Cave Story is a good game, a really damn good game. It’s got good gameplay, good music, a good story and even good visuals at times despite the game’s archaic look. But of these good parts of the larger, excellent whole, it’s the game’s story and gameplay that often garner the most praise (aside from the music which we can gush about another time). Cave Story’s uh, story, is praised for its daring and subversively dark narrative which is held together by a central theme of power and the dangers that power carries if mishandled. This can be seen in the creation and existence of the “Demon Crown”, the Red Flowers that make the island’s Mimiga inhabitants go berserk and the backstory of the game’s true final boss, Ballos, who let his magical power go wild after enduring painful torture. Power is at the heart of the game’s plot, but it is also at the heart of the game’s moment-to-moment gameplay, and is an element that I very rarely hear discussed in discourse about not only Cave Story, but video game story telling in general, and I felt it’s time we looked at this underrated design element of Cave Story, how it works, what it accomplishes for the story the game is trying to tell, and how other games can illustrate their own themes through gameplay.
To avoid rambling on for too long, I’ll state the theme in question right now: the attainment of true power comes with time, even when one must forego short-term rewards. Okay, cool, but what does this sequence of letters and words actually mean? Well in short, it means that just because you can get really strong really quickly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. This is an idea that is baked directly into the way the player character progresses and gets stronger, both in the catalogue of weapons they are offered and even in the levelling system and level design in the game. Beginning with the latter, Cave Story’s combat system is most often praised for its unique levelling system, in that individual weapons can be levelled up with the “energy doritos” as I’ll refer to them, but they can also be lost whenever the player takes damage. This immediately changes the mentality the player will have whenever engaging in a firefight, because now instead of recklessly going in guns blazing, they will instead be more cautious in order to preserve the level, and by extension, the power of their weapon. This reinforces the theme of power and using it responsibly in order to gain the most benefit, and likewise using power irresponsibly can lead to serious consequences. This is where the level design of Cave Story comes into play. Every area in the game barring the First Cave has at least one boss fight somewhere in the zone (most generally have two). In between these boss fights are the standard run ‘n gun gameplay with all the zone’s enemies, and should the player be reckless in either the boss fights or the paths leading to and from them, they will be punished with low health and more crucially, a weaker weapon/s. Thus the player must wield their power correctly in order to stand a chance against the hordes of baddies Cave Story throws at you.
Now you could easily argue that this is simply just coincidence, that it’s just standard game design to punish players for playing the game recklessly and that there is no deeper meaning, thematic element or commentary at play here, and you may be correct in that observation. However, I fully believe that what I am about to talk about now was 100% intended by the game’s developer to reinforce and expand upon the game’s main theme, and is done almost entirely by the way Cave Story offers weapons to the player.
Once again, the theme the game offers to the player is that true power can only be attained with time and patience, even if it means foregoing short-term rewards. This is first presented to the player in the Sand Zone when the character Curly Brace offers her Machine Gun in exchange for Quote’s worn down Polar Star. On the face of it, it seems like a brilliant trade. The machine gun does more damage than the polar star whilst also firing at a much higher rate. And while the ammo may be limited, it regenerates at a decently quick rate, which can even be increased with a certain upgrade. And we can’t talk about the machine gun without also talking about its awesome jetpack-like functionality at level 3, which can end up being an absolute godsend in levels like the Sand Zone, the platforming section in the beginning of the Labyrinth, that really tough jump also in the Labyrinth etc. By all accounts, the machine gun only seems to be an absolute steal. However, eventually there will come a time towards the end of the game when all your weapons will get downgraded back to their original states, and soon the player will begin questioning whether or not they have actually made the right choice. Because had they stuck out with the polar star a bit longer, they would be able to take it back to the Hermit Gunsmith at the start of the game who, being moved by the amount of use the player character has gotten out of it, will upgrade your dainty little polar star into the Spur, the strongest weapon in the game and the only weapon which does not require any “energy doritos” in order to level up, which immediately makes a substantial portion of the end game a lot easier. This is a clear example of the player having to be willing to part with short to even medium term gains in order to benefit themselves in the long run. This isn’t even the only example. In the Labyrinth Shop, the player can again trade in their Polar Star and their Flame in order to get the Snake, which while not bad, still removes the possibility of getting the Spur. The player could even trade in King’s Blade for a weapon known as the Nemesis, which actually rivals the Spur as one of the strongest weapons in the game, but the catch is that it levels down rather than up, so Level 1 would be the Nemesis at its most powerful but Level 3 would be it shooting rubber ducks. Now granted you could just choose not to level it up but these examples all illustrate the importance of patience and perseverance, all without needing to spell it out in a cutscene or through text, but purely through gameplay. I would argue it does this so well that even though the story itself touches on this element, with the Mimigas eating the red flowers to gain short-term strength but at the potential long-term costs of their very lives, the gameplay alone could sell this idea. And I feel like this theme is best illustrated by the game’s true ending.
Now I will be the first to tell you that path to Cave Story’s true ending couldn’t be more contrived and stupid if the main villains decided to suddenly asphyxiate on their own breathing, allowing Quote and the gang to free the Mimiga and live life peacefully forever more while Curly became the Godmother of every person on Earth, or something. Point is, the events of it make zero sense, but on a conceptual level, the true ending is a perfect illustration of what I have been discussing. Having to willingly NOT get a jetpack, whilst not making any justifiable sense story wise, is a bold way to get the player to really think about just how much they would be giving up in the short-term, and really makes them ask for a moment if they really want to be doing this. The answer ends up being a resounding yes when later in the game when the player is rewarded for their patience with an even better jetpack. However, Cave Story isn’t finished with the player just yet, throwing in a more difficult version of what was initially the final level, before making them go through Hell, literally and figuratively in order to save Curly and end the devastation at its root. In short, the game will absolutely make you work for your happy ending, putting all of your skills to the test, and while I do feel this should have been better woven into the game’s actual narrative in a way that made sense, this still does not stop the central theme from being reinforced: that true power and the best rewards come with patience and perseverance, even at the cost of any short-term gain.
What Cave Story does so well here is that it manages to have its themes and overall message be reflected not just through its amazing narrative, but also through its equally as amazing gameplay, and while it certainly is not perfect, it still manages to tell a story through interactivity that only video games can do. This is why I feel that video games, the more story-driven kinds in particular can get away with plots that have relatively simple or uninspired premises, because unlike literature or film, the interactive nature of video games can make the end user not only see and feel the message the game is trying to send them, but also live them in a way. And as more games try to unite narrative and thematic elements together with gameplay, such as the likes of Celeste and Senua’s Sacrifice, or even go to the extreme the games like Undertale where the gameplay is practically packaged hand-in-hand with the story, I felt like it was a good time to acknowledge Cave Story’s own contributions to this aspect of game design. But really, this was just an excuse to talk about a truly amazing video game. 😀
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