interview: Cave Story creator Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya

Cave Story - Mimiga village
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Cave Story - Mimiga village

For many, Cave Story stands as one of the best examples of what an independent developer can produce with enough time and effort. Despite being released back in 2004, the game is still often used as the gold standard upon which new indie games are compared, especially when it comes to 2D side-scrolling platformers of the Metroidvania variety. Its great controls, impressive visuals, engaging story, and memorable soundtrack - all developed by Studio Pixel, a one-man development studio headed by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya - helped to hammer home the fact that independent developers can do amazing things even with limited resources.

One of the defining features that contributed to Cave Story's popularity was its excellent use of pixel art. Unfortunately, those same graphics are what kept a number of gamers from giving it a chance as a good portion of the gaming population fail to see the value in using pixellated artwork. This problem was somewhat alleviated when Daisuke teamed with Nicalis to update the retro look for last year's WiiWare release. While this brought the game to a whole new audience beyond those who downloaded the PC version or one of its various ports, there were still some who couldn't be bothered simply because it didn't sport 3D graphics.

Not willing to let this slide, Daisuke and Nicalis partnered with NIS America to bring us Cave Story 3D, a 3DS remake that sports the same gameplay that made the original so popular, a professionally redone soundtrack, new content for older fans, and a complete 3D graphical overhaul to bring in that missing audience. This will mark the first time that Daisuke's game has gotten a physical release, which is one hell of an accomplishment for an independent developer and a fitting reward for someone who, for so many years, had freely given away a game that rivals some of the best commercial 2D platformers around.

OXG had the honor of conducting an interview with Daisuke at NIS America's press event in February as well as a follow-up interview at GDC last week. During those sessions, Daisuke touched on various subjects, including past efforts to bring Cave Story to a console, his development process, why he chose to focus on pixel art, the status of his RPG, current projects, and future plans. Here is what he had to say -

[note: This piece combines two interviews that were conducted a few weeks apart. The questions and responses have been combined and cleaned up for clarity and consistency.]

For many long-time fans, it was a foregone conclusion that Cave Story would eventually make its way onto a console. However, an official release didn't happen until nearly six years after the original first came out. You'd think that any company that wanted to make easy money would have been glad to work with you to make a console release a reality. Why didn't this happen sooner?

There was a lot of talk about it getting ported over in the past - even to the Game Boy Advance. Even at that time, there were a lot of talks, but nothing ever materialized. I'm not really familiar with the logistics of [porting games to consoles].

Did any big-name companies approach you?


Let's move on to some development-related questions. How long did it take you to get Quote's movement down?

Walking around took just one day, but the actual specifics were developed as I went along. For example, in the beginning, you could only shoot left and right, but as things progressed, I thought that it would be a lot more interesting if you could shoot up and down too.

How about jumping?

About a week.

What is your programming language of choice?

C or C++.

Some developers would love to know what you use to code your projects.

I used Visual Net 2003 for the original Cave Story.

How about now?

Right now I'm developing for the iPhone, so I'm using Xcode.

For your current projects, do you still focus on pixel art, or have you started to work with resolutions in which individual pixels don't make much of a difference?

I am very partial to pixels. Because I am creating everything on my own, using pixels is very convenient and actually makes it possible for one person to do things alone.

five cats from Neko 100
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five cats from Neko 100

The Nemesis is one of the few weapons in video games that gets blatantly worse as you power it up. What was the thought process behind that?

I got the idea that you can get a totally different gameplay experience on the same stage by simply changing your weapon. For example, switching to the machine gun lets you hover, giving the game a different feel. That's why I created this bizarre weapon - the Nemesis. When it's at level one, it's really strong, but when you kill enemies, they will drop all these items that you have to avoid or else you'll get weaker, thus changing how the game is played.

Why ducks?

I wanted a way to express the fact that the weapon is weak. And to me, the duck is a really weak animal...

Throughout Cave Story, you can collect various items that don't really have an effect on gameplay. Things like badges are easy to understand, but some items, like Chako's Rouge and Curly's Panties, beg for an explanation. Can you tell us about those items?

While making the game, I'd sometimes think - "Oh! If the player collects this item, maybe in the future that item could be some kind of key that advances the story. So I made all these items, but in the end, I just didn't have enough time and resources. So some items were created but have no use...

