Pixel’s Angels and Inner-Demons: Cave Story and Perseverance

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

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Editor’s Note: This article contains SPOILERS regarding the plot and ending of Cave Story. Read with that in mind. 

The increased heart rate as your pace quickens and you teeter on that razor’s edge between being “in-the-zone” and a nervous wreck…it’s all too familiar. The tense feeling in your muscles as you concentrate on your goal, the sweet sensation of victory you must feel when that goal is finally achieved…or the agony of defeat that must overtake you as you see that “game over” screen for the hundredth time in a single hour. Alas, this is a sentiment that echoes across each of us here, no matter what kind of games we truly enjoy playing. Before I even begin, do take a moment to relish in the last time a game made you try. Those feelings, those sensations are eternally here:

From my earlier review of Cave Story:

Truth be told, I’ve poured over $60 into the multiple versions of Cave Story, and I will likely buy the game…again when it’s released next week. What can I say?

For all the money I’ve thrown at the game across many platforms, I’ve grown quite comfortable with its systems and surroundings. What began as a blossoming sense of exploration as I died over and over again on WiiWare…has become a relaxing stroll with few setbacks, outside of a misplaced jump, me still not being able to triumph over the first “Core” fight very easily, or struggling against the final bosses without using a Life Pot. This is no doubt thanks to some memorization and a slight increase in skill on my part, but really…I’m horrible at shooters. The pacing from about the Labyrinth up to the game’s “Normal” end took a long while for me to get used to. Like I said though, I’m certainly comfortable with everything up to that point. I can beat the Undead Core with few hiccups and see the game’s credits roll if I so desire.

But… I am always drawn back to the Prefab Building as Sue scampers off to the helicopter to escape the island. Ever since I first experienced the game, I’ve found myself inevitably there. Six versions of the game, six different ways to sit at the save point and place to rest before I see the “You have died” screen anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes later.

… Why do I keep coming back?

Layers of Story

  

“Cave Story” is definitely a workable title for the overall experience this game offers. Not only does it concern a sense of exploring the unknown (oftentimes through a series of caves), the game’s story itself is extremely layered. Players are introduced to a nameless, amnesiac protagonist that is seemingly thrown into an escalating conflict. Their drive to continue during the first two missions is minimal, beyond a sense of adventure and a few allusions to a “blonde pal” or the fact that Misery, an enemy, is familiar with him somehow.

Just as there are hidden treasures to acquire during the first two missions of the game, there are hidden subtexts within the story. How did Igor become so maddened, but strong? And what was with the random Mimiga that attacked when you discovered a missile upgrade hidden inside a house at Bushlands? The game litters allusions to the evil of red flowers before Professor Booster explains that these evil things turn cute little bunnies into weapons of death, but only perceptive players can uncover the layers of truth beforehand.

The story begins to intensify as you make your way to/through the Sand Zone, come face-to-face with Curly Brace, and eventually confront the evil Doctor and watch two main characters die. It’s fascinating, how Cave Story treats death. Whether minor or major, there is no dialogue offered when a character dies (outside of King saying “avenge me”). Because the protagonist is silent, players can only mourn for themselves at what happened; we’re not given any perspective as to how the character himself feels.

By far the most striking events in Cave Story, in my opinion, involves everything from when Curly joins up with you in the Labyrinth, up to the eerie silence when the character awakens after his first fight with the Core of the island. Players were just beginning to grow attached to Curly Brace, who accompanied them through the Labyrinth and during one of the toughest battles in the game thus far…but now she’s given up her air bubble to save her friend, and her lifeless body just…sits there. First-time players, those unfamiliar with the layers of story in this game, are forced to leave Curly’s lifeless body behind, without so much as a goodbye.

Saving Curly

Fanart from Glitcher

I restarted my game. I was okay with the game killing off Igor, other nameless Mimiga, and even King and Toroko, but as soon as that big metal door closed behind me and there was no way to get back to Curly, I forfeited all the progress I’d made during my first playthrough of the game up to obtaining the Booster v0.08 and took to Google to figure out a way to save her. Alas, I’m not proud of using someone else’s experiences to shape my own. But Pixel is cruel like that; the game offers absolutely, positively no hints that a Booster 2.0 (and the ability to change Curly’s fate) is available until the end of the game…and even then, everything is exceptionally well hidden.

You almost have to use an FAQ to figure out the inciting incident that allows the game to end differently. And I feel that was the point Pixel was trying to make when he created the game in this way. There’s simply no way someone who was experiencing Cave Story on his or her own would be able to see the game’s true ending without any interaction with  an FAQ, Youtube, or someone who had played the game before.

