Back in 2002, a little development house known as WayForward released a little title on the Game Boy Color that became a surprise critical success, a sleeper hit, or a cult favorite. Take you pick; they all apply. That little title was Shantae, a platformer title starring an original character created by WayForward alumnus Matt Bozon and his wife: a purple haired, belly dancing, pirate butt kicking genie girl named Shantae. Shantae's quest was a simple one: save her homeland of Sequin Land from the evil Lady Pirate, Risky Boots, and her army of Tinkerbats, before they unleash the potentially deadly powers of a steam engine created by Shantae's mentor and uncle, Mimic. Everyone was charmed by Shantae's sashaying, swaying dances, her fierce determination, and the wonderful gameplay, graphics, and music. Unfortunately, publisher Capcom didn't think so much of it, and as the game was a late release, coming to market after the much more advanced Game Boy Advance had already come to market, not many people got to experience the wonders of Sequin Land, or all of its charming, slightly kooky residents. Luckily, WayForward wasn't one to let Shantae just sit around on her laurels, and in 2010, she was off on another adventure in Shantae: Risky's Revenge. Released as a Nintendo DsiWare exclusive, Risky's Revenge took the original game and built upon it tenfold: the world was much larger, Shantae's moves were much improved, and the characters had even more depth and charm.
Now, four years after Risky's Revenge, WayForward has given our favorite genie girl a third go through Sequin Land. And as it's always said, third time is TRULY the charm!
So, as I have mentioned, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is the third game in the Shantae series. Developers WayForward have enlisted Japanese software house Inti Creates (Mega Man Zero, Azure Striker Gunvolt, Mega Man 9, etc.) to assist them in building what has become the biggest, grandest adventure that Shantae has ever undertaken. Inti Creates assisted in character portraits, and unlike previous games, characters now have a great deal many more expressions conveyed during conversations. From Shantae gasping in horror or flinching at freezing temperatures, to Risky's evil grin, or to Rottytops' flirtatious poses to everyone, the portraits bring the characters to life in ways even the previous titles haven't.
The plot of the story picks up from the ending of Risky's Revenge, where Shantae's magic powers have manifested into an evil counterpart known as Nega-Shantae, forcing Shantae to destroy her magic to save Sequin Land. Time has passed, and Shantae is forced to live life as a regular human girl. That is, until Risky Boots suddenly shows up and ropes Shantae into a quest to help her find out why her Tinkerbats have been going berserk. The two must form an uneasy truce to find out what dark magic is affecting Risky's crew, while going on a quest to stop Risky's old master, the Pirate Master, who is awakening in his grave and has the power to destroy all of Sequin Land.
The quest takes place across several islands of Sequin Land. Scuttle Town and its outlying areas serve as a main hub of sorts, where Shantae can visit shops to buy items, visit her friend Sky for advice, or run small fetch quests for residents (e.g. find zombie candies for Bolo to calm a group of zombie kids he's babysitting). There is a huge and diverse cast of characters this time around, and every single character, even those who would seem to be the most bit parts, are all bursting with personality and charm. The other islands are the obligatory themed islands (tropical, desert, forest), but even so are beautiful, detailed, lush, and full of little secrets, and tons of people to meet and greet everywhere. As mentioned, WayForward has gone the Metroidvania route in full with Pirate's Curse, and each island has its own map, rife with secrets, for Shantae to explore. None of the island maps are particularly huge, but the dungeons on each island are pretty sprawling. Most secrets are hidden or inaccessible until Shantae gains additional powers, which she gains from finding Risky's equipment in each island's main dungeon. There's the pistol, which allows Shantae to hit distant switches; the Boots, which allow Shantae to perform a dashing maneuver; the Cannon, which allows Shantae additional lift to her jumps; the Hat, which allows her to float on air currents or cross larger gaps; and finally the Scimitar, which allows Shantae to rip through enemies during a dash. Shantae also has a Genie Lamp, which can suck up jewels and items dropped by nearby enemies, and a backdash maneuver that allows her to quickly evade attacks. Although her dancing abilities are no longer available, Risky's equipment more than makes up for the loss. As a wonderful plus, and proving the care and thought WF put into the game, the controls for everything are laid out in a very logical, easy to pick up fashion, with no weird button combinations or unused buttons.
