Cavern of Dreams is the Nintendo 64 game you never knew existed, and that’s because it didn’t – it’s an upcoming indie 3D platformer from solo developer Bynine Studio. But more so than maybe any other game in the burgeoning genre of throwbacks to the late ’90s, Cavern of Dreams feels like the kind of thing that I would’ve rented from a Blockbuster Video and spent the entire weekend scouring every corner of its colorful world in search of countless collectible tchotchkes and wingdings.
The game’s Steam Next Fest demo immediately tosses you into its central hub with the simple goal of finding various eggs scattered about the world that house your siblings. You play as a dragon with a satisfying suite of familiar abilities that grew over the course of the demo – the tail swipe felt like Crash Bandicoot’s swing, the momentary glide reminded me of Spyro’s hangtime, the ability to turn into a ball and quickly roll across the environment had shades of Yooka-Laylee, and there was even a set of collectible boots that give you Wile E. Coyote time after walking off a ledge like the Hover Boots in Ocarina of Time.
While these mechanics pull from various games across different platforms and eras, Cavern of Dreams’ music and visuals are clearly rooted in the Nintendo 64’s aesthetics, particularly the aforementioned Banjo-Kazooie. The first level, Losteaf Lake, is bathed in autumnal oranges, reds, and yellows, while the score leans heavily into the familiar rhythmic xylophones of Rare’s ‘90s classics. And while you can play the game with clean HD visuals, I preferred to use the blurred filter that made it look even more like I was parked in front of a chunky CRT TV in my childhood bedroom. The game absolutely nails the look it’s going for, but I also appreciated some modern quality-of-life additions, like being able to freely control the camera using the right analogue stick, as opposed to constantly battling with the four C buttons of the N64’s controller.
Interestingly enough, there are no enemies to speak of in the game. Instead, the challenges in Cavern of Dreams were all rooted in exploration, platforming, and puzzle-solving. The brief air glide meant that I always felt like I was in full control of my dragon, even when hopping precariously between narrow ledges. Various trees scattered about the map produced fruits that I could carry around, toss on any flat surface, and watch as a small stalk grew that allowed me to reach new heights. And one particularly fun area housed a grove of trees, each one painted with a different pattern, with three of them corresponding to three large koi fish that swam in a nearby pond. I had to bonk the three trees that represented the three fish in order to secure that area’s egg.
The thing I appreciated most about the game’s design was how accommodating it was to my curiosity. Poking around corners, scouring the bottom of a pond, trying to get the most out of my glides, and experimenting with those aforementioned fruits almost always yielded some reward or access to a new area. And I loved the way various challenges would fold back and speak to one another, like when I met a depressed turtle who had lost his fish food, only to find another box of it at the end of a separate platforming puzzle halfway across the level. When I returned the box to him, he thanked me by feeding the fish in the pond, which created platforms for me to hop across the water and carry a fruit that I could use to create another stalk that got me access to another new area. That sort of interlinking design brought me back to Banjo-Kazooie’s Treasure Trove Cove in a really great way.
Cavern of Dreams is being created by the solo developer Tyler McMaster, who works under the aforementioned Bynine Studio. And while it understandably doesn’t have the same level of budget or polish as some of its indie contemporaries like Yooka-Laylee and Super Lucky’s Tale, the love and reverence for the Nintendo 64 era of gaming is clearly on display here, and I’m really looking forward to exploring more of its nostalgic world down the line.