Cave Story 3D ReviewJason Venter
Metroid was wonderful. Back in 1996, it delivered a haunting new world filled with alien life forms, seemingly endless twisting corridors and a surprising heroine. Nintendo's developers created something special when they put together Metroid. Then they further refined the concept with Metroid II: The Return of Samus on the Game Boy and-most spectacularly-Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo. Samus Aran was here to stay.
If Metroid hadn't come first and if it hadn't done everything so well, Cave Story 3D most likely wouldn't exist today. Here you are again a mute hero exploring an alien environment. You pick up health and missile upgrades, retrace steps taken through barren corridors, acquire a variety of weapon upgrades and negotiate more than your fair share of precarious ledges as you work your way into the heart of the unknown. The influence that Nintendo's classic series had on Cave Story 3D is obvious.
Cave Story 3D is an updated port of an indie PC title that originally released in 2004. That's ten full years after the release of the astonishing Super Metroid and seven years after Konami began its efforts to clone Metroid with each new Castlevania installment. The genre has improved a great deal since Metroid broke the mold all those years ago and it's no longer to put up with the roughness that once was part of the experience. Why, then, did Cave Story ignore the evolution? Cave Story 3D is an interesting title, a challenging and occasionally rewarding diversion if you want something old school to play on your 3DS system, but it suffers from too many very old flaws to warrant a general recommendation.
The graphics are perhaps the only one of the game's flaws that can be blamed on new technology, rather than a failure to get with the times. Though frequently charming, the visuals fail to provide the sense of immersion that something like Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night provided. The hero is tiny and the view is pulled back so far that many visual details are lost on the player. The perspective is necessary so that everything you need to see will fit on your 3DS screen, but everything feels so small. Something that would be plainly visible on a PC monitor (a slightly hidden health pickup, for instance) is easily overlooked unless you're paying close attention. Adjusting the 3D slider so that you have extra depth makes things even worse. Given the precision that's necessary to play the game well, you'll probably elect to play with the three-dimensional effect removed so that you don't have to worry about things shifting out of focus if you tilt the system too much.
The play control also could use some refinement. On the one hand, you have a hero who is quite capable of leaping remarkable distances. Jumps are exhilarating when they go well, but that's only about half the time at first because the character's movement is so rough and uneven. A slight tap of the directional pad can be enough to make you overshoot a narrow ledge, or perhaps you'll fall just short of one. Even if you're just trying to slowly descend a series of steps, it's far too easy to suddenly charge forward even though you merely tapped a button. In this game, such missteps can easily prove fatal.
Even on a micro level, the control scheme and the game's visuals can work against you. Along your journey through the caverns, you'll find various points where you can press the 'Down' button on the directional pad to enter a room or to investigate. If your character is standing just slightly off-center, you'll see a '?' appear on the screen. Sometimes you may need to try three or four times before you finally can enter a door, which really serves no good purpose. It's difficult to have much confidence in play control that won't even let you dependably enter an open doorway.
The game also employs a frustrating weapon upgrade system. Around the world, you'll find numerous weapons (such as a gun, a sword and flaming fireballs) that you can cycle through using the shoulder buttons. You have a limitless supply of those weapons, missiles excluded. Whatever weapon you presently have equipped grows more powerful as you pick up experience fragments after defeating enemies, up to a level of 3. For example, a machine gun that fires weak shots at first can eventually morph into a rapid-fire laser gun. However, bumping against even a single enemy or projectile often causes your attack power to drop one level. By the game's halfway point, it takes much longer to upgrade your weapon a level than it does to lose a level or two by bumping against a speedy enemy. Then you're left packing a peashooter again as you limp toward the next save point.
The game's save system does you no favors, either. Throughout the caverns, you'll find discs that allow you to save your progress up to that point. Sometimes there also will be health refill icons. When you save your progress, your current life level and weapon status and ammunition are also recorded. So if you've lost half your life and you update your save file, you'll restart every time with that diminished vitality until you find a way to restore it. Later in the game, the dynamic can put you in a tough spot if you save at the wrong moment. What's worse is that enemies in the area will return if you die after killing them, but your life meter won't refill.
Thanks to the aforementioned quirks, it can sometimes be difficult to enjoy Cave Story 3D even when it's at its best. When you're participating in something more mundane such as a fetch quest, things quickly sour. As an example, one level forces you to assemble a bomb by gathering ingredients from all over the surrounding region. Unless you're following an online guide, you'll have to do a lot of backtracking and checking around before you finally find the coal, gum and goop that a friendly robot can somehow combine to form explosives. In another level, you can't gain assistance from an NPC until you have found her five lost puppies, which are scattered throughout an inconvenient stage. You will eventually find them all, but it takes time. Then you'll have to backtrack again to reach a boss difficult encounter.
Not everything is bad, of course. When it's not messing things up, Cave Story 3D tells a surprisingly involving tale that should soon have you rooting for the nameless hero and his potential friends. Solving the puzzles also feels good (even if the solution often is nothing more than another scavenger hunt), and there's enough content to find that you'll probably spend several hours exploring the world without really caring that you're backtracking so much. Boss encounters show some welcome originality and tend to be rather difficult, but there is a lower difficulty setting if you're having too much trouble. While the game has a number of strengths, though, it's hard to ignore the numerous reminders that you're putting up with too little refinement. Only those nostalgic for the simpler days of gaming are likely to fall in love with a spelunking robot.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.