Is this another Cave Story?

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearing five years since Doukutsu Monogatari – or Cave Story, as it’s known in English – was released in Japan on the PC. A fantastic blending of Megaman and Metroidvania design-ideals, its challenging one-more-go gameplay and charming 8-bit aesthetics captured the hearts of thousands of gamers across the Internet. Distributed freely with no restrictions, it was the product of several years of individual labour; designed, programmed and fine tuned by a single man, “Pixel”. He wrote the story, he composed the music, he created the game. It was an indie-gaming success like few before, so much so that it still unfairly overshadows some projects today. There’s even a remastered WiiWare version on the way!

It's probably one of the best freeware games you'll ever play.
It's probably one of the best freeware games you'll ever play

Of course, independent gaming had been alive and well before Cave Story was even a twinkle in Pixel’s eye (as the countless communities built around Clickteam’s Klik & Create and Mark Overmars’ Game Maker will attest) but many have attempted to replicate its immense success. Perhaps the most controversial of these efforts is The Underside from Insignificant Studios, a game self-described as “inspired” by Metroid and Cave Story and admittedly, it does look, sound and play an awful lot like its inspirations. The Underside tries to shake things up with generous amounts of quirky self-referential humour, but playing it, you can’t help but think the author’s talents could be better directed towards an entirely different effort.

Hey, cool! A Cave Story level pa- wait a second.
Hey, cool! A Cave Story level pac- wait a second

So it seems that, rather unsurprisingly, directly emulating Cave Story is not the way towards the next big indie hit. However, The Underside may have been on the right track after all… enter my current gaming addiction: Spelunky, by Derek Yu. Part-roguelike, part-platformer, part-Digger T. Rock, Spelunky stars a nameless “Dr. Jones”-style protagonist, as he searches for boatloads of treasure deep underground. Players guide the adventurer through dank randomly-generated caves, fending off snakes, bats and the occasional deity with his trusty whip. Pretty standard stuff, then.

Throw me the flare, and I'll throw you the whip. No time to argue!
Throw me the flare, and I'll throw you the whip. No time to argue!

Except that it’s not. You see, more than any other indie game I’ve played, Spelunky exhibits that certain something that made Cave Story so special. Its soundtrack and visuals feel like they dropped directly out of 1991, but still stand out against today’s standards. It has buckets of charm; both pixelated friend and foe alike act almost alive in surprising ways. It can be uncompromisingly difficult, but it’s never unfair, enticing players to try once more to progress further. It rewards experimentation, offering new or secret items to those who think outside of the box (just try stealing from a shopkeeper!). And it’s a game players of all ages can enjoy, even though it has a rather black sense of humour. Yet despite all of these similarities, it’s a starkly different game, with a personality all its own. While it might retain many elements of the style of Cave Story, Spelunky succeeds because it is its own beast – and that’s where The Underside failed.







Leave a Reply