Sunday, July 9, 2017

Dave Critiques - Cave Story +: The positivity of games criticism


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Cave Story. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

So this is not really going to be a critique about Cave Story specifically. Oh I will start off by talking about what I see as the pros and cons of the game, but in this video I will be using Cave Story as a springboard to discuss the benefits and importance of games criticism. In researching what people have written about this indie platformer from 2004, I was expecting to go through a large amount of critical writing, but surprisingly, there was very little (at least the way I normally search for critical writing on Critical Distance, Google, and Youtube). The pieces I found were of mostly a high quality, especially the Youtube videos, and that will come into play later on.

I think Cave Story biggest strength is as a cultural landmark in gaming. It’s the epitome of what has become the indie gaming scene, made over 5 years by one man, and then released for free online (before eventually being ported to every console in existence). Yes, a lot of the great games of the 70s and 80s were made by one person or a small team, but I think Cave Story brought that spirit back in a big way. Thanks to the internet, anyone with the time and passion can make something and have it resonate with a large audience. In that context, I think Cave Story excels.

I also love its interconnectedness. The story links to the level layout, to the weapon upgrades, and even to the secrets, including the secret ending. It’s all cohesive. That makes individual elements difficult to criticise because the whole of the game is like a finely tuned machine, and taking out one piece and describing the problems with it can have a knock on effect for every other aspect of the game. Maybe that’s why criticism of Cave Story is so scarce. Fans of any game seem to have difficulty with the idea that you can love something yet still describe the faults you find in it. Heck, in my experience doing so usually strengthens your love of it as you’ve admitted that it is not perfect, but in doing so, what it does right can shine even brighter.

On its surface, I love how unique the experience system is. Your character doesn’t level up, but your guns do. They reach a max level, but every level of every gun has its own benefit. As interesting as this system is though, it’s the other side of the coin that I loathe. When you get hit, you lose experience, so the game is punishing you for playing poorly. If you’re having trouble on a boss you’re taking lots of hits, and because of this, suddenly your weapon isn’t doing enough damage anymore, sliding victory further out of your reach. I get that such a system teaches the player to prioritise dodging over attacking, to learn boss patterns, and to experiment with weapons, but the message I got right to the end of the game was “You’re sucking, and we’re going to make you suck more because of it”.

I love the characters of Cave Story. They’re cute, and yet their motivations and what they go through can be quite tragic. I won’t say that I found myself caring about their plight past wanting to complete the game, but I could see how characters like Sue, Curly Brace, and Balrog have endeared themselves to fans. I would say I felt sorry for Misery at the end, but when she gets possessed for that final fight in the boss rush, the frustration involved over how many times it took me to finally complete it had me caring a lot less than I initially did.

And that boss rush brings me to my final issue with the game, the difficulty of so many of the game’s bosses, and the infrequent checkpointing. Now I realise I am saying this as a player in 2017 who no longer has the patience for games that require a prolonged test of skill between safe havens, so to complain about a lack of checkpointing in a 2004 game seems petty. I admit this is a personal bias. The difficulty of the bosses, especially that final gauntlet sapped all enthusiasm I had for the game. It’s one reason such a short game took me a few weeks to finish. I didn’t want to return to it. I actually considered ending my play session with the bad ending, fleeing the island with Kazuma, but the desire to finish the game properly so I could talk about it with greater understanding prevaled.

You might understand where I’m coming from now that we’re going to talk about games criticism. I saw the good in Cave Story, but I thought its weaknesses outweighed its strengths. Since I try to not just talk about my likes and dislikes in these critique videos, I needed to find another angle to write about, and that’s the main reason I read and watch all the criticism I can find on the games I critique.It tells me what angles other people have tackled and what resonated. With that knowledge I can usually come up with an original take on the game in question or at least an idea of what I want to write about.

Upon doing this with Cave Story (the many attempts required to beat the final boss rush still fresh in my mind), the overall impression I got was not only how beloved the game is, but deconstruction as to why. There was discussion about how the different endings and weapon upgrades play into the game’s central theme of not accepting power that is not yours (as that is the easy way out). There was analysis of the early level design and how it teaches the player through its layout instead of tutorials or cutscenes. And then there were videos just praising certain levels of the game in particular. I’ll link to a few of these videos in the comments.

What this did is make me see the game in a whole new light. I haven’t forgotten my frustrations, but I can see where the people that love this game are coming from. I have a more complete picture and appreciation of Cave Story, and if I ever was to play through the game again, I think I would be more forgiving of its faults as I would be focused on everything talked about in these videos. Seeing my reaction to Cave Story was more negative than positive, I have no idea if I ever will play the game again, but I will say the idea that I might is not completely ridiculous.

One reason anyone writes anything in response to a game, movie, book, or any other artform is to gain a clearer understanding of their reactions to the work in question, and perhaps uncover why the work made them feel this way. The more writing on any work you read, the more differing perspectives you come across, even if you start to see patterns emerge with opinions about certain aspects of the work. Cave Story helped me rediscover how positive an experience it can be to listen to those who feel differently about a work than you do, and why that is. I still don’t think fondly of my time with Cave Story, but I’m glad I played through it, if just to discover why it’s such a beloved classic.

Thanks for watching.

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