I think I have a new favourite game, and it’s one that everyone already played over a decade ago.
I’m talking, of course, of Cave Story, one of the first really big indie gaming smash hits. It’s a game often talked about in these glowing, reverent tones as being one of those unassailable masterpieces that you just have to reckon with—which is the kind of hype that can almost be off-putting, as you can’t help but wonder if you’re being set up for disappointment.
And, had I played it under more normal circumstances, I think my opinion would have been a little more along the lines of “it’s a solid game, but I think I missed the nostalgia bandwagon on this one.” But I happened to be playing it when some emotionally rough stuff hit me. I found myself picking it up late at night for a half-hour here and there, mostly just for the sake of having something to do that wasn’t too involving or taxing, a distraction from just sitting around feeling morose.
So it wormed its way into my heart, not because it solved my problems or gave me any new insights, but because it provided a window of escapism during tough times. That’s my Cave Story story.
The game itself is entirely the work of one Daisuke Amaya, aka Studio Pixel, which is still really incredible when I think of how the game is no slouch in any of its aspects. You play as an amnesiac robot who is tasked with defending a bunch of lagomorphic creatures called Mimigas from an evil doctor who wants to use them for his own world-conquering plans. It unfolds as a pixellated sidescroller that combines the exploratory nature of a Metroidvania with the frenetic gunplay of more action-oriented platformers like Mega Man and Contra.
I’ve long been a fan of both these kinds of gameplay, but I never thought the two could be successfully combined before – the backtrackng and poking around required by a Metroid-style game could quickly become tedious if the rooms you have to always be dealing with the same extremely dangerous groups of enemies. Cave Story manages it by making a number of subtle but important compromises between the two design philosophies, such that it is just streamlined and linear enough to provide the sort of focus that an action game needs, while also giving just the right amount of freedom and mystery to make it a ‘world’ in its own right. In short, surviving its many death-traps and exploring its titular caverns is one and the same thing, and that’s a minor marvel of game design in its own right.
The story is simple and winsome, and, unlike a lot of low-fi indie games, resists the temptation to mire itself in overly referential nerd humour or to get obnoxiously self-aware. Its setting actually has a rather elaborate backstory which is teased out in a rather economical way. As I grow older, I find myself growing increasingly impatient with games that indulge in long cutscenes’ endless dialogue, and so I love it when I find a game that manages to convey a lot without saying much.
So Cave Story is pretty special.
A decade later, Amaya released his second game, Kero Blaster, to considerably less fanfare. But although it isn’t quite at the same level of greatness as Cave Story, I still find it great in its own different way.
As the name implies, Kero Blaster is a game where you control a frog who shoots stuff. In particular, you work for the C & F Corporation, holding a job in “custodial sciences,” which apparently involves shooting cutesy-looking things. Whatever. It’s a game about having a job, and the stakes are rarely higher than the possibility of overtime or getting fired.
Kero Blaster is a game which has nothing to prove. The graphics are cruder and more simplistic than Cave Story’s, and the story is present more for flavor than as a driving force. There’s no central gimmick to the gameplay, no twist on the standard platforming formula: you move from left to right through discrete levels, jump and shoot at things, while collecting new weapons and power ups along the way.
The game instead deals in subtle refinements. Like how Kero’s physics seems to bring a new sense of finesse to the stiff controls that a lot of 8 bit games featured, or how the standard “Lives and Coins” system is tweaked just enough to modernize it: getting a game over will kick you back to the beginning of the level, but the coins you’ve collected will carry over, and those can be used to buy more power-ups. So if you’re stuck on a particular level, Kero will still grow stronger, evening out the difficulty. All of Kero’s expanding arsenal are useful and complementary. The levels themselves are perfectly paced to feel challenging without becoming too harrowing or unfair. In spite of seeing the game over screen a lot, there was never any point where I got frustrated. Graphically, it has a good grasp of how the abstract nature of low-fi 80s ATARI/NES graphics gave those games their own surreal ambiance, and has a lot of fun in applying it to rather mundane settings and objects.
Kero Blaster is a game of small pleasures – it’s the platforming equivalent of comfort food, which is fine by me. Even with only two games, Studio Pixel has an impressive CV, and has quickly wormed its way into my heart this year.