Monday, October 23, 2006

Grotto Narrative

As many of you know, I have more games than I do time to play them. I have a backlog that, the last time I counted, consisted of over twenty games, and may well be in the thirties by now. And that's not counting the new console that I'll be buying next month. So, much of my free time these days is spent logging every last second I can in front of the TV, trying desperately (and generally unsuccessfully) to shrink that queue. The reason I am mentioning this is so that you can all properly appreciate the gravity of the following statement: I recently spent an entire week devoting all of my gaming time to a freeware PC game. The game was Doukutsu Monogatari, or Cave Story, and it was well worth the investment.

Cave Story is an action-platformer in the vein of Metroid and the post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania games (aka Metroidvania), but with a bit more of an emphasis on action than exploration, and more of a Mega Man feel in several respects, plus inventory management and NPC-interaction more akin to an RPG or adventure game. It has tight, responsive controls, multiple unique weapons (most of which have three distinct experience levels) with branching progression/trading trees, and a subtly branching story-line with three different endings. It has a retro look and sound, recalling the early 16-bit era, and puts it to good advantage with great music and lovingly hand-crafted pixel artwork. This artwork helps bring to life a very colourful cast, and a stable of pleasantly varied enemies. The game has a unique art style all its own, and yet one that is unmistakably Japanese.

As the name suggests, Doukutsu Monogatari is a Japanese game. It was developed independently over the course of five years by a fellow known in online circles as Pixel, who then released it online for free. It immediately gained a cult following, and within a few weeks of its Christmas 2004 release, the fans had ported it to the Mac and created a full English translation patch. This in turn made it accessible to a much broader audience, who hailed it as one of the best free independent PC games ever created. Eventually, after all of the fanfare died down, it found its way to me. I'm very late getting on this particular bandwagon, and I have only myself to blame, because back when I first heard about the game in early 2005, I downloaded it with the intention of playing it, but then forgot about it entirely. For shame.

Fortunately, I recently stumbled across an article revealing that Cave Story is going to see a commercial release on the PSP (and, despite reports to the contrary, it has been confirmed that Pixel is involved), which prompted me to download it again. This time, I began playing it immediately, and, to be quite honest, I wasn't all that fond of it at first (aside from the very catchy main menu music). The game begins very slowly, and your character starts off with only the ability to jump and no way to defend himself. Also, the fact that the jumping has a subtle gliding mechanic that is not immediately intuitive (to me, at least) makes even the little you can do awkward at first. As far as the plot goes, it is almost non-existent initially, and you have no idea who your character is, where he is, what he's doing, or why he's doing it.

That all changed pretty quickly, however, as I soon got used to the controls and found a weapon, and the game began to introduce some characters and ease me into the plot. It also quickly became apparent that the lack of information is intentional, and that I'm supposed to discover the answers to my initial W5 questions as the game progresses. From that point forward, things began to ramp up pretty steadily, and before I knew it I was a man on a mission, gliding about effortlessly and brisling with weaponry. And it's a good thing that I became so adept, because the difficulty becomes positively fiendish in some of the later stages. The early bosses are slow and predictable (you can even choose not to fight the first one if you're so inclined-- he asks you before the fight begins), but some of the later bosses are quite difficult, and the final four-boss end-game marathon is not for the faint of heart.

Once I did finally successfully run that marathon (and believe me, it took me a few tries), I was treated to an ending that, while satisfying, felt like it had something missing. And, sure enough, after checking online, I confirmed that some of the hints dropped near the end of the game were indeed implying the existence of a third ending. However, that third ending was apparently hiding at the end of a fiendishly difficult secret dungeon (which is why the hints were dropped only after the point of no return, lest the game become unbeatable on your first play-through), and only hardcore gamers need apply. Well, I wasn't about to back down after reading something like that, so I re-started the game from square one, and was amazed to find that I had improved so much over the course of the game that the first three quarters of it were now a cake-walk. That was not to last, however, because then the game gave me a taste of things to come with a mini sampler of the bonus dungeon that gets embedded when you're on the proper plot path. My weapons were all reduced to level 1, there was lava and killer spikes everywhere, and there was a gauntlet to run with a boss near the end-- all without any opportunity to save. At the time, I found it all pretty difficult-- and then I got to the secret dungeon.

