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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Cave Story.

TranscriptEdit

Oh scrotum inflammations, is it July already, that time of year when the bite of the Australian winter whistles through the empty Steam listings, and gamers roam the streets, chanting laments, flagellating themselves with the loose USB cords of unplugged controllers and peripherals, their cargo shorts growing thread-bare and crusty in the cold? Yes, it's the usual mid-year post-E3 release drought, when everything takes on the atmosphere of morning on the last day of a mid-to-low tier anime convention. 

So as usual, I go to Steam and ask what's popular enough that I can lose a few more viewers by widdling all over it? "Well, there's ARK: Survival Evolved." I played that for a couple of hours and axed a Stegosaurus to death, whereupon its ragdoll turned somersaults in glee at not having to be in this fucking game anymore. "Well, you know what's top seller right now? Rocket League!" Go on. "It's soccer meets driving..." Ok, stop going on. No other three words kill my interest faster, except perhaps ARK: Survival Evolved. Come on, Steam, meet me half way! I've never been shy with my credit card details, so drop the coy act. 

And then suddenly, the front page asked me, "Hey, have you replayed Cave Story lately?", which I interpreted as a sign from the heavens. So after clearing up a drink spillage, I downloaded Cave Story again to do a retro review, bringing back memories of the first time I downloaded it in 2004. That's a memento mori for you, isn't it? 2004 being retro now, Surely nothing downloadable is retro. Retro to me is anything that was ever sold on a physical medium, with which you could considerably bludgeon someone to death. 

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. But I have a special place in my heart for the solo-development racket, play Hatfall. Sorry, I'm not sure that was subliminal enough. PLAY HATFALL, YOU PRICKS! What the solo-developed game loses in graphical quality and broader marketability, it makes up for with good old-fashioned heart, and heart and art so often go together, especially when talking in a Cockney accent. 

I remember Cave Story being really good, but that was before eight years of nitpicking gave me this discerning, bloodshot, masturbation-dimmed eye. And in replaying, a lot of shit I'd forgotten about started rubbing me up the wrong way anew. The jumping is floaty as arse, a big, chubby arse that farts helium. You climb to the top of your arc like a majestic salmon swimming upstream, and then you fucking drop like you've been swiped out of the air by a hungry grizzly. And the progression has that bad habit of Japanese games in that it's very flaggy. I said flaggy, as in it has a lot of flags. So you'll explore the whole starting area until you find the one map square that makes the story go forward by one step if you stand in it and press the Use button, then explore the whole area again, looking for the next one, which is obnoxious enough in the starting village, where you have to nearly drown yourself picking something off the bottom of a pond before anyone will give you the time of day, and even worse when there are enemies around and you fight your way to the far end of the map, only to find a locked door whose key is in the possession of the guy who sent you on this quest in the first place, but because you didn't specifically ask him for it, rimbly grimbly bim. 

But rimbly grimbly bim aside, the flaggy path is used to maintain control of the linear story. If the story is bad, it can be like going through life with a partially-formed twin attached to your leg with a tendency to bellow swear words at formal occasions. But happily, Cave Story has a good story that I don't mind being join-the-dots through. It's the classic tale of an expedition gone wrong, a mad scientist, a monster shaped like a briefcase and a race of cute, cuddly rabbit people being violently beaten against the walls, floor and ceiling, making adorable squeaky noises with every impact. It's a story about characters. And while it's rather thick on the ground for the first half, it knows when to take a backseat as the gameplay ramps up. It's the kind of thing that could only exist in a solo-developed game, 'cause if Pixel had had a friend around, let's call him Graphical User Interface, he might have said something like, "Do you not think all the gritty, violent drama being experienced by these Hello-Kitty-fuzzy rabbit people with heads like beanbag chairs lends a certain incongruity of tone?" That's a mighty pretty mouth you've got, Graphical User Interface. 

What I also like about the story is that we're seeing it through the eyes of a guy who showed up halfway through it, whose presence no one particularly minds for some reason and who awkwardly hangs around while all the characters with actual personality discuss events. It's like if the protagonist of Return of the Jedi was the little fish-faced lad who hung out in the cockpit next to Lando Calrissian. It means that little time is wasted on introductions or backstory, and we can cut straight to the fun parts. But the story's still there, just not in a forced "hey, you're totally invested in this struggle and in love with the one hot girl character because we fucking say you are" kind of way. 

I've often heard Cave Story referred to as Metroidvania, but I'm not sure I agree that it is, 'cause it's not a terribly explory game. And Metroidvania without central exploration elements is like a high school gob-job without the vague sense of anticlimax. Part of that's the unique weapon system where rather than exploring to find weapon upgrades, you pick up bits of dead enemies and jam them in your gun until someone hits you and they all plop out again. There are health upgrades, but they are all about as hard to find as your mum on a nudist beach. And while there are a couple of secret paths you can take to unlock alternative weapons and endings, exploring will not help you find them, because the first thing you have to do for the super-secret ending is not collect a jetpack, and I sincerely doubt anyone figured that out by themselves. I mean for me, that goes against the instinct so hard that my bones tried to tear themselves out of my hands in protest. 

So that's one problem when making a game by yourself: it might make perfect sense to you, but it's entirely possible that you're mad. Maybe run it by someone or look in the mirror to see if there's an axe in your skull, but besides that, Cave Story is an exemplar of solo development. It compensates for its failings by focusing on its strengths: the plot, the characters and good old-fashioned raw gameplay design, with challenge that curves naturally from pimpsicles to "herding honey badgers" hard. Unless you get the secret ending, in which case it's "herding honey badgers on the side of a tall building and ensuring that every single one of them passes GCSE English Lit."

AddendaEdit

Also the music's quite good: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

Wait, rabbits don't live in caves; but then I suppose Burrow Story would have been very unfair on people with speech impediments 

'Voxel' would be Pixel's evil parallel universe equivalent

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart

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