Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the best Shantae game yet. For a select few of you out there, that’s all you need to know. Shantae games are notorious for flying under the radar, though, and I suspect many people need a little more introduction than that. So, let’s start with a little background.
Shantae is the protagonist of a series of Metroid-esque side-scrolling action adventure games. The original game on Game Boy Color looked just fantastic on the ageing hardware and was far more ambitious than most Game Boy fare. That first game established genre identity and an emphasis on outstanding sprite work for the franchise, but suffered from being frequently aimless and entirely more difficult than it needed to be. Particularly noteworthy in this first game was the variety of animals the player could transform into to augment both fighting and exploration abilities.
Many years later, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge released on Nintendo DSiWare. This game shortened the needlessly grueling expanses of the original game and expanded on the narrative component of the franchise. It was nothing earth-shattering, but this is the game that nailed down a lighthearted and pleasantly cheesy tone for the series. Unfortunately, likely due to the limitations of DSiWare, this game was extremely short. For all that it was well crafted, it was so condensed that the experience of transforming into different animals, backtracking, and looking for secrets never really got going before it all wrapped up.
This brings us to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. This third game draws from the strengths of both its predecessors. The beautiful sprite work is there, the difficulty is reasonable, recurring characters continue to be updated, and there’s more content even than in the first game. If this was all Shantae 3, was I would probably be satisfied. There’s something to be said for taking something flawed and fixing it so it works the way it always should have—but Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is so much more than that.
First of all, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has all new powerups. That may not sound like a big deal, but it really is. This series looked to be on track to follow Metroid’s example of having a stable of powerups that would be tweaked and rebalanced from game to game, but would essentially serve the same purpose. That’s all out the window now. No more transformations. No more monkey, no more rhino, no more belly dancing. Instead, the player picks up various pieces of pirating gear that grant entirely different powers throughout the game.
The level structure has also been overhauled in a similar fashion. The single large map of games past has been replaced by a double handful of smaller self-contained islands. This ends up benefitting the game hugely. Can’t figure out how to move forward? Well, you know the solution is on this island somewhere and if there are only twenty rooms on the island then eventually you’ll just figure out the solution by process of elimination. Wandering aimlessly is cut to a minimum. This also makes the backtracking and secret hunting part of the game more approachable. Every island has the number and type of collectibles hidden there listed clearly so you know when you’re done. It doesn’t detract from the pleasure of finding a secret, it just eliminates the dead time looking for secrets that don’t exist.
Finally, let me single out the graphics for special mention. I don’t normally value graphics all that highly, but this is a game that really is made much more enjoyable for looking at it. Wayforward has filled these games with best-in-class sprites since the beginning, but not only is this game the developer’s best effort yet but everything is hugely improved by turning up the 3D slider. I’ve always found the best use of stereoscopic 3D is in layering beautiful 2D assets and this game pushes that effect for all it’s worth.
There really isn’t that much to complain about in Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. It fixes the problems from past games, combines their strengths, and then adds a heap of its own new ideas besides. I had a blast playing it.
Food for thought:
1. No, you don’t need to have played the first two Shantae games to enjoy Shantae 3. I recommend both wholeheartedly, but if you jump in to this game first all you’re missing out on are some callback jokes and the significance of a secret or two.
2. I miss the dive kick from Shantae 1. There actually wasn’t all that much use for it, but it was fun to use. On that note, I also kind of miss the giant screen filling sprites from that original game, too. I understand why the view has been zoomed out—the new games are way more playable and deaths from offscreen enemies are all but eliminated. That said, I can’t even imagine what this game would look like with sprite tech this good but everything zoomed in like it used to be.
3. Yes, there’s definitely an element of cheesecake to the world of Sequin Land and the buxom beauties that live there. I don’t have an issue with it and actually think it’s an example of how to employ this stuff harmlessly, but when the game conjured up a silly reason to dress all the girls in Princess Leia-style metal bikinis I couldn’t help but wince—especially when you consider that a separate 3D layer is dedicated to breasts in the character portraits. What incredibly unlucky timing to put this in a game. Here’s hoping the franchise can, at least this once more, fly under the radar.