Shantae on Game Boy was an incredible technical feat in 2002. The Game Boy Advance was already out, but Wayforward stuck to their guns and made the best GBC game possible, working so hard to make it one of the best looking games on the system. Unfortunately while the gameplay had some neat ideas, it felt like it wasn’t as exciting as it could be. It’s well designed and I understand why people like it, but I personally never really felt inspired by it, and the movement is very basic to the point where it’s not that enjoyable to play. It made an interesting one-time playthrough at the very least and established the character. Fast forward a decade, and Shantae has been set free from technical limitations with the release of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse on 3DS and Wii U. Sporting a glorious pixelated style in 3D and on the big screen, the game takes Shantae’s wildest wishes and makes them come true. I’ve just played through the Wii U version and it’s absolutely fucking amazing. The music, controls, gameplay design, structure, presentation are all excellent and everything has suddenly clicked in a brilliant way. It’s significant. I’d liken the improvement here to the jump between Metroid and Super Metroid. Great foundations were already in place, but now it’s a lot more fun to play. This is a top-tier videogame, and I felt that the second I started controlling Shantae.
The controls are liberating and Shantae is so excited to show off what she can do on Wii U. B is jump and X whips her hair for an attack. She moves left and right in a flash with the dpad or analog stick, and this is only worth saying because everything is executed so quickly. To put the movement into context, Shantae is so responsive that you can move left, right, then left while falling from a regular jump. There is so much room for adjustment despite it being so fast. This strikes an awesome balance where Shantae is extremely flexible without the game being too easy or lacking momentum. It’s not like Super Meat Boy or many Indie platformers where you’re basically dragging a dot around with no gravity; more like Samus without her suit. The finely tuned controls make the entire game enjoyable and it only gets better as you unlock more abilities, including a gun for long distance attacks, giant Pirate hat for hovering, Scimitar for ground pounding and a few custom moves like backdashing and kicking.
The music is fucking outstanding. This is another thing you notice STRAIGHT AWAY when playing this game because every damn track is exciting. Jake Kaufman has made a name for himself composing for other Wayforward games such as Mighty Switch Force 1 and 2, Ducktales Remastered, and recently working with Yacht Club Games on the brilliant Shovel Knight. He’s a talent and a half. In Shantae the music embraces the Arabian setting with an over-the-top classic videogame approach, and the result is some kind of Egyptian dubstep fusion. The Scuttle Town theme is a great example of this. The other tracks take on their own flavour depending on the environment, but there’s a consistent bouncy theme throughout the game. The explosive quality of the soundtrack is something that has become a bit uncommon in games today, and Shantae’s approach is closer to games like Sonic 1 and 2 in its ambition. The compositions are so fast and busy that when they stop, you really notice the “quiet”. There are some areas in the game that hit me with feels when the mood changed, because it’s such a contrast. Sound effects also carry this quality with some real exaggerated noises, I really enjoy the explosion sound effect in particular.
The graphics are an interesting choice. Last year when I first saw this game I groaned, I have to be honest. It looked like another lazy port like Mighty Switch Force 2, where they simply grabbed the 3DS version and pasted it in. That game was such a disappointment on Wii U after how much effort they put into Mighty Switch Force HD. I can’t comment on the 3DS version of Shantae since I only have it on Wii U, but this looks significantly improved from MSF2. There’s some effects going on that almost make it look like a painting. Backgrounds scroll in multiple layers, and the colour contrast is absolutely beautiful. Also impressive is the artistic detail, with everything animated in a lively way and backgrounds that really inspire the imagination. It’s a beautiful game in motion, and the perfect 60fps makes it look surreal at times. Just imagine a Mega Drive / SNES game that would have millions of things on screen and slow down to a crawl. Shantae just keeps going effortlessly and it just makes me happy to see this style unashamedly used to its potential without feeling the need to be HD just for the sake of it. It looks like a videogame and that’s the best thing I can say about anything.
The game is structured over 6 main islands with a dungeon inside each of them, and one main hub world in Scuttle Town. Even though you take an epic journey on a pirate ship to get to each island, it takes 5 seconds to get there so the pacing remains uninterrupted. As a result of this structure though, the game is segmented instead of being a completely open world like Metroid for example. The gameplay doesn’t suffer from it, but it makes collecting things and exploring a bit easier, and also removes a bit of creativity in the world design because suddenly you’re in a desert, then a forest, then a graveyard, simply based on the island theme. It’s just a really easy, no-nonsense way of changing the environment and the variety is still refreshing.