Since you didn't really have a due-date for the original Cave Story, when did you know that you were done with it?

When I was done with the development for the game, others would say "maybe you should fix this" or "maybe you should fix that part." So, I started debugging. It was not like "Yes! I'm done! Woo!" - I had all this debugging to do even after I felt that I was done. There were times when I thought that I didn't want to make any games ever again, but after a while I decided that I really wanted to make more.

Is your top-down shooter going to be ported to any consoles?

There are talks about it within Nicalis. I would be involved, but for now, I want [to focus on] Cave Story 3D.

[note: I didn't mention it by name, but the top-down shooter that I was referring to was Guxt.]

You've mentioned in past interviews that you are currently working on an RPG. How is that coming along?

That project was halted. Out of the games that I want to create, probably about half of them get scrapped, and that was one of them...

Can you go into why it was scrapped?

I found that I wanted to create another game. This time it was a small one that multiple people could play together over a network.

When can we expect to learn more about that project?

It's actually already being distributed right now, but it's running on my home server. Its maximum capacity is thirty people, so if it becomes too popular it's not going to work.

So only a few people know about it?

It's actually been made public. However, the server is a very old computer, so it isn't able to handle a very big load.

[note: The game in question might be Akantares. I didn't have time to confirm this during my follow-up interview.]
[update: Captain Fabulous at the Cave Story Tribute Site forums suggested that the game is probably Soaprun.]

Since the network game sounds like it is more or less complete, what project are you currently working on now?

I'm creating an action game for the iPhone. The network game is playable, but it's not complete. And, it's going to stay that way.

[note: it would appear that the iPhone game that he is working on is similar to one of his earlier games, Ikachan]

You're not going to finish it?

I want to complete it, but I'm setting it aside because I'm more interested in creating that action game right now. Oh - the server is only turned on on Saturday nights since it's still completely experimental.

After seeing the teaser picture with Prinny and the Polar Star, some were speculating that we'll be seeing Prinny in an upcoming version of Cave Story. Now, in light of the announcement that NIS America will publish Cave Story 3D in the US, even more people will be convinced that we'll see some sort of crossover in the upcoming release.

No comment... [laughs]

Prinny cosplaying as Quote
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Prinny cosplaying as Quote

For the 3DS version, are you going to be re-using the assets that were created for the WiiWare release?

It's all built from scratch. The designers and composers give me the proofs, and I have to give my approval [before they move forward]. I get to say "I want this fixed," and then they would fix it. There were some situations in which I would draw something myself and say "make it like this," and they would correct it to my liking.

Cave Story - Curly Brace

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Cave Story - Curly Brace

Is the music also going to be redone?

Yes, it is.

Having handled every aspect of Cave Story's development - graphics, background music, sound, gameplay, etc. - how did it feel to have a more director/producer-like role during the development of the console port?

When I was making the game by myself, I thought that it would be tough to work with other people. Now that I actually have to direct others and manage the gameplay, graphics, and all that, I know that it's a tough job, because sometimes what I'm thinking - what I have in my mind - cannot really be conveyed in words. So it's a struggle, but I'm learning and enjoying working with the people at Nicalis.

What I enjoy about working with Nicalis is that I don't really have to work on each item or each character. I look at what the artists create and I'm pleasantly surprised. Some things can be totally different from what I'm thinking but still turn out really really nice. I enjoy seeing the totally different look for Cave Story 3D. I'm also amazed by the talent displayed by the professional musicians that are making the music.

After this experience, do you feel that you'll be able to work with a team to create a brand new game, or do you think that it's better to go solo?

It all depends on what happens with Cave Story 3D.

Are you talking sales or how the game turns out?

It has nothing to do with the sales numbers. That's something that I can't really control. What I really focus on is the product itself and how it ends up. In this case, how it turns out as a 3D game.

I went to school for game development, and what I learned is that joining a video game company is not my style because if I were to join a video game company, I would most likely not be able to make MY game. I would have to make the company's game. What I wanted to do was create my own game - graphics, design, story, and all that. That's why I didn't join a video game company after graduating from school. But after working with Nicalis, I feel that I might be able to focus on making my own game and at the same time make a living. Since I have a wife and child, I really hope that everything will go well.

Cave Story 3D - outer wall
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Cave Story 3D - outer wall

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tags: Cave Story, NIS America