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Cave Story 3D preview: Pixel goes polygonal


I'll admit it: my excitement about a new version of Cave Story to play on the 3DS was tempered a bit by fears that it wouldn't turn out right. To put it more directly, my excitement was tempered by the first screenshots of Cave Story 3D.

But upon playing the remake, it was immediately evident that developer Nicalis had been paying attention to the reaction to those first images, and is working to make something that reinterprets the environments of the retro-style original in a more palatable -- and more parsable -- way. It is not ruined by the 3D graphics.

Gallery: Cave Story 3D (E3 2011) | 7 Photos

Nicalis (led by original developer Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya) reinterpreted the look of each area in a much more detailed, intricate manner, which works almost as a tribute to the original look; as if someone were to build models based on the original game. The architecture, the landmarks and the feeling of each area is still there, but presented in a manner that is less "stark" and more "rich."

If I had to choose just one for a desert island, I'd take the WiiWare's upgraded 2D look, but since I live in a non-isolated environment where I have room for multiple versions of Cave Story, I appreciate seeing the familiar areas in a new way. And some of the places, Egg Corridor in particular, are just beautiful -- the long hallway full of high-tech dragon egg containment chambers is, for the first time, able to be imagined as a real place. If anything, the only issue with the remade graphics is that I sometimes had a hard time seeing doors, something that Nicalis is working on addressing.

The lunchbox-like Balrog still rushes you in the same pattern ... and is still way cute.

I don't think I should bother describing the basic gameplay or the premise overmuch; everyone's played Cave Story by now, and if you haven't, it's available on both WiiWare and DSiWare, and still out on PC and Mac for free. Nicalis's 3DS remake doesn't alter the storyline at all (even using the same 2D character portraits and rewritten script from the WiiWare release, because "if we use the 3D models here it's not cute," says Nicalis's Tyrone Rodriguez). It keeps the game design intact in most cases, too.

Tiny tweaks are made, like putting a new (and frustrating!) gap in the small passageway atop the Egg Corridor where you find a hidden life container, and altering the amount of health added by each container. Each tank ups your maximum HP by a different amount now -- and there are more of them hidden in the game -- to the effect that your possible maximum by the end of the game is 100 instead of 55. That can make the game easier ... if you can find all the hidden items.

Some tweaks are bigger -- so big, in fact, that I couldn't get details about them. There are new areas to be found, at the very least.

Most important of all, it feels, mechanically, like Cave Story. In my opinion, a great deal of the lasting appeal of the original comes from how responsive the controls are, and how enjoyable the basic jumping and shooting feel -- think about holding the machine gun down to jetpack yourself across a chasm, for example. The jumping feels right (although I did have trouble making a few normally trivial jumps, a fact I attribute to having a harder time seeing the absolute last pixel from which to vault myself), the shooting feels right, for the Polar Star gun I had, at least; the enemies move like you'd expect them to, and appear in the same places; the lunchbox-like Balrog still rushes you in the same pattern ... and is still way cute.

All of that matters so much more than the graphics, and it's something that, according to Rodriguez, takes a lot of care to achieve. Remaking a game, he said, is "actually harder than making a whole new game, just because you have to make sure that if you're remaking a game, it has to feel like the old game." However, when making an original game, "you can break all the rules -- there are no rules to follow." Where possible, Nicalis implemented elements of the original code for mechanics to ensure the proper feel.

Of course, you can't design the game entirely for Cave Story diehards. Nicalis has to ensure that new players can get into the new version -- otherwise, what's the point of releasing it again? "NIS has been incredibly helpful," Rodriguez said. "They have testers who haven't played Cave Story, which is great. We can see some of their feedback. You and I know the game really well, so you know, like, the door's around here, and your brain kind of translates the rest for you. I don't want to have any sense of frustration from new players."

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