Japanese Title: 洞窟物語
Also Known As: CAVE STORY
Hardware: PC
Ports: MAC, PSP
Genre: ACTION (2D)
Released: DECEMBER, 2004

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 29, 2009

So here we are: me, you dear reader, and Doukutsu Monogatari, the world's most famous independently developed videogame of all time, more commonly known outside its native homeland by its English title, Cave Story. In line with my recently inaugurated project to review all the darlings of the indie scene and expose them for what they really are, I decided to give it a try and finally see what all the fuss is about -- and guess what: it is much ado about almost nothing. The game is a slow, tedious and -- worst of all -- extremely easy action side-scroller that, while pretending to take us back to an era of simpler and more direct mechanics, is in fact imbued to its very core with every single one of the evils of the modern era (-- not unlike Namco's recent Game Center CX in fact, which my friend Mark Peters has been kind enough to suffer through and analyze for us).

But, but, but! Everyone loved it! Its Wikipedia page has a special section full of unreservedly positive quotes! Tim Rogers wrote a 6,000-word thingy on it supposedly singing its praises (supposedly, because he only spends like one or two paragraphs discussing the actual game, and then only in the most absentminded, superficial terms possible), and then shamelessly proclaimed it the eighth best game of all time, in a preposterous list which did not even feature games such as Sid Meier's Civilization, Grand Theft Auto III, Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, The Super Shinobi, Super Mario Kart, Total Annihilation, Gekka no Kenshi, Fire Emblem, Halo, Sim City, Tekki -- or, well... pretty much any decent games at all. So lol, Alex, how can you say it sucks! There probably aren't even any negative forum posts on this game, and you are giving us a negative review? Hell, man, for what other game can you say that it's practically impossible to find even a single negative forum post on the entire internet?

Fuck 'em. Fuck 'em in the ass -- that's what I have to say about all these morons. Anyone who has played even a handful of decent 2D action games in his life will be put to sleep by this within the first half-hour, guaranteed -- as for everyone else: I guess their reactions shouldn't be surprising; I am sure that starving kids in Africa would have been just as happy with McDonald's as with anything from the menu of a four-star French restaurant. In fact I've little doubt that given a choice they'd pick the greasy fake burger with the nasty deep-fried potatoes over any number of masterpieces of French cuisine, just as children the world over will always prefer any disgusting piece of candy over a fresh fruit salad, and for the same reasons.

But let's make an important distinction here: Doukutsu Monogatari is a doujin game, not an indie one -- if this distinction seems pedantic to you, hold on to your bile while I explain why I am making it. A doujin game is indeed, roughly speaking, a Japanese indie game -- but this little word, "Japanese", makes a world of difference. Because the doujin scene has given us games like Melty Blood, Big Bang Beat, Akatsuki Denkou Senki, Every Extend, Acceleration of Suguri, Tumiki Fighters, Warning Forever, Imperishable Night, Shoot the Bullet and Trouble Witches -- games which at the time of their release stood right at -- or at least very near -- the cutting edge of their respective genres in terms of complexity (and even sometimes presentation), and which with a little extra effort -- or even as they were, in some cases -- would have had no trouble going up against many of their best commercial rivals -- as many of them in fact eventually did, and to a stunning effect. -- So that's what the doujin scene has given us, and let's now see: what has the Western indie scene given in its turn? Can anyone name even a single title that gets anywhere near the ones I just randomly rattled off? Worse: can anyone name even a single Western indie game that does not bore the experienced gamer to death within the first few minutes?

But that's what happens when, instead of sitting your ass down to work hard on making a solid game, you sit down to make a "work of art", an "indie sensation"... Because the Japanese, you see, just as they've never heard of the word "gameplay", and would be at a loss what to do with it even if they had heard of it, have no idea what this whole "art" business has got to do with their little TV toys -- all the while creating at least half the videogame masterpieces on the planet. But why do they not seem to care about this strange three-letter English word? Who knows! My theory is that perhaps they are too busy having fun playing games to care. Or perhaps they've realized, at least subconsciously, that honest and competent craftsmen have no need of it, and that the moment a group of them start blabbering about "art this" and "art that" it's all over for them -- decadence has well and truly set in, and they are no longer capable of making a half-decent piece of work to save their lives -- just ask Picasso or the Coen brothers.

So the artfag epidemic has not yet reached Japan, a fact which at least explains why the efforts of the doujin scene are on the whole so far above those of their Western counterparts as to deserve a separate category -- hence my indie/doujin distinction. Daisuke Amaya's Doukutsu Monogatari is then entirely free of decadent "artistic" pretensions, purporting to be nothing other than what it actually is: a 2D action side-scroller with a heavy emphasis on exploration, in the style of the Metroid or modern Dracula games. And, at least as far as the basics are concerned, it stands up next to them admirably, with perfect controls, imbued with just the right touch of inertia, suitably exciting movement speed and jumping properties, and even a brilliant weapon-switching/power-up system which, seeing as all the previously mentioned qualities are standard fare among Japanese 2D action games, is in fact its one and only outstanding aspect (each of your weapons can be separately powered up by collecting crystals dropped by dead enemies, but powers down whenever you are hit while having it equipped. This adds quite a bit of tension and strategy to the proceedings as, during moments of hectic action, half your brain is working on controlling the protagonist while the other half is figuring out optimal weapon leveling strategies).

