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Cave Story: The Five-Year Quest For Cute

In 2004 billions of files were uploaded onto the internet, destined to be forgotten. As these files drowned under each other, one small game created by a Japanese office worker crawled out from the swirling pool of images, text, music, and cat memes to become something of a phenomenon. The game was Cave Story, and this is the Cave Story story.

The Phenomenon

The Cave Story story is not interesting because the game was made by one person, or because it was an indie success. The game development scene has no shortage of solo developers who have become industry celebrities, and many best-sellers and critically-acclaimed titles have burst forth from the minds of indie developers. What is interesting — precious, even — is how Cave Story came to be. Despite having the odds stacked against it, it still doggy-paddled its way through the overflowing virtual pool of data to become a cult success.

In 2004 (back when The Internet was possibly still capitalised), a developer who went by the handle “Pixel” uploaded his game onto the internet. It was a free downloadable file that anyone could access, install, and play. There was no marketing budget, and thus no marketing. Social media was but a chubby infant learning to crawl — there was no Twitter, no Facebook “Likes”, and the dominant social network, MySpace, did not make it easy to share information. How people found Cave Story is anyone’s guess, but found it they most certainly did. With no publisher or distributor, the game with an elusive developer spread through gaming circles and became an underground success that made ‘Pixel’ precisely zero dollars.

For a long time ‘Pixel’ only went by his handle. No one knew what he looked like, how he made his game, and he was often vague in interviews. When asked what games inspired him, Pixel had told an interviewer at the time that the answers would be clear from playing Cave Story.

Eight years on, the game and its developer have emerged from mystery. The game was recently re-released on Steam and re-made for the Nintendo Wii and DS in 2010, and the 3DS in 2011 to an enthusiastic audience. Cave Story is undergoing another period of success, except this time, we know the story behind it.

Who Is Pixel?

Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya is the developer of Cave Story. He is many things: a talented game designer, a husband, a father and, until recently, a salary man who worked full-time making systems that operate printing machines. Despite the cult status of his game and its successful re-releases, he is humble and immediately likable. When we ask him to delve into the past to share his game-making history with us, he does so generously. His story is one that illustrates that the joyful bundle of sprites, music and clever platforms could not have been made by anyone but himself.

“I had always enjoyed drawing and making music, and I loved video games,” Amaya says in an interview with Kotaku AU.

“In 1996 I was studying at a computer technical school and living in a dormitory — my neighbour was a guy named Nao; he taught me how to program video games.”

Amaya had always been a gamer. While he had no intention of entering the games industry, he had a soft spot for side-scrolling action games and often thought of making something himself, just for fun. As his friend Nao continued to teach him to program, the urge to make his own video game grew as Amaya played through Super Metroid. Amaya loved the game and it was a great source of inspiration for Cave Story, but he felt that something was missing.

“The character wasn’t cute enough,” Amaya says of Super Metroid.

“Games have various kinds of ‘fun’, and for me, ‘cute’ is one thing I cannot separate from ‘fun’.

“The word ‘cute’ is the result of many techniques other than those of appearance. The movement, the background music, the sound effects — these all express cuteness,” Amaya says.

“If, in addition to cuteness, there is some impressive novelty or uniqueness, that makes it all the better.”

In 1998, two years after his programming training from his dorm neighbour had begun, Amaya began his quest for cute. It was a strange concept, but it was a game Amaya knew he had to make, even if it was difficult to explain.

The Quest For Cute Begins Now

In 1999, Amaya decided that the time for cuteness was now. Just as he set out to finally begin making his game, he encountered his first hiccup.

“I lacked the necessary technical ability [to make Cave Story],” Amaya says.

“I put the project on hold for three months, during which I made a game called Ika-chan (“Little Squid”). I made this game for the purpose of better equipping myself with game-programming technical know-how.”

After completing a range of programming body-building exercises like the development of a music engine and a mini game called Azarashi (“Seal”), Amaya took another six months making another music engine and a composition editor. By the time the new millennium rolled around, Amaya felt that he had levelled himself up to the point where he could finally create the bundle of cuteness that had been bubbling away in his brain: Cave Story.

He already had a bank of inspiration bursting at the seams: there was Metroid — the game that could have been cuter — and a long list of Japanese games: Final Fantasy V and VI, Sa-Ga (known as Final Fantasy Legend outside Japan), Super Mario Bros, Metal Slug 2, Nekojara Monogatari, Obake no Q-tarou, Fudoumeiou, Espaa Boukentai, Binary Land, Twinbee and Pop’n Twinbee. None of these games represented exactly what Amaya wanted to make, which is why Cave Story had to be made.

