Cave Story: The Dreamcast's Subterranean Gem

What's in a name? Quite a bit, actually. While some games available for the Dreamcast have pretty descriptive titles - Crazy Taxi, for example - others are sure to leave uninitiated gamers scratching their heads in confusion. Blue Stinger. Giant Killers. Cannon Spike. These are but a trio of games with titles that really don't give any hint as to the experience contained on the GD. Cave Story though? Well, just like the game that involves driving a cab around in a fairly unorthodox manner, the title of this particular piece of software perfectly sums up what the game is all about. You go on an a cave. Simple. But what even is Cave Story? And when the heck did this game appear on the Dreamcast? Grab your head torches and guide ropes, and I'll explain.
See, Cave Story is a side-scrolling, rogue-like platform adventure set in a labyrinthine complex of weird and wonderful caves. There are hit points, NPCs to interactive with, fetch quests to embark upon, and all manner of weird enemies to engage in combat with; and the whole game has a charming pixel art style which is complimented by an outstanding chip tune soundtrack. The origins of Cave Story make for an interesting read, with the initial PC release coming in 2004. Since then developer Daisuke Amaya has gone on to create a plethora of critically acclaimed games; and Cave Story has been ported to an astonishing range of systems, one of which just happens to be the good old Dreamcast. The Dreamcast port came in 2013 thanks to the work of programmer 'histat,' when Cave Story's NXEngine was completely re-written specifically for Sega's hardware and a couple of variations of the game were released in different flavours. Namely as an SD card ISO file, and as a burnable disc image.
I have to be honest, when Cave Story came to the Dreamcast in 2013 I didn't really give it much attention and dismissed it - wrongly - as just another crappy-looking homebrew game. So what changed between then and now? Well, firstly I'm no longer an idiot (allegedly); and secondly the recent rise in popularity of games with a distinctly 8 or 16-bit visual aesthetic has really made me appreciate this style of game a lot more than I probably did in the past. Thirdly - and most importantly - I recently spotted a physical, boxed copy of Cave Story on eBay for less than the price of a trip to the cinema, so I jumped at the chance to own it.
The copy I have acquired is clearly the work of a dedicated Dreamcast fan who also happens to own a decent printer and a had a spare PAL game case to hand. There's no manual, but the CD does have some nice bespoke artwork and the front and back covers could easily pass for a proper retail release. Even though the game is actually free to download, the fact that the work of putting it into a case and adding disc art had already been done made the nominal fee a price worth paying...

If you're reading this and the name Cave Story sounds familiar, its because the game was recently released on the Nintendo Switch as Cave Story+, a sort of re-master of the original with new artwork and assets specifically designed for Nintendo's sexy new hybrid console. As stated earlier, Cave Story is also available for a host of other retro and contemporary systems, including the Wii, PSP, Xbox and Nintendo 3DS. But how does the game play on the Dreamcast and what's it all about? Luckily, I can answer both of these questions having played it for quite some time.
Unfortunately though, I haven't played Cave Story on any other platforms so I can't really compare it to other ports, but what I can do is tell you what I liked about the Dreamcast version, and what's not so great. So, first things first - how does it play? If you've already experienced Cave Story you'll probably want to skip this paragraph as you'll already know most of what I'm about to say (type). You basically assume the role of a little cluster of pixels masquerading as a bloke, and you run and jump around the stylised caves, all the while shooting nasties with your various guns, avoiding various hazards, collecting health boosts and interacting with the myriad citizens who happen to call the massive cave complex home. You'll venture into all manner of bizarre locations, with lakes, farms, science labs, villages etc all represented; and there's a ton of backtracking to previous locations and lots and lots of puzzles to solve. Oh, and you'll die. A lot.

The over-arching storyline involves you becoming embroiled in the megalomaniacal plans of the evil 'Doctor,' and attempting to thwart his attempts to take over the world. I won't go into too much detail lest you've yet to play Cave Story in any of its guises, but rest assured that the story gets pretty weird, and the character interactions raise a smile on most occasions.
The sense of humour and multiple choice conversations are a real highlight in Cave Story, and you can choose to completely avoid conflict in certain situations just by selecting the right answers to questions asked of you. The subterranean world through which you travel is brilliantly conceived, and the multitude of enemy types, power-ups and collectable items is mind blowing. I haven't actually finished Cave Story at the time of writing this feature (hence why I'm not calling it a review!), but I've spent hours traversing caverns, being killed by baddies and investigating all the oddness in the game world.
Even little incidental background objects can be interrogated, and sometimes seemingly innocuous level furniture can yield awesome surprises. The weapon system is quite cool too - killing enemies will cause glowing golden triangles (or Doritos, as I like to call them) to erupt from the exploding corpse and collecting these while holding a certain weapon will increase its power level. Obviously, this makes the weapon much more effective, but getting hit by enemies also has a degrading effect on your health and weapon power. Imagine the system in Sturmwind where weapons equal lives, and you're kind of on the right track.

Sadly, Cave Story for Dreamcast isn't perfect and there's a definite feeling that this isn't as polished a port as it could have been with a full studio behind it. Not that I'm complaining, but if you go into Cave Story expecting something bordering on perfection, you'll be a little bit disappointed. The Dreamcast version does have a somewhat erratic frame rate in places, and while the music is utterly, utterly brilliant (see the Soundcloud player above for further details), this Dreamcast port has an odd glitch where the music sort of 'skips' when the player enters a new area or goes through a door or portal. Traversing the various forum discussions regarding Cave Story for Dreamcast, some of these issues appear to be resolvable by turning off the music in order to enhance the frame rate and reduce the impact of other issues, but for me the music is one of the best bits so it's a tough thing to remove from the overall experience. Elsewhere, it seems that the SD card ISO file is a little bit hit and miss when it comes to stability, meaning that it crashes regularly. The burnable CD image is the one to go for in this case.
Other than these minor hiccups though (and there are apparently later revisions which have these issues ironed out), Cave Story is a triumph. There's so much game here, and (if you just download it) it's totally free to enjoy. There's full VMU support for saving your progress, the controls can be mapped properly to the Dreamcast controller or the Dreamcast keyboard, and there are even dedicated display modes so you can get the best picture for your set up - I'm using the VGA option combined with the Akura HDMI box and it looks awesome on an LCD television.
Basically, everyone who owns a Dreamcast should endeavour to grab Cave Story and play it. It really is a fabulous game and even with the minor performance problems it doesn't really detract from the overall experience. Cave Story is a charming little game, and if you haven't previously experienced it on other platforms, there's no excuse not to get the free Dreamcast version.
Cave Story Dreamcast Resources


Daniel Turner said...


fatherkrishna said...

You never cease to amaze me! Great find, great post!

Unknown said...

Sounds really cool. I like the conversation options and how it can change the game!

Unknown said...

I played it last year on SD card :) It´s a nice game.