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Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Switch) artwork

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Switch) review

"Sometimes, conventions just aren't worth keeping"

What is it that makes the core of a game franchise? Shantae has overcome its humble Game Boy beginnings, developing a strong niche following and even getting represented in Smash Bros. It's a series about a half-genie who can use her magical powers to transform into animals in order to traverse a vast, interconnected world. Except for this one. And yet, despite (or because of) lacking some core mechanics, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is probably the best in the series.

But it's not every mechanic. To start with, all of the trademark Shantae charm and wit is still here. There's a lot of goofy dialogue, all expressed with large, expressive character portraits. Wayforward mischievously lampshades and subverts its story and videogame tropes with abandon (whether it be the giant squid having an existential crisis regarding his fate as a mid-level boss, or Shantae gleefully holding up her court summon as if it was an item). The story might be serious, Shantae might approach her job with absolute earnestness, but there's enough winking at the audience and silly gags that the tone is very light. It's a mix of childlike fairy tales with clever humor, and it works. Likewise, the atmosphere is suitably bright and gives a nice Saturday Morning Cartoon feel. Sure, the sprites are more pixellated than the more recent game, but the constant bouncing animation and cuteness everywhere means the overall look of the game is still great.

By the way, this atmosphere and humor isn't just window-dressing; it serves an important role for the game. See, the main structure is almost Zelda-like in its format, with an emphasis on fetch quests for progress. You know how it is: run an errand for one person to open up a new area where you need to find a key item to open up a new passage then go on another quest to open up the dungeon... This can get tedious, it can get rote, it can appear too mechanical and artificial to be fun. But when the path opens forward because of a silly turn of events, whether it be the unusual way to reflect light on a secret relic or the downright ridiculous sequence that must be done in order to clear a path through the desert, you don't notice the mechanics. The purpose of the humor and oddities are to hide the backtracking and fetching, and instead make you look forward to these events instead. You're always going to meet a new colorful character with a new monologue, so seeing Shantae's responses to them is just as much of a reward as the actual game progression. And it helps to hide the logic of the game, instead allowing it to flow in a natural way.

And what is the game? People call it a Metroidvania, but it's really not. Yes, it's a nonlinear sidescroller. Shantae jumps around and whips her hair to attack enemies as she seeks out the boss of each area. There are hidden powerups like extra health along with the obligatory required items. But, as I alluded to earlier, it's more like a side-scrolling Zelda than Metroid or Castlevania. Unlike previous Shantae games, you have distinct islands, not a complete winding maze. Each island has a couple discrete areas, which you can think of as the overworld and dungeon areas of Zelda games. And while there is backtracking to old locations, it's generally brief and not about opening up huge new areas like Metroid.

This Zelda-like progression really complements the game's strengths. Generally, this is meant to be more of a laid back, relaxing action platformer than a frustrating, challenging experience. Reducing the exploration to discrete chunks rather than a vast maze means that you never really get lost, and there's only a few possible areas where the next item is. It means you are constantly moving forward and making progress, and it's highly unlikely you'll get stuck for hours on end. This too is a change from the previous Shantae games, but a welcome one. It keeps the focus, less on being lost, but more on the action and platforming.

Your basic attack is to whip your hair at enemies (yes, it's weird, but it's Shantae, what do you expect?). This whip movement is extremely quick and responsive, allowing you to whack an enemy multiple times per second. Likewise, Shantae has a pretty expansive jump with enough in-air maneuverability to leap over all those baddies instead. Several enemies can soak up plenty of damage, but between the speed of your hair and the fact you can just jump over enemies means they are rarely frustrating. There's still a great sense of flow as you move through levels. Level design is a solid blend of platforming challenges, enemy gauntlets, and simple puzzles. And every once in a while, you'll come across one of the game's setpieces with different gameplay styles (a stealth bit or a challenging instadeath platforming segment or an extensive puzzle maze) to break things up.

But, being nonlinear, there's also your typical move upgrades to increase mobility and reach new areas and the like. In most Shantae titles, these are the animal transformations (like a monkey that climbs walls), but the plot of this game involves a half-genie who lost her genie powers. Instead, Shantae uses Risky technology, such as speed boots or a pirate hat that doubles as a paraglider. And it's amazing how this one small change makes the game so much better. The dancing mechanics forced the game to pause momentarily while you searched for the right animal form. It also meant that the animal formations were only useful for specific actions, and the moment to moment gameplay felt the same from the start of the game to the final boss.

But here? You pull out your hat any time you want while jumping, and it transitions smoothly. The hat is useful not only for reaching new areas, but also for bypassing enemies you don't feel like killing and thus making the backtracking or exploring feel faster and fresher. The boots start working naturally when you run, allowing traversal not unlike using Super Metroid's speed boost. Speaking of which, once you get the cannon, you can just bounce everywhere like the space jump. No transitions, no pausing, no nothing. The same feeling you get in Metroid games, of making the game itself more fun to move around in while unlocking new areas, