Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse Review
There’s a certain kind of person who, upon reading the title of this game, will have one question spring to mind. That question is not ‘what sort of game is it?’, ‘I wonder if it’s any good?’, or even ‘I wonder if the use of seven syllables in the title, with seven traditionally being thought of as a lucky number in superstitious circles, was done in a carefully self-aware manner of irony, given the curse in the title?’. I mean come on, we’re all asking ourselves that last one, aren’t we? No, the person I’m thinking of is asking themselves ‘Is that apostrophe being used to indicate that a pirate has had a curse inflicted upon them, or that a pirate has inflicted a curse upon somebody else?’.
A fascinating question indeed, but not one that the game makes it easy to answer. This is the third entry in the Shantae series, the first being released way back in 2002 on something that our ancestors called a ‘Game Boy Color’. The eponymous Shantae is half-genie (perhaps best not to enquire after the wish which led to this turn of events), and the first two games saw her face off against a pirate by the name of – I kid you not, folks – Risky Boots and her band of pirates. In this third game, however, Risky is forced into a reluctant alliance with Shantae in order to prevent her old captain (the Pirate Master) from becoming less dead than he currently is. This mostly-dead pirate has somehow been able to cast a curse onto Risky’s crew in his bid for power, however. So you see the dilemma. The curse is one inflicted both by and on a pirate. Yet if the title were meant to refer to a curse being suffered, then surely it would be “pirates’ curse”? You can’t be sure. Some people will agonise over this for years, taking the pain of uncertainty to the grave. Such is the curse of the pedant.
Looking at screenshots or footage, it would be easy to mistake this for a nineties platformer. Not in the way that an unstoppable deluge of indie games remain determined to use pixelated graphics because they think it’s cool or something; this emulates the games of days gone by down to the finest detail. That’s WayForward’s speciality, you see, producing games which play or play and look like much older games (but in a good way). If you only know the company from one game, it’s probably DuckTales Remastered, a rare example of them polishing somebody else’s work. Here, in the continuation of their only series, their expertise in emulating classic game graphics is plain to see. Environment and character designs are just what you’d expect from the best SNES and Megadrive games, complete with animations full of personality. Even the use of colour is spot-on, and everything is backed up with an excellent soundtrack from Jake “Virt” Kaufman.
Gameplay too harks back to the days of yore, though isn’t so unforgiving as games used to be (kids today don’t know how easy they have it, Dark Souls is a breeze compared to Super Mario Brothers, don’t know they’re born, etc.). As previously mentioned, it’s a platformer. No jumping on heads, though. Shantae’s primary weapon is, er, her ponytail. By getting in close, she can whip her hair to deal damage to evildoers. Before too long, she gets her hands on a gun; but this is (oddly) much weaker than her hairdo, and is best saved for triggering distant switches. The gun can be upgraded though, and so can Shantae’s hair. Shampoo makes it stronger, and ‘hair cream’ allows her to whip faster. So there you go.
There’s a touch of Metroidvania to the experience, too. The game is spread across a series of stages in the form of islands, with a handful of abilities (including nineties favourites such as gliding through the air and a double-jump) slowly unlocked as you progress. See where this is going? Yup; you’ll sometimes come across an area or platform that you can’t access until you have an item from later in the game. You’ll be back later, to grab something else that lets you progress in the island you nabbed the new item in.
No autosaves here, laddie/lassie. There’s an old chap you meet now and again who can save your game for you, and I suggest that you take every opportunity to let him. There’s a generous amount of health and protection pickups to be had from fallen enemies, but you better remember to use them when needed – when you die, you lose all progress since your last save. You have been warned.
If you have warm memories of 16 bit platformers, then Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is pretty much the perfect game for you. You can pretend that you’ve discovered a SNES game you never knew existed (although the super-high-res illustrations for dialogue shatter the illusion somewhat). If you have no such memories, then giving this a try is an excellent way of understanding why other people do.
Review by Luke Kemp