Imagine a game that was created but never released during the classic era of early console gaming. It has the side-scrolling platforming and upgrades of Metroid, patterned bosses that rival the early Ninja Gaiden titles, and music that stands toe to toe with any 8-bit Mega Man. Give it a compelling mythology like Link to the Past, and multiple endings in the style of many Castlevania titles. Now you have a pretty good idea what to expect out of Cave Story.

The brainchild of a Japanese developer named Daisuke Amaya, the game released as a freeware PC title in 2004. American developer Nicalis recognized the cult status of the game, and prepared it for release on WiiWare. The update delivers a virtually unchanged gameplay experience (this version runs a little faster) that loses nothing in the translation, but adds beautifully updated graphics, audio, and several new game modes.

The game tells the sometimes predictable story of an amnesiac robot who awakens in a strange land of monsters, talking rabbit creatures, and fiendish magic. As he explores his surroundings, he becomes embroiled in a struggle between the island’s peaceful natives and a tyrannical scientist with planet-conquering ambitions. Through an extended platforming adventure and a varied mix of locales and challenging encounters, players gradually unfold a deep and imaginative story.

Along the way, gamers meet an amusing mix of characters that form the heart of the experience. However, it’s the journey through Cave Story’s creative setting that makes the game so much fun. The game does a fine job of communicating a sense of magic and discovery as you move through sandblasted ruins, underwater rivers, and stark, cliff-side climbs. The strange creatures that oppose you along the way are unique and varied in their attack strategies. That’s all the more true with the bosses, who feel organically placed in the story, rather than formulaic stops at the end of every stage. Like many games in this classic style, the items required for progression sometimes seem arbitrary and hard to find; this devotion to form is the worst that can be said about the otherwise steady pacing.

The game follows a familiar structure of exploration and unlocks. Players uncover new, ever-more devastating weapons and upgrades as they find hidden niches and locked buildings. Most of the weapons employ an unusual upgrade mechanic. They improve with pick-ups that can be collected from defeated enemies. If your character takes damage, not only will your health drop, but your weapon will be damaged as well, reducing it to an earlier state of advancement. As a consequence, there’s a constant upkeep required on your weapons. This endless process of equipment improvement encourages engagement with onscreen enemies, where in another game you might just skip right by them.

Cave Story has a retro look that could be a turn-off for some, but there’s a surprising sharpness and detailed beauty to the game world. A plethora of dangerous creatures never cease to surprise, visually striking backdrops abound, and hand-drawn character art brings the colorful personalities to life. Equally important to the presentation is the musical score – a fantastic and memorable selection of melodies that call to mind the catchiest game tunes of the 1980s. As an added bonus, both the original and updated scores are included.

Reinvigorated by the folks at Nicalis, Daisuke Amaya’s remarkable game is engrossing, challenging, and quite lengthy for a downloadable title. Beyond the updated presentation, long-time fans have several new modes to look forward to, including a timed boss attack run and a full campaign playthrough as one of the game’s other characters. Don’t be dissuaded by the simple throwback style – this game is deserving of a trip down memory lane, even if you’ve never walked this way before.