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Cave Story 3D hands-on preview

It's a pretty rare thing these days -- even in indie circles -- to see products that are designed almost entirely by one person. Such was the case with Daisuke Amaya's five-year opus, Cave Story, which has slowly grown from its humble PC beginnings to become a retail WiiWare and DSiWare offering, courtesy of indie dev house Nicalis. We've alreadyhadthe chancefora little sit-down with Amaya himselflast week, but it wasn't until later that evening that we got to actually play the full-blown 3D remake.

Though it was understandably early (things like collision and even damage weren't yet implemented, and 2D sprites stood in for the not-yet-ready 3D character redesigns), getting to see the transition from old-school pixel art to smooth 3D environments was a little jarring. Still, it's clear that Amaya (better known to superfans as Pixel) and Nicalis are taking their time in fleshing out a game that has been lovingly ported by die-hard fans to everything from Linux to the original Xbox to, yes, graphing calulators.

Despite the shift to full 3D environments, the game is the same side-scrolling Metroidvania-esque blend of light conversation, exploration and old-school platforming that has already snared so many people. The version we played hadn't yet added the 3DS's 3D effects (those come last, we were told), but what we saw was indeed promising -- if only because it painted things with a decidedly fresh brush.

Above: The in-game view of the starting caves is much closer than this, but this should give you an idea of what to expect

We managed to putt around the starting areas, and were rather surprised at just how much the shift to 3D had changed the look of everything. Simple things like water were no longer pristine pools of liquid, but rather murkier, wider areas with the same strict limits on oxygen. Just about everything had a much bigger feel, thanks to a kind of canted, 2.5-Dangle that added a sense of depth and made exploring the cavesa completely new, yet oddly familiar, experience. However, things like jumping and basic movement still felt pretty faithful to the original, and it was only a few minutes before we felt comfortable (if not entirely familiar) with the hopping and blasting.

Hardcore fans of the series are no doubt sharpening their pitchforks right now, but the transition to 3D isn’t as sacrilegious as it might seem. Obviously, Pixel is keeping in close contact with Nicalis' 3D-ifying of everything, and there really is a sense that this is a labor of love rather than just a cash-in. It's a shame the game was in such an early state, as the HUD elements and certain NPCs weren't anywhere near final. And though the actual characters will be fully polygonal when the game is finished, it appears the character portraits during conversations will stay 2D -- albeit updated a bit.

There's also the matter of the characters' new 3D appearance, which wasn’t yet ready in the version we played, but which was shown off inthe abovetrailer. Obviously, Quote has gone through a handful of revisions over the years, but seeing the cap-wearing, gun-toting protagonist completely fleshed out in 3D is... interesting, to say the least. Ditto for toaster-looking villain Balrog. However, the added bits of detail weren't so extravagant as to make anyone look especially alien.

Even with the shift to 3D, if you love Cave Story (and let's face it, to play Cave Story is to love Cave Story), there's plenty of reason to be excited about what the game is becoming on the 3DS. It may not have that same old-school charm, but there are about a bazillion ported versions out there, and the publishing deal with NIS America will finally allow the game to exist on a physical cartridge.

Nicalis is obviously walking a fine line with their decision to give the game a full-blown 3D revamp, but from what we've seen and played, the studio clearly isn’t taking its responsibility lightly, and decisions like adding new challenges to the mix should help ease any feelings that this is just a prettied-up version of a game you've already played. Considering nearly everyone at the reveal expected "3D" to just mean that some fancy parallax effects and a kind of popup-book-style 3D would be added to the 2D game, it’s already clear that Nicalis is trying to go above and beyond here. As soon as we have the chance to go hands-on again with a more complete build, we'll be sure to pass along our impressions.

Feb 14, 2011