Reality Bites

“I went to school to study computer programming so that I could someday make video games, though I soon realised that even if I joined a game company I might not be able to make the sorts of games I wanted to make,” Amaya says.

“While I was at school, I was able to make games, so I figured it was best to choose even a low-paying job at a company that would afford me enough free time to make games on my own.”

This is how Amaya found himself at a small company that worked on printing machines. Prior to meeting his wife, the development of Cave Story went as such: Amaya would work his day job developing systems for the printing machines, come home, make some of his game, draw pictures, and think of the next step in Cave Story. Sometimes he wouldn’t work on Cave Story at all. Having no milestones to meet or pressure to release the game, Amaya took his time.

“My game ideas are always fairly vague,” he says.

“Whenever I try to make a very specific thing, I always end up making something else. No matter how detailed a plan I draw up, I almost never end up producing something that sticks to that plan.

“I think that making games is hard, period.”

From start to finish, Cave Story took five years to complete. It was five years of experimenting, starting and stopping, creating and scrapping, and imagining and implementing. In his mind there was a world that players could enter and jump around freely, a world so different from reality. By 2004, this world existed.

Who was Pixel? What was Cave Story? How did this little game emerge from the virtual piles of data? Back in 2004, no one really knew. To Amaya’s relief, none of it really mattered, because those who found Cave Story — those who jumped freely in his imagined world — were smitten with the game that he’d made.

”This Is Certainly The Last game I Will Ever Make”

Making a game on your own in an environment with little support can be exhausting. Amaya plugged away at his game over the course of five years, never giving up on it. He was on his quest for cute; he was not going to stop until the cute was captured.

“[The game] was a great success… though to tell you the truth, around the time I finished the game and immediately after I finished the game, I was really annoyed,” he says.

“I kept thinking ‘I’m never going to make another game ever again’. Before the game was finished, I spent a year getting my friends to play it and I’d make tweaks based on their input. The game got better and better, though the whole process only annoyed me.

“Maybe I worked so hard to finish the game because I was so convinced ‘This is certainly the last game I will ever make’. And then even after the game was finished and released, I had to fix bugs. So that whole time I was constantly annoyed.”

Amaya didn’t make a cent from the original release of Cave Story — money was never a goal. He was familiar with Freeware and Shareware, though the idea of implementing copyright protection and creating a pricing structure seemed like too a big a hassle. He went into the development of Cave Story simply wanting to make a game — now that he’d made it, he just wanted people to play it.

“A game is something which draws the player in, right?” says Amaya.

“I think this makes games more powerful and direct than pictures or music or movies. I wanted to invite other people into the world I had made. I had felt many things through playing many games; I wanted someone to feel something by playing my game.”

Meet Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya: Full-Time Game Developer

Eight years on from the initial release of Cave Story, the game has experienced a re-emergence and a second wave of success. Amaya recently left his job at the printing company after ten years to become a full-time game developer.

“The reasons I decided to make games full-time after ten years at that company are: 1. Cave Story was successful, 2. in the current economic climate, even a salaryman’s security is not guaranteed, 3. I’m not getting any younger, so if I’m going to do this, I have to do it now.”

And reason number four?

“My wife said it was OK,” Amaya jokes.

Amaya is still working solo, although he isn’t ruling out the possibility of collaborating with others and working in a team.

“To me, making a game with other people seems is like trying to ride a bike where one person pedals and the other steers: difficult,” he says.

“However, if I can get someone with really strong legs to pedal for me, we should be able to get over a mountain I couldn’t get over by myself. For now, I’m still making games by myself, but I am constantly open to the idea of working with others to make something.”

All around the world people are re-discovering Cave Story and celebrating its return, while others are falling in love with it for the very first time. Seeing Cave Story through to completion has given Amaya the confidence to continue pedalling in search of the quirky, the cute, and undeniably joyous.

“I cannot say if it means I’ll be able to make another game which is as good as Cave Story,” Amaya says.

“All I can do is try my best. So that is what I will do.”

Cave Story is available on the Nintendo 3DS and for PC and Mac through Steam.

[Photos of Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya courtesy of: Gamereactor / Indiegames. Interview with Daisuke Amaya was conducted in Japanese and translated by Tim Rogers.]


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