As all of you who have read this far know, there’s a way to save Curly. It makes your journey through the Labyrinth much more difficult than before, but your bond with Curly grows e’er stronger as a result, I think. In order to see Curly at the end of your adventure, the player must make impossible leaps of faith, then go against his or her instincts and keep Curly with them, always, from that point on. There are hidden sidequests and bosses. Accomplish everything with the Booster 2.0, a snarky mushroom, and perhaps a few ultimate weapons, and the game’s story of “defeat the Doctor” eventually reveals the ultimate hidden layer of “stop this tragedy from ever happening again by defeating the master of this island with the one person you trust—Curly Brace”.

You can go through the entire game and never learn the protagonist’s name. Or, you can save Curly. She reveals your name is Quote. Don’t you think that’s a fitting name for the strong, silent type?

What the Hell?

Fanart from シノノコ

And so it goes, ladies and gentlemen. If you’ve done everything properly and made your way through the game’s hidden “Final Cave”, the game doesn’t end when The Doctor is defeated. The door to the Prefab Building is open, and you can run back in to its save point and place to rest, while noting a peculiar hole in the ground…and that you’re locked in.

This is ultimately where my story ended, for the longest time. I used to be so inept at Cave Story that I could barely advance past the first two screens without being impaled by spikes or crushed by giant blocks. After more than two years of coming back to this place across six versions of the game, I’ve gotten better. I’ve certainly had a lot more pent up anger over time. Cave Story is very quickly becoming one of my life’s “defining games”. Because I’ve come back to this spot so many times over the years, because I’ve struggled so valiantly, I have fond memories of where I was in life personally. Nothing liberates one’s pent-up aggression quite like blasting hundreds of enemies coming at you with the intent to murder or maim.

And what’s more, you do it all with your trusted companion tied to your back. The relationship of Quote and Curly is a symbol—because you should never go through Hell alone.

I played through Cave Story 3D last year. By December I was back in Hell, and I could even advance to the point where I came face to face with its master for the first time ever, after using my Life Pot and getting really, really lucky…with Spur and Nemesis in hand. Ballos made quick work of me though, and I was never able to reach him again, until…

…right about now. These days, I can confidently fight to reach Ballos, sometimes even arriving to face him with full health and my Life Pot. But I am far too anxiety-ridden to triumph over Ballos. My nerves affect my ability to fight properly, and I can’t get past his second form (widely considered to be his easiest one, no less). I’ve lamented over the fact that no save point exists between the journey through Hell and your fight against its master, when the game offers save points before every other boss.

If I’m ever able to beat his second form, I will no doubt die against the third, or his final form, and so on. I am far too inept at shooters to ever win without a stroke of luck and a clear head. While I might eventually achieve a stroke of luck, having a clear head going into that fight is borderline impossible for me. And so I chose to write about my experiences with the game instead, in order to come to terms with the fact that I may never see the game’s true ending.

Do I have what it takes? The Youtube videos spattered about the Internet of Hell speedruns and 3HP challenges make it look so easy. I am convinced…if I ever actually triumph over Ballos and Hell, that’s going to be the day Pixel personally announces Cave Story 2.

To conclude: if there’s anyone out there who’s stuck or struggling in a video game, I most certainly “know that feel”. While a discussion of Cave Story at its core, this article serves as a testament that we as gamers must never stop struggling against the tide. Because my journey through Cave Story is most definitely a personal one. Each time I struggle with a level I am clearly not skilled enough to beat (yet), my resolve is strengthened, my motivation renewed.

One day, Pixel. ONE. DAY.

  

Why do I keep coming back…?

Hope, ladies and gentlemen. I hope one day, in any given version of the game, that I might eventually see the end and accompany Curly and Balrog as we fly across the skies toward a peaceful future.

SOURCE MATERIALS:
Fanart: Glitcher and   シノノコ.
Illustrations by Pixel himself: Here
OC Remix Album featuring Ball of Ballos: Here




  • dbclick

    Cave Story is quite possibly my favorite 2D platformer of all time. I even bests Super Metroid IMO due to the story.

    I’ve managed to make it to Ballos’s third form several times before, but have yet to best him. Your article makes me want to have another go at it. I’ve got Cave Story+ in my Steam library waiting for me…

    • I wish you the best of luck, sir. May we both be victorious…eventually! 🙂

    • dbclick

      Started playing through it again. I had forgotten about the Halloween mode. I’m getting a kick out of Curly in her Samus costume.

    • I’ve been trying and trying to beat Hell ever since writing this editorial. Over two weeks, I’ve gotten better. I can now reach the final form of Ballos, even almost kill him, before he inevitably does me in. It’s really just a matter of time.

      Except, during my most recent playthrough (last night), my save file was somehow corrupted. The game no longer loads while my save file is in it; there’s no way for me to play the game without deleting it and restarting it.

      I’m beginning to think Pixel/Nicalis secretly has it in for me. Going to play through CS+ on Steam (which I was only partially through so far) and finally beat this game.

      Ballos, your days are numbered! 

  • My journey has, at long last, finally come to an end. 😀