I must have died twenty times in the first room alone, which requires precision gliding through a twisting path of deadly spikes. Little did I know that, by the time I was finished, I'd be able to navigate that room with my eyes closed. You see, the final dungeon consists of a long, difficult gauntlet filled with new enemies and five bosses, with nowhere to save other than the very beginning. So, every time you die, you ideally make it a little bit further, but you still have to start from square one and navigate that first room again before you get another chance at dying later. Yeah, I got to know that first room real well. By the time I started making it to the bosses and getting my ass handed to me, I was just about ready to give up. I persevered though, and after almost two solid days of effort, I finally beat the secret dungeon and saw the best ending, and man was it invigorating.

That bonus dungeon really was a marvel of design. When I first started it, I just couldn't fathom how a normal human being could beat it, but little by little, with each death, I learned and improved, and by the time I finished it my skill level was a quantum leap above where it had been after my first play-through. I can even repeat the feat now with only a few tries, and without even needing the one-time full-heal item in some cases. It was tremendously rewarding, and yet another testament to how much more fun games ultimately are when they are punishingly difficult but still beatable (unlike, say, Battletoads, which is essentially unbeatable without cheating).

I'm not convinced that Cave Story is the genre-defining work of art that everyone says it is, but it is definitely a great and unique game with a lot to offer, which is pretty impressive for something developed by a single person and available for free. All of the weapon and story branching gives it some great replay value, and it is the first game in quite some time that I was able to play through more than once without getting bored. It was of a satisfying length, and I'd estimate that I spent roughly twelve hours my first time through, and perhaps eight hours my second time through (with the lion's share of the second number devoted to the secret dungeon). Presumably those numbers would be lower for normal people, as I am known to be a very slow player.

Anyway, I encourage everyone to at least give it a try if you find the time. After all, it's fun, and, more importantly, it's free. For anyone who missed the links embedded above, the game can be downloaded here. Unzip it, then download the English patch found here, unzip that, and then run the executable, pointing it at the directory you unzipped the first download to. For you uppity Mac users, the already-patched Mac version can be found here.

Now I need to find out what all of this Eternal Daughter business is about...


Anonymous NOS said...

Well I wasn't going to bother with it until you mentioned that it had already been ported to the Mac. I downloaded it, and played it until the first monster door that you have to shoot to get past, where the game subsequently crashed on me. I'm gonna guess it hasn't been double checked for the new Intel Macs.

Anyway, from what I played it seemed like it would indeed be quite fun. I didn't find the "gliding" unintuitive at all, though I can't seem to recall a specific example of another title with the same, loose feel. Luigi in SMB2 perhaps?

Monday, October 23, 2006 8:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

That's a shame. I think that would have been right before the first scripted cutscene. I never had a crash, so I suspect you're right.

Hrm, Luigi's an interesting thought. It's kind of hard for my mind's eye to see past Luigi's frantic pin-wheeling, put now that I think about I'd definitely say there's some similarity there. Also, I distinctly recall finding SMB2 Luigi to have uncomfortable controls, and he was the character I used least often. Princess 4 Life! :-P

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 1:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous (Vintage) said...


This must be a very good game to get placed on top of a 20 - 30 unplayed game title stack.

Wonder what's going to happen to the queue when the new Wii arrives,...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 2:55:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I don't recall if I've ever explicitly detailed how my queue works on the page before, but it's definitely a priority queue, and at least a couple of Wii games will likely jump to the front of the queue. Ideally, I hoped to be finished one of my two current games (Oblivion and Phantom Brave) by then, since historically I've been unable to satsifactorily sustain three games at once, but at this point I can safely say that that's not going to happen.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 3:19:00 PM  
Anonymous NOS said...

I found a forum thread suggesting that the problem was with the music player in the game. I went into the package and deleted the "org" data folder, which seems to have fixed all crashing problems so far (just rescued scientist duders) at the cost of having no music in the game.

Slow day in the Java lab today.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 6:26:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Man, no music? That's like neutering it. I love the music. Oh well. Better than nothing, I suppose.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous (Vintage) said...

I should have known you weren't a FIFO ordering kind of fellow.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006 4:16:00 PM  

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