Falling for Cave Story's Prequel Ikachan

Posted by apspu on January 14th, 2013

Cave Story came out eight years ago this month. Dear lord! I remember former diablo 3 gold buy 1UP editor's Scott Sharkey obsession with the game (which, in its raw and untranslated Japanese form at the time, we all knew as the impenetrable "Doukutsu Monogatari") almost as if it were yesterday. Now, here were are, nearly a decade later, and Cave Story belongs in the canon of the medium's truly legendary games. The game's been pretty well mined on eShop and Steam, so publisher Nicalis has decided to move along to publishing older projects by developer Pixel (Daisuke Amaya): Namely, top-down shooter Guxt and undersea adventure Ikachan.

Despite my admiration for Cave Story, I've never really looked into Pixel's previous projects; I was under the impression, for some reason, that Ikachan was a simple auto-scrolling action game. This, it turns out, was a tragic mistake. Quite the contrary, it's a free-roaming side-scroller that feels an awful lot like the prototype for Cave Story. The similarity goes far deeper than just the shared aesthetics of the retro-styled visuals that inspired Amaya's nom de plume, though. Though you can't rightly classify Ikachan as a platformer given its underwater setting, you can see the spirit of Cave Story right from the beginning.

lkachan stars a squid finding its way through a vast ocean broken up by obstacles and hazards that often can only be surmounted by returning to them once you've found an appropriate power-up. Since you swim by pressing A or B rather than running and jumping, the overall feel isn't too far off from Aquaria, with moment-to-moment mechanics borrowed from the underwater sequences of Super Mario Bros.

Familiar touchstones feel fresh and different here. Those deadly red spikes from Cave Story line the game's corridors, but evading them requires you to rethink your approach: Rather than simply leaping them, you have to swim with carefully timed button presses. To its credit, Ikachan feels wonderfully responsive -- something frequently untrue of action games set underwater. Compare the act of paddling through deadly narrow corridors here to the same activity in the more recent Retro City Rampage and you'll find it markedly easier here -- strange, given that as the more recent creation RCR should represent an improvement. Honestly, Ikachan's controls are easier to adapt to than even Cave Story's; it doesn't force players to deal with anything equivalent to that game's floaty jump. Instead, it makes the potentially troublesome concept of an underwater, pump-to-advance action game feel remarkably fun and un-frustrating.

From what I've played -- roughly 15 minutes of the game, which obviously represents only a fraction of its three-to-four hour length -- Ikachan appears to keep its action fairly basic, with the protagonist's power-ups revolving around its movement. The first tool you acquire is a pointy hat that allows you to break blocks and spear enemies, though only if you approach from beneath those objects or creatures. To break or attack laterally, you need to find a later power-up called the compressor that enables you to make a dashing movement.

The role of the protagonist itself as a weapon and tool is offset by the presence of a simple level-up system that allows you to grow in power as you collect experience points by picking up fish or defeating foes. Each new level you earn nets you additional maximum health and makes your attacks more powerful. Basic, but effective... and it also offers a chance for Amaya's arch sense of humor to come through, too. A short way into the game, you'll encounter a room filled with experience-giving fish, though a sign outside warns not to enter on pain of instant death. But mosey in anyway and a door closes behind you, trapping you inside with the fish and a bunch of spikes that represent your only way out (that is, through suicide). Normally, that would feel like a cheap, untelegraphed trap... except that the game did give you fair warning. When I died, Nicalis' Tyrone Rodriguez informed me that i was in good company: Every single person who had demoed the game before me made the same stupid mistake.

Ikachan should launch within the next month for 3DS eShop, with a DSiWare version following shortly thereafter. The 3DS version definitely seems like the one to get, though, thanks to its wider field of vision and subtly enhanced graphics. In any case, its $5 asking price seems perfectly fair for a game that looks to offer a compact (and pleasantly unique) side adventure to Cave Story -- literally, as it turns out, thanks to some story elements that place it firmly within the Cave Story universe. For those of us who have played Ikachan's more famous sibling practically to death, spending time with its origins should offer a nice change of pace while staying within the familiar confines of Pixel's distinctive world view. source: 1up

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