Originally released on WiiU and 3Ds in 2014, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the third in a series of games that originated from the simply-titled Shantae on Gameboy Color back in 2002.
Following the adventures of the titular half-genie Shantae, the games are rather charming side-scrolling platform adventures – a definite throwback to classic platformers from the Mega Drive and SNES days.
Whilst personally I’m surprised anybody still owned a Gameboy Color as late as 2002, somehow Shantae proved to be a popular wee genie, spawning (so far) two sequels, with both the 2010 Shantae: Risky‘s Revenge and now Pirate’s Curse receiving excellent critical acclaim. In fact, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse even ended up in the Top 10 fan-chosen games from Club Nintendo’s 2014 survey. And it doesn’t even star Mario, Luigi or Link. Whilst I can uphold that the game does have a certain undeniable charm, I unfortunately can’t bestow it with quite the same glowing recommendation as many others have done.
Perhaps to hold some consistency from the original Gameboy title, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a 16-bit retro throwback; hello blocky pixels! It’s a shame, because the design is really nice and well thought-out, with different locations having completely different themes and atmospheres. Character and enemy design has had a lot of work put into it too, with enemies being varied and interesting. It’s unfortunate then that we don’t get to see any of this careful design in crisp animation; instead we’re left to squint at pixellated graphics pulled straight from the 90s. The only exception to this is in cutscenes or overlaid conversations where we’re treated to wonderfully vibrant hand-drawn animations of characters. It’s a personal preference; lots of people don’t have a problem with the recent resurgence of retro-styled games but I feel that a crisp 2D animation would have made the experience that much more enchanting.
Looking past the visuals of the game however, it’s plain to see that Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a deep and instantly inviting adventure. More than just a basic platform game, it contains elements of a Metroidvania title as you solve puzzles, collect items and upgrade your skills along the way. You start the game in the hub of Scuttle Town, a place you’ll frequently revisit to restock at the shop, upgrade your skills and health, as well as propel the story forward. Your progress is measured by visiting a series of islands, each with their own unique theme, different enemies, and new puzzles to solve, as well as a “dungeon” punctuated with a boss. Although getting stuck straight into the gameplay is clearly what the game intends you to do, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse doesn’t shy away from story, with your journey being bolstered by various cutscenes and conversations, altogether making for a pleasant experience.
Shantae proudly channels the spirit of a beloved 90s platformer, but unfortunately with that comes a whole host of problems; the least of all being the difficulty level. That’s right, despite its colourful and endearing exterior, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is no walk in the park. You’ll die, die and die again. Enemies are relentless, and just like days of old, will instantly respawn should you go off screen, meaning no matter how many enemies you kill, your path is never safe. You need ninja-like reflexes and saintly amounts of patience to get very far with Shantae in one sitting, and the issue compounded further by the lack of autosave. WayForward (whose name seems rather ironic to me at this moment) decided that if they’re going to go retro, they may as well go all retro, so gone is the now-taken-for-granted autosave feature, replaced with periodic save points. They’re not particularly generous either. You’ll have to get through some pretty gruelling areas in one try, otherwise you’re going to be retreading the same areas again and again. Personally, I’ve got very little patience for retrying. Contrary to the popular adage, my motto is more like, “if at first you don’t succeed… quit.”
I shouldn’t be so hard on the game; there’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but sometimes it feels like Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse wants you to fail. I don’t want a game to hold my hand, but I like to feel like it’s on my side, not conspiring against me by laying the screen so full of projectile-firing enemies that there’s no possible way to get past without losing my one precious remaining heart, or by not giving me any direction as to where I need to go next. Through playing Pirate’s Curse I’ve had to look up what to do more times than I should admit; you’d think it was a ridiculously obscure point and click game by looking at my search engine history. The addition of the odd puzzle and adventure element is a welcome deviation from the typical platformer trope, but sometimes your progression is hindered by the game just not being clear enough about where it wants you to go next.
Despite my gripes and bemoans of the game though, I can’t help but admit that I enjoyed my time with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Sure, I may have swore a few too many times after dying repeatedly in the same place, but really, I enjoyed the challenge. There are few too many good platform games on current generation consoles, and Shantae makes a very welcome addition that all fans of the classic platformer genre are sure to love. Just make sure you’ve got some extra patience and skill on hand, because you’re going to need it.