Let's have another little talk, what do you say? Sit on down there by a warm fire or a heater, get your drink, and let me talk to you about freeware games. For as long as there have been regular games made by programmers working on the clock, there have been regular Joes with a little computing know-how tinkering out things. The idea of freeware eventually created shareware, which many can remember as the coolest little concept ever concocted. I mean, really, you get a whole third of a game for free on a little floppy! And the game is Doom! Shareware was the shit, man. With the Internet, freeware became much more of a thing, with cute little simple games and Flash games and Newgrounds taking off.. and then there was Daisuke Amaya.
Ol' Daisuke, going by the moniker of Pixel, decided he wanted to create a freeware game. His ambitions were more than just a simple flash game hosted online, however, and Pixel went hard at work to create his game, coming up with the whole damn thing himself. The music, the graphics, the plot, the EVERYTHING. All out of the head of one guy, created over the course of five years. Finally, in 2004, Pixel's baby was released to the masses, under the lovely title "Dokutsu Monogatari". A little something different happened with this freeware game, though; it was actually really really frigging good. People loved the hell out of it, and within almost no time at all it was patched into English so just about everyone could play it,under the title "Cave Story". Pixel's little freeware project was so successful that it got bought by an indie gaming company named Nicalis, who proceeded to port it to Wiiware and DSi with extra bells and whistles.
So what is it that makes Cave Story not only a good freeware game, but a good game in general? I mean, if you can download this shit for free, why the hell would you bother to buy it on the Wii? well, aside from the fact that it's a great game, it's a great game with added extras that you won't find if you download a patched .exe. Not only that, but Pixel here really does honestly deserve to finally get some money for this thing. Cave Story is just fantastic, and it's really quite incredible that one guy made something this in-depth and fun.
Cave Story is best described by everyone's favorite fan-coined portmanteau, "Metroidvania". Actually, scratch that. I am going to be original like Pixel and come up with my own genre classification. Cave Story is an exploration action platformer. Wow that's pretty good. Much like games of that sort, you guide your player character through an expansive world sectioned into different themed areas, obtaining new weapons and various powers along the way. Backtracking will happen every now and again, allowing you to get to places you couldn't before. That's the base for any exploration action platformer, but Cave Story goes above and beyond in just about every possible category.
Pixel's unique graphic style for this game gives everything its own liveliness. It kind of feels like an old MSX or NES game. It's very 8-bit inspired, but at the same time it works with a larger color palette than either of those systems could handle. The music, as well, is very much a product of that era and is bursting with chiptune goodness for your listening pleasure. Pixel has a musical ear of some kind, because this stuff is simply catchy and peppy, just like the musics of old. The bright visuals and upbeat music are somewhat of an oddity, though, as they create some wild and crazy dissonance.
Cave Story actually has a plot, unlike most exploration action platformers, and its plot is vital and actually has a twist or two in store for the player. More than anything, though, it's dark as hell. The main villain's plot for world domination involves corrupting a species of cute little rabbit-esque fantasy creatures, and death is all around the game world. Don't expect the whole cast to make it out of this one. Adding to this layered actual story are multiple endings, depending on your actions in the main game. Getting the best one will take a little work, but it's worth it to give these characters SOME joy. It's actually a plot that you'll want to play the game to see more of, so that's a plus for the game. There's even a secret area to be opened up that is ridiculously difficult, even for the truly hardcore.
As for playing the game, your player character is adept at jumping and shooting the various weapons he'll come across. These range from a simple little gun to a missile launcher, to even a sword weapon. These all start out weak, but the way you strengthen them creates a rather unique gameplay mechanic. Killing enemies will sometimes leave golden triangles of "weapon experience". Grabbing them will increase the experience of whatever weapon you have equipped. Get enough, and your weapon will level up and become stronger and/or more effective at killing things. The downside to this is that getting damaged by ANYTHING will take weapon experience from your current weapon. Experience isn't that hard to come by, but it can really suck to have your weapon become less useful due to a poorly-timed jump or something.
The Wiiware and DSi ports of Cave Story go above and beyond, creating what may very well be the definitive version of the game. An official translation by Nicalis is included, though as per the norm with these, they change certain lines that fans of the patch might have become endeared with. In addition, the option to play with enhanced graphics and remixed music is present, but for purists or people who just don't like the new look and feel there is the option to play with the classic graphics and music. Unlockable bonus modes are also present, ranging from boss rushes to playing the game as an optional character. It's all icing on the cake of a marvelous game that should be bought even if such bonuses weren't present.
Cave Story is more than a freeware game. Cave Story is simply a masterpiece of retro-styled video games. It's still hard to believe that one guy made this in his spare time over five years. Pixel's hobby and dedication are a labor of love that you don't see very often in gaming. If you haven't played Cave Story, I can't reccomend it enough. It's well worth the points on Wii or DSi, and even if you don't have access to either of those systems you can fire up the freeware version and have a blast with the patch. Buy it if you can, though, because then Pixel will get some sort of money from the sale, and it hardly couldn't go to anyone more deserving of payment.