From its charming presentation to its exquisite design, it is a victory for small developers, long-forgotten properties, and digital distribution
Thanks to the reduced costs and hassles of digital distribution, Shantae – a beloved franchise that had been lying dormant for almost a decade due to the commercial flop its acclaimed first effort ended up being – rose from the ashes with Risky’s Revenge. Four years later, to the delight of fans that had been around since the Gameboy Color days and also to those that had learned to love the purple-haired character through her second adventure, she returned with the spectacular Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, one of the best games available on the 3DS – whether physically or digitally – and a triumphant statement on how beneficial online-distribution platforms are to the industry as a whole and, especially, to gamers.
Shantae, the good-hearted half-genie tasked with protecting her hometown – Scuttle Town – from danger, is approached by her archenemy, Risky Boots, with an odd proposal to form an alliance. As it turns out, Risky’s crew has been hit by a sudden curse, one that she is quick to link to the reawakening of the evil Pirate Master, who – sensing the power of the genies that once sealed him away has been slowly fading – is mounting a counter-attack against the whole world and his former first mate, Risky herself.
Without her men and equipment, now mysteriously stolen, Risky turns to Shantae, who – in turn – gladly accepts to help out not only due to the peril hovering over all the land, but also because she believes there is goodness to be unlocked inside Risky’s heart.
For most games of the kind (sidescrolling action-platformers), a plot would be a minor element whose only purpose is to get the adventure going. With Shantae, however, things are considerably different. Unquestionably, the storyline is far from being the title’s most remarkable and important asset; at the same time, though, it adds a lot to the overall value of Pirate’s Curse thanks to one simple reason: the fact it serves as the trampoline from which the characters that inhabit this wonderful world jump towards greatness.
There are many factors that make the game stand out among other 2-D platformers, and one of them is how its characters are developed and valued. Shantae is irresistibly likable and adorable in her infinite will to aid people; Risky walks an interesting tightrope between semi-antagonist and troubled buddy; and the two of them are surrounded by a fantastic, big, and varied cast of friends, enemies, random comic reliefs, and – more interestingly – beings that alternate between being obstacles and helping hands.
All of that surprisingly intricate web of interactions exists supported by amazing dialogues that, besides the basic text-boxes, use large-sized, fully-expressive, and gorgeous sprites from the characters, a little detail that infuses a whole lot of heart and personality into the world of Shantae. The writing itself is impressive, reaching its peak on laughter-inducing exchanges whose lighthearted nature goes along perfectly with the title’s usual colorful vibe, which is occasionally smartly swapped for somber tones when the moment requires such darkness.
The originality of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, much like that of its predecessors, goes beyond its attention to character development. At first sight, the game looks like a traditional action-centered platformer of the mid-90s, a kind of game where difficulty comes from enemy placement and combat rather than from performing jumps and other precise maneuvers. To a certain point, such assumption would be correct, but the game offers far more than that, as it blends that noticeable influence with cues taken from two Nintendo classics: Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.
Touches of the former are seen on the structure of the world itself and on how the adventure progresses. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse takes place across six differently themed islands that are unlocked one-by-one. Within each, different connected action-platforming segments and environments need to be navigated as the half-genie tries to solve problems presented by the characters she comes across. Like it happens on a Metroid game, the clearing of those issues often entails backtracking through the scenarios, and sometimes to previously visited islands. However, given the overall scope of the title is far smaller than that of a Metroid game, the backtracking itself is, naturally, not as demanding.
As a brilliant touch, even though all islands feature that kind of progression and structure, all of them have exclusive and inventive quirks. In one, for example, Shantae will have to pull off some serious stealth moves after being imprisoned due to a hilarious misunderstanding; another piece of land is infested with enemies to the brim, putting a heavy focus on combat; and on a different island, she will have to defenselessly carry a friend through a wild obstacle course of traps and foes.
The goal on each of the islands is to track down a Den of Evil, where a portion of the Pirate Master’s power must be found and destroyed; inside those labyrinths, echoes of The Legend of Zelda are blatantly heard. When in those dungeons, the game smartly replaces the action-focused gameplay of its overworld for puzzle-solving challenges that frequently include traditional platforming elements, offering gamers a very pleasant change of pace.
If outside Shantae will spend most of her time using her hair as a whip to beat well-designed enemies while avoiding numerous creative attacks, inside the Dens of Evil she will have to execute accurate jumps, risky moves through tight spaces, and other tricks that will put players’ skills to the test.
True to the Zelda tradition, all mazes have plenty of locked doors that will require a good deal of exploration; a new piece of equipment, such as a pistol for shooting distant objects or a hat to help Shantae hover, that will be extremely useful to overcome the riddles imposed by the dungeon; and a clever boss battle that, in most cases, will pose a considerable threat.
As it happens on a Metroid title, as Shantae’s arsenal of moves grows, the character will be able to reach previously inaccessible locations. While some of those will be mandatory to beating the game, others hide extra elements such as Heart Squids – whose total of thirty-two can give the half-genie eight new units of health; and Cacklebats, the cursed members of Risky Boots’ crew that must be defeated so that the dark magic that now controls their bodies can be harvested.
In average, beating Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse will take eight hours, a length that suits its asking price. However, those who are looking for more will find it. The search for the aforementioned collectibles, not to mention the purchase of upgrades for the heroine’s pieces of equipment and attacks, can extend the whole experience past the twelve-hour mark. Moreover, different endings and a Pirate Mode, where speed-running is supported by having Shantae fully equipped from the get go, serve as plenty of incentive for extra playthroughs.
The care that was devoted towards the title’s gameplay and content is also clearly perceived on its technical aspects. For starters, the character controls like a dream and the physics are flawless. Besides that, the game’s graphics and music are wondrous works of art that pay homage to the 16-bit era without feeling locked in the past, a quality that is clearly perceived on sensible visual effects that lend impressive resonance to The Pirate’s Curse artistic values.
Aside from a few points on which the game’s generally pleasant difficulty takes a turn towards the frustrating; rare miscues in checkpoint placement; and punctual occasions when the backtracking is a bit tedious, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse flirts with sidescrolling perfection. From its overwhelmingly charming presentation to its easy-to-love characters and exquisite design, it is a victory for small developers, long-forgotten properties, and digital distribution. Without the latter, many might have never discovered the wonders of the Shantae franchise and the world might have never known the wonders of The Pirate’s Curse; what a terrible loss it would have been for us gamers.