irreverent.

And the icing on “Cave Story”‘s metaphorical cake is really its sense of whimsy and charm. Balancing out the game’s more melancholy episodes are these moments where you can’t help but laugh at their existence in the game. As you explore the Mimiga village, its inhabitants all but exterminated, you come across a small pond where a rabbit person is just fishing peacefully. Even the creatures you fight are adorable, from sentient mushrooms to a cat-piloted mech boss that you encounter halfway through the game. One of my favorite characters is Balrog, a recurring miniboss that looks like a cross between an old-fashioned lunchbox and a toaster. The first time you see him, he offers to fight, and if you decline he just leaves. Having the first boss fight be optional makes you chuckle, but also lays the foundation for the idea that the player’s decisions matter over the course of the game. It’s encounters like these that make “Cave Story” charming at every turn while still delivering on a mature and layered narrative, unlike its NES predecessors.

“Cave Story” didn’t invent storytelling in games. Nor did it invent the 2D, side-scrolling platformer gameplay that had its heyday in the 80s. For me, what makes “Cave Story” special is how it takes all of these elements and combines them to create what is truly a genre-defining classic. After playing it 10 years later, the game still feels fresh, and I still feel like I am discovering new secrets about it every time I pick it up. Anyone, anywhere can get something out of “Cave Story.” And it’s free! Go download it here: https://www.cavestory.org/download/cave-story.php 

It’s also available to purchase on Steam, 3DS and Switch!

Contact Noah DeWald at ndewald ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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