Shantae is kind of like a Saturday morning cartoon, you always return to familiar characters up to similar antics and you always roughly know what to expect from the plot. Except in the case of Shantae this show tends to come on every several years with completely different art styles each time. Despite erratic sequels and platform jumps Shantae manages to age gracefully, this may even be the benefit it has over more continuous game series’ where you’re to expect at least one new addition every year or two, it gets to explore its formula without growing stale.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse developed for the 3DS, brain child of Mike and Erin Bozon and headed by WayForward Technologies is most adequately described as a 2D platformer, though it shares dungeon plunging elements with the likes of the Legend of Zelda and item based puzzles you’d typically encounter in Metroidvanias. Having lost her half-genie powers in the previous installment, Shantae is left entirely human with only her staple lethal hair whips to protect her. As you traverse the game’s levels and dive into the five dungeons, Shantae will gain access to some cursed pirate gear that more than adequately makes up for the lack of her transformational dances and magic.
The game more or less picks up where Risky’s Revenge left off. Slightly naive but always optimistic belly dancer Shantae is having a bit of a bad day, stripped of her half-genie powers she starts the game placed under house arrest for what she believed to be rather heroic actions. Making things worse there’s now an ancient pirate’s curse on the loose that she has to try and bring under control. This time the game’s long term antagonist, Risky Boots (think Ganondorf or Wily if you’re new to the series) temporarily teams up with Shantae for their pirating adventures. All this really means is using a ship to select different islands instead of the old town navigation maps, and Risky giving the player a bit of background on the pirate’s curse as you visit each new level.
Now even though Shantae is a building narrative, its plot is simple enough you can pick up this title as a fresh face to the series and quickly get the hang of the on goings of Shantae, Risky, and cast. The writing is simple and that’s in no way a bad thing, liberally sprinkled with humor, intentionally bad puns and fourth wall breaking moments to keep the overall tone lighthearted, and at times surprisingly touching. With some intentional sexual innuendos and cartoon violence I’d say this game lands more in the PG-13 range.
The game’s platforming starts easy enough but there’s a steep learning curve as to the level of difficulty this game has. It definitely floats closer to the old school than the newer, somewhat more timid conventions. This should be expected as Shantae is both a title born and continued in that era, and the new studio partnered up with WayForward on this outing is Inti Creates, responsible for the Megaman Zero and ZX titles. Though later levels in the game can be incredibly challenging, there’s nothing so insanely difficult that it feels close to impossible, really some of the latter platforming areas just require you to slow down, take a deep breath and not overthink things to clear them.
At 10 hours this game won’t keep you busy for long if you intend a straight run through, but the way the game is set up is perfect for travelling excursions. Each island in the game is usually split up into three sections, a basic platforming section that usually requires you to resolve some quest related puzzle, a second more action oriented part of the island to challenge those platforming skills, and finally the island’s dungeon or “Den of Evil” where you’ll have to systematically solve puzzles, get a new piece of pirate swag and use it to defeat the dungeon’s boss. Broken up in this way means you can easily take care of each section of the map on your morning train ride to work or a nice drive out to the countryside… Ideally if you’re not the one driving.
In fact the game makes great use of the 3DS’ many advantages. Levels really pop out when the 3D is turned on, character portraits also have some nice dimensions. The bottom touch screen is where you can keep track of your key items, expendable inventory and level maps, so gone are the days of having to jump into an inventory screen to manage everything. Double tapping expendable items allows you to use them, while Shantae’s pirate gear and purchasable techniques makes solid use of the 3DS’ button layout. In addition to being incredibly vibrant and pretty, the game sports some pretty great music tracks to usher you through each stage. Once you’ve cleared the game there’s also a new game + option called “Pirate Mode” that allows Shantae to start with all of her dungeon earned items, ensuring some faster runs and easier collection of the game’s many goodies, namely HP boosting heart squids and dark magic holding Cacklebats (collecting all 20 pieces of dark magic is the only way to get the game’s “true” ending).
A couple of levels in Shantae are sure to mix things up. There’s one race against time involving a zombie with a dry sense of humor named Rottytops, who should be familiar to anyone who played the original Shantae. Yet another section involves a bit of stealth, and while that normally sends shivers up the spine it’s pretty easily doable in this game once you learn the rules. There are also a ton of quests that will see you return to the game’s central hub of Scuttle Town, though sadly none of them seem to be optional and all of them are tied back to completing the main storyline, so you won’t get much in the way of extra goodies or story.
All in all Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a really well crafted game. Graphics, music, gameplay and humor all blend to create a really enjoyable experience and there’s nothing so off putting in this title as to actually deduct points from the all around solid experience. We sit in an age where studio made 2D platformers are increasingly rare, and while indie developers tend to offer a lot more in the genre, those tend to be more focused on executing quirky ideas rather than formulating an all around fine tuned experience. I feel Shantae is a great burst of life in the genre, and it makes me not excited only for the Pirate’s Curse but for the kickstarter backed Half-Genie Hero. Available on Nintendo’s eShop now for $19.99, I believe it’s a very good investment.