Have you ever really envied someone who gets to try something for the first time? Like when you see a video of a kid trying his first ice cream, or jumping in their first bounce castle, and that joy is so palpable that you can spread it on toast, and you think “Man, I wish I could feel that way again?” I an truly envious of anyone who’s never played Cave Story. It’s such a treat to behold, and, for someone who’ll be getting Cave Story+ as their first ever departure, I can’t even imagine how grand that’s going to be. Especially on the Nintendo Switch, of all places.
Crash course for the uninitiated: Cave Story is a one-man indie project made by a dude named pixel from Japan. He spent five years making every aspect of this game and then released it for free, to massive acclaim from fans and critics alike. What happened next is a bit blurry, but it got unofficially and then officially ported to every console, handheld and device with a screen that you could imagine. Hell, the first time I played it was a homebrew build on my PSP, so I’m late to the party by many people’s definitions. People everywhere adored the pixel art graphics, the catchy and engaging soundtrack, the solid weapons upgrade system and the tough-as-nails difficulty that this metrovania game provided. I think gamers also loved the story of a robot helping the underground animal people, but I always thought it was kind of convoluted and weird and, not to be dismissive, but not important to enjoying the game.
The plus version, which was first released in 2011, is a revamped and updated title that mostly keeps in line to the original. The graphics have all been polished and look distinctly more 32 bit than 16. The soundtrack has gotten a massive overhaul and sounds distinctly more orchestral, but you don’t have to change it if you don’t want to. In fact, there are four different choices, each with their own charm. The Cave Story+ version (called New on the Steam release) is pretty poppy and dynamic, and clearly a “modern chiptune” take on everything. The Famitracks, which is the exclusive version to the Switch, sounds great with a proper sound system, and gives a dynamic and atmospheric taste with a sound that’s closest to the original. I personally enjoy the New best, but that’s also because I have no taste, or so my friends who are a bit too into Cave Story tell me.
Play wise, Cave Story+ is still a wonderful and fascinating beast of a game. As you move along, you collect different weapons, and the weapons themselves get powered up by collecting shards of energy that various enemies drop. After getting enough energy, a weapon will level up and become more formidable, either with larger shots or a more rapid fire, something along those lines. But powering up isn’t a one way street: if you get hit, the power level goes down, and your weapon can level down after taking enough damage. Never mind about your health (which also should be monitored), if you get smacked around enough you’ve suddenly brought a water pistol to a gunfight, and you can imagine how that’s going to end.
Difficulty is absolutely key in Cave Story+. There are three levels to choose from, and anyone who’s played the game before in any capacity will want to start on normal, unless you seriously just want to run through the story one more time. Easy makes enemies hit softer and you hit harder, normal is balanced and hard makes every bat smack you like a Mack truck. Bosses are all tricky and have patterns that can be discovered and you would absolutely be forgiven for dying a few times before getting the hang of what needs to happen. The difficulty of Cave Story+ is key as to why it became so popular in the first place. You’re not going to throw away the game in anger, but you will need to take some deep breaths between takes in order to get past Monster X (to say nothing of later bosses).
The game has undergone several changes since the original release, and it’s not just about looking better (though, please be assured, this is an amazing looking game). Besides the added light, shadow and water effects, Cave Story+ for the Switch has the Challenge Mode brought back, including a new challenge, Sand Pit. It’s…not my favorite, but any additional new content is welcome when it comes to porting an old game to a new system. That is something essential to remember when it comes to Cave Story and all its various versions. Instead of it just being a straight carry over of the original, Cave Story+ has seen a bit more added on every time, making every new version the best version of the game so far. The Switch has portability, sure, and Nicalis is really working their asses off to make things work for the Switch, but, if there wasn’t new meat, no one would want to play. The game is different, and that’s what draws people back. The different endings are easier to achieve (no spoilers) and the handling feels smoother as well. It felt a little wonky to shoot with B and jump with Y at first, but it became more natural as the game went along and, honestly, worked out better in the end.
The core question with Cave Story+ is “should you buy it?” That really comes down to a few things. Are you a ridiculously hardcore Cave Story fan? If so, the changes in graphics and being able to do some chores more easily (jellyfish juice, for instance) might turn you off, but it could also be something that you deeply enjoy. This is actually a time where a remaster might appeal best to new fans rather than old. People who’ve never played before have certainly heard the hype on different corners of the internet and this is the time to listen. There’s no 3D gimmick, no insane overhaul of the script, no pointless addition of a love story or a new weapon. The ability to use the original assets have been stripped out, but you can play that original version almost anywhere else. There appears to be some things missing (a fourth ending was hinted at prior to release and doesn’t appear to be anywhere) but that could easily be patched in upon completion. Pixel is notorious for perfection and has delayed other projects (Kero Blaster) due to it failing to meet his standards, so this might not be the final version of Cave Story+ as we know it.
Like I said before, I envy the newcomers, not only for not knowing what they’re in for, but not knowing what they’re missing. Veterans of Cave Story can complain all day long about what was better before, and that isn’t going to change how the brand new Switch owner, who was a toddler when Cave Story was released, will enjoy and experience this brand new, beautifully polished and properly balanced Cave Story+. If you’ve had any interest in the game before, I highly recommend picking up this Switch copy, and, for old players, you might want to set apprehensions aside and give it a try: you might be surprised at what you don’t miss.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.