Continuing on gameplay, there are Heart Squids scattered throughout the islands, which allow Shantae to raise her maximum health by one heart for every four she collects, a la the Heart Container Pieces in a Legend of Zelda game. However, she isn't granted a heart immediately, but must instead take them to the Squidsmith in Scuttle Town, who will convert the Squids for her. While it may seem like backtracking would break the flow of the game, do bear in mind that Metroid, which was the biggest inspiration for the gameplay here, does similar, so these complaints are negligible. It is, however, worth it to see the hilarious animation of the Squidsmith smashing an entire stack of Squids into a heart with a mallet that's more than twice as big as she is! Aside from Heart Squids, Shantae has a plethora of usable items at her disposal, ranging from healing items to attack power-ups and the classic Pike Balls for defense. The most important items to be on the search for are Risky's Tinkerbats, which are mutated into hideous Cacklebats due to an influx of dark magic. There are 20 altogether, and you'll need to find and defeat them all in order to see the real final boss and the true ending. Overall, however, the difficulty is never too hard nor too easy, but if there is one small issue, it's with a couple of the major bosses being just too easy to beat. However, the game does make up for it overall with a very tough (but not overly frustrating) final dungeon and final boss. Yet even the bosses cannot detract from the overall challenge, and most players should be able to complete the quest in about 8 to 10 hours. There is a New Game Plus mode of sorts, where you can begin the game with all of Risky's equipment, but this also makes the game laughably easy in the beginning. Still, NG+ is there for fun more than anything else.
Presentation-wise, WayForward has truly outdone itself here. Using the newfound power of the 3DS, Sequin Land and its inhabitants come alive in a world of deliciously lush colors, beautiful backdrops, and a major abundance of details. Animations are super silky smooth; even the tiniest of details comes to life in utterly gorgeous pixel art laden with tons of frames. Backdrops are crammed with detail, pop with tons of colors, and make you feel as if you were watching a top quality animated show. But as mentioned earlier, it's the character portraits that show some of the best qualities of the artwork. Inti Creates' lovingly detailed portraits mesh perfectly with the rest of the aesthetics, and building upon the portraits from Risky's Revenge, add a ton more facial expressions and emotions to the main characters. During conversations, Shantae shows confidence, fear, anger, joy, and sadness; likewise for many of her friends. With the 3D effects of the 3DS enabled, the portraits appear to be 3D themselves; the illusion is astounding! On the flip side of the coin, parents who may show concern for certain aspects should know what while none of the artwork is overtly sexual in nature, neither WayForward nor Inti Creates shy away from drawing female bodies with cleavage galore or shapeliness to their assets, but like I mentioned, it's nothing pervy or overblown. Fear not.
Now, how about audio, you ask? Have no fear! The soundtrack, composed once again by Jake Kaufman, is perhaps his strongest Shantae work yet! Every island gets its own theme, and of course, the famous Scuttle Town, boss battle, and victory stages all make a return, now beefed up and pumping through the 3DS's stronger audio hardware. Some familiar tracks from earlier games make a return appearance; as examples, Sky's theme is a remix of the original Water Town theme from the first game, but played as a more relaxing, slightly jazzier piece that fits her personality to a T. Rottytops, Shantae's zombie friend, has a more sultry sounding track that just underlines her sassy attitude and untrustworthy ways, but has basically been there from the beginning. Every island has its own unique track, of course, and not one bad track exists among the bunch. Even one-off tracks rock; one example is the heroic fanfare that plays when one of the minor characters, Bran-Son, transforms into a superhero a la He Man. The track is bombastic and slightly over the top, but Bran-Son's hamminess is just golden for it. The overall composition and style feels like a CD based game circa 1995-1996, but it lends itself well to the retro vibe of the game and complements it, rather than detracts from it. Sound effects are just as excellent, and for the first time, Shantae has spoken dialogue! Although limited to some yells, item usage (“Super Pike Ball!” “Monster Milk!”), and saying of character's names, Shantae's voice actress delivers her voice with just the right touch of naivety mixed with can-do attitude. The only other character with any kind of vocal delivery is Risky Boots, although limited to a bit of laughter. It's a bit of a shame that more vocals weren't recorded for the rest of the characters, but I suppose it was due to a limitation of space or time constraints over anything else. Still, we do have a sequel to look forward to, so perhaps we'll get our wish!
Okay, I think I've rambled enough. Overall, platforming fans owe it to themselves to purchase Shantae and the Pirate's Curse. This is very much the pinnacle of the series so far, and has been one of the best purchases I have made on the eShop. There are no major differences between the 3DS and Wii U versions; the Wii U version uses higher resolution portraits for dialogue than the 3DS version, but that's about it. Either way, it's well worth the $15 asking price, and before you know it, you'll be sashaying and belly dancing your way through Sequin Land with the biggest of smiles on your face.
Until the sequel comes out, that is…
About the Author
Robert Menes is one of the hosts of The Nostalgia Road Trip podcast (https://soundcloud.com/nostalgiaroadtrip), as well as a writer, hacker, photographer, and lover of video games, music, and beer. He also spends too much time on Twitter; find him @LambdaCalculus!