But that's it for the good points; from here on it's all downhill. The difficulty curve, for one, is tailored for non-gamers: I only started dying perhaps a quarter of the way through, and even then hardly seriously. This was partly due to the massive lifebar and abundant health items, and partly to the somewhat overpowered weapon mechanics. Moreover save points are so frequent they feel like save-states, so that even the one or two slightly trickier points hardly delayed me for more than a minute (disclaimer: I played through about three hours, and if I hadn't intended to review the game would have given up far sooner). On top of all that there seems to be about five minutes of aimless wandering for every one minute of action, and dialogue scenes are as frequent as they are tedious and annoying. And when the action does arrive it's nothing to get too excited over given all the aforementioned defects, whilst boss fights are similarly uninteresting, consisting as they usually do of you dodging a couple of attacks and then methodically unloading one by one all of your weapons. All things considered, I'd much rather be playing even the worst of Igarashi's Dracula games, let alone any of the Metroid ones.

Does this last comment strike you as surprising, dear reader? After all, Iga's metroidvanias are full of stupid grinding and backtracking, so how can I say that I prefer them over this largely grindless counterpart that's also mostly free of backtracking?

Well, because you see in this case the grinding and the backtracking are irrelevant, since both Iga's games and this one are extremely easy; so whether you are grinding or not grinding, whether you are going along a straight line or round and round in circles, makes little difference, since in both cases what you are actually doing is absentmindedly pressing buttons while taking in the scenery. So if all these games are a walk in the park, the only thing differentiating them is how beautiful the park in question is. To use another, though related, analogy, old games were like rock climbing up cliff-sides; new ones are like lazily strolling in the countryside. In the first case you are made to pay with sweat and pain for every inch you ascend; in the second case you are supposed to be relaxing from such ordeals. In the first case, therefore, a barren slab of rock in the middle of nowhere will do just fine, whereas the scenery is of secondary importance since you can scarcely afford to devote much of your attention to it; whilst in the second case there better be some cool sights to see along the way if you don't want me to say fuck it and just go back home and put on a movie.

So the showdown between Igarashi and Amaya basically comes down to cool sights. Now comparing Iga's games with Cave Story on this score reminds me of an Iron Maiden song, "Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter": the former are 2D artwork masterpieces that would be mandatory experiences even if the games utterly sucked (which they most certainly do not); the latter is technically stuck somewhere between the 8- and 16-bit eras, not sure what it is or wants to be, while aesthetically, though obviously designed with much passion -- alas! very little talent. Your sprite looks worse than even 8-bit Mario -- an ugly, swatted little thing, which you are of course obliged to keep staring at for the entire game -- and though the rest of the cast and setting do perfectly complement each other, the result can be called neither stunning nor captivating; cute, maybe, in the same way one would call a child's kindergarten squiggles cute. The music, meanwhile, though it does contain a couple of highlights, is overall of a similarly amateurish level of quality (-- though again, admittedly, clearly composed with what music critics would term soul --), and when I contemplate the boring plot or hackneyed dialogue I long for the Dracula series' convoluted, incomprehensible storylines which I can at least entirely ignore without hindering my in-game progress, as is sometimes the case here.

And now of course I have to preemptively counter the outrageously idiotic objection that, "Hey man, this entire game was made by a single person! Give the guy a break for christsake!" It is supposed to be a labor of love (which it clearly is), made by a professional programmer and passionate gamer in his spare time over a period of many years -- though the exact number is uncertain and seems to be continually increasing: at first it was supposed to be five years, then in Tim's review ballooned to seven, and, who knows, if Leigh Alexander ends up reviewing it the figure might start verging in the decades. So yes, I am now obliged to answer this retarded objection. This is what expert game reviewing unavoidably consists of nowadays, dear readers: preemptively countering the objections of retards who are probably unable to even spell their own names correctly. -- Listen here, you fucking dolts: The site's tagline is "Videogame Culture" not "Kindly Reviewing Games For Charity". I am not Pixel's mother nor his wife, nor even his friend for that matter -- I write honest, merciless, cutting-edge game criticism -- it's not my business to prop up the self-esteem of struggling game developers, indie or otherwise. Had I been a Game Studies professor and Pixel turned in this game to me as his degree's final project, I would of course have given him A+ and glowing reference letters -- but in the context of this website, his game, though plainly crafted with matchless enthusiasm, passion and dedication, is going up against the entire history of videogames -- and in this context, I am afraid to say, fares very poorly indeed.


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