Anytime anything beloved is changed there’s going to be a reaction, and it’s usually going to be negative – nostalgia can be blinding like that. It can make people look at beauty with disgust, and make rational, sensible changes appear blasphemous. As is the reaction to Cave Story 3D, the three-dimensional remake of the classic PC shooter. While it stays true in gameplay, the new developer replaced the clean, beautiful sprites of the original with 3D characters in 3D environments fighting 3D enemies. To many, it doesn’t matter that the changes to 3D will help the game reach a wider audience, and it doesn’t matter that developer Nicalis worked with Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, the creator of the original, to create the update. All that matters is that if it’s different, they’re going to hate it. And it's different, so they're going to hate it. Which is a shame, because Cave Story 3D is absolutely remarkable.
Players assume the role of a robotic soldier with no memory, thrown underground into a strange world filled with creatures called Mimigas. It doesn't have an incredibly strong story, but what's there is interesting, and it ends up pulling on heartstrings we didn't expect it to go for, with interesting characters and surprising turns.
Though the story is fun, it's only a small part of the reason that Cave Story is so fantastic. Much more important is the gameplay, which has barely changed at all since its release in 2004. Even though it's been remade a number of times since Pixel developed the PC version in his free time it's barely ever been modified at all, and that’s because very little needed to change for Cave Story 3D to be great. It has a classic feel that's reminiscent of games like Super Metroid and Castlevania, feeling at many times like an unabashed love letter to the genre with a focus on smart platforming and fast-paced 2D combat. But just because it leans heavily on others in the genre doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with some of its own contributions.
The largest enhancement Cave Story brings to the table comes in the form of weapon upgrades. Dead enemies can drop health, missiles, or gems, and while health and missiles are fairly standard for the genre, gems are unique to Cave Story. They enhance all of the weapons, filling up a bar that can empower any gun twice. These upgrades do more than just increase the damage of the weapons, though – while some simply grow in power, others are transformed completely to make them much more useful. Your machine gun, for instance, becomes so powerful that, if aimed at the ground, it can act as a jetpack of sorts, propelling the player upwards. If used correctly, this can mean reaching otherwise unreachable areas, and getting new, unique items. The upgrades diminish when the player takes damage, adding even more incentive not to be hit by enemies than the fear of losing life.
To make things even more complex, you don't even need to get the machine gun - there are a few branching choices that you're able to make, though the game doesn't really let you know you're making them. On a few occasions you're given the option to pick up new items or talk to NPCs that, if ignored, lead to slightly alternate paths in the game, letting you unlock more different content later in the game. Only by choosing the most difficult paths will the game's secret, hyper-difficult end-game dungeon be open to delve into. Other unlockables, including some 3DS-exclusive content, should add even more replayability to the already deep game. It's a little on the short end, clocking it at eight to ten hours, but there's definitely more to do once it's over.
Above: Check out the Full Access Preview we did for the game to see the different visual styles in motion
But most of this already existed when the game was released seven years ago, and is hardly unique to Cave Story 3D. A majority of the new content comes in the presentation, which has been built from scratch for the 3DS. While obviously inspired by the visuals of the 2004 version, the new graphics are completely reworked, and will undoubtedly be polarizing to fans of the original. Going in without bias, though, and without nostalgic attachment to the PC version, it's hard to complain about the new style. Some of the enemies might look strange, and a few of the characters lack the charm of their pixelated counterparts, but most of the character design is great, and the environments look absolutely splendid. With the 3D slider all the way up it looks like the hero is jumping around inside of a diorama. Nicalis did a fantastic job of adding objects to the foreground so that, when the 3D is on, the game's visuals will pop off the screen, taking full advantage of the system's capabilities.
The audio, too, has been reworked with great success, especially when compared to the Wii version, which arguably strayed too far from the source material. The sound effects and soundtrack shine bright on the 3DS, with remixed tunes that jive really well with the new visuals.
There's a second graphical style available for those who really want something that flies closer to what the original offered, though it isn't really all that strong. It's sort of like playing the game with cut-out characters, and doesn't work as well in practice as it does in theory. We understand why it was added, as it sort of splits the difference between the original and the new visuals, but the mish-mash doesn't really end up being as visually pleasing as we hoped. If they really wanted to appease those people they should have just included the original game on the cartridge, instead of slapping together a mediocre second graphical option.
Cave Story 3D is Cave Story unencumbered. It's Pixel's dream realized on a new platform for the masses, and in a form anyone can appreciate. While the new graphical style might lack the charm of the original's it's in no way bad – just different and, in a way, more appropriate. It's the definitive version of the game, with more content than ever before (even if it's only just barely more), leaving you no excuse not to pick up one of the most charming Metroidvania-style games of all time.