I found myself returning to Scuttle Town between islands just for fun. It’s not a huge place but the dialogue changes, and you can get new upgrades from the item shop and the squid smith, who turns 4 squid heart collectibles into an extra heart for Shantae (seen at the top left of the screenshots). The main town is super easy to explore and has its own secrets to find, while the places of interest are all right next to each other. The awesome music creates a good vibe and everyone in the town is happy and animated. There are builders hammering away, old people complaining, kids causing trouble, people passing through on adventures, it’s great. There’s also a palace and sewers to explore on the outskirts of the town, so in a sense Scuttle Town is its own 7th island in terms of gameplay.
Enemies offer a good deal of variety, not just in their visual design but attack patterns. Some jump at you, some shoot, some explode, sometimes a body part will fall off, but it’s always a good time. The game also has boss fights. They are well designed, amusing and fun to play, but they don’t really stretch your capabilities in terms of execution. I found it a pretty easy game overall but you can still die if you’re not sharp, especially later in the game where the enemies start to gang up on you. In terms of progression, there’s some backtracking to other islands but movement in the game is so quick it’s not a big deal, it just feels like the natural thing to do when you get new abilities. While you’re backtracking for a key item to advance the story, it’s a good opportunity to get collectibles you couldn’t get the first time through. The game is designed for this purpose and it’s pretty well mapped out. I got stuck for short periods of time trying to figure out where to go next, but the game always gives a hint for where the item might be whether it be a visual clue or specific dialogue. The item quests can be convoluted, for example getting a fossil to trade for a mask to enter a place, but I had fun trying to figure it all out.
The story is very bizarre, not just in the events that unfold but how it is told. Dialogue is generally comical and light-hearted, but there are some heavy plot points and hard hitting lines. There’s not much voice acting, just a few words and grunts here and there, and the text scrolls super fast if you just mash through it. You can also skip all text at once with the + button, so the game caters to people who are just there for the gameplay. Great for multiple playthroughs but I recommend reading the dialogue, I found it engaging enough to not skip a thing. Character art in this game is quite expressive and contributes to the unique flavour of Shantae. Designs are exaggerated in a “videogamey” way which I really enjoy, because it’s this approach that makes every element of this game so good. There’s suggestive outfits for Shantae and other girls and guys throughout the game. Some people might be aroused by it, some might write articles about why Shantae is sexist, but I just see them as cartoon characters and enjoy the novelty. I also have to praise this game for not being full of memes or references to other games. If I see one more Indie game with a Chozo Statue or Zelda pun I’m gonna delete that shit off my Wii U. Shantae has its own beautiful iconic world, and because it stands on its own, one day other shitty games will be referencing it. There’s a lot of self-aware humour and not all of it is brilliant, but the game doesn’t have an ego. I don’t personally find exaggerated cartoon humour funny, but it’s pleasant. And viscous.
Gotta stay fresh. If I had to express one negative about this game it’s just that I want more. More levels and challenge. The game isn’t short by any means, my first playthrough took over 10 hours and I haven’t done everything yet. I already have a dozen reasons to replay it just by how the game is designed. No nonsense, all gameplay. It’s beautiful. Aside from collecting everything there are bonuses for meeting certain speedrun conditions at the end similar to Metroid. The Wii U GamePad screen has a map and item screen you can scroll through in real-time, and because of this you never even need to pause the game. This makes it even more replayable than classic games just because of how streamlined it is. I noticed the significance of the GamePad screen when I had to use the Wii Classic Controller for the second half of the game (GamePad charger broke, long story). Shantae is perfectly playable with the Classic or Pro, but it felt like I went back 10 years. Not complaining, just trying to emphasise how cool the GamePad is because it’s easy to take for granted. This game as a whole is just so damn streamlined and in-your-face I could see myself doing an entire playthrough of this game from start to finish on a whim.
The game is on sale now in North America so I felt motivated to get this review out and let everyone know it’s worth getting. It’s being speedrun at Summer Games Done Quick in a few hours (probably on Youtube by the time you read this) and I’m excited to check that out because games with great movement always make good speedgames. It was also in the worldwide “Nindie” sale recently and probably will be again, but honestly I think it’s just as worthy as any game for any price. That’s up to you. It has enough content and love put into it to shine above the average Indie platformer. With Wayforward’s impressive output and legacy, it’s hard to even call them an Indie developer, they’re just so talented and Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has raised the bar even further. It’s the best game they’ve made and now I’m really hyped for Shantae: Half Genie Hero which is coming to every platform sometime in the next year. It’s a great time to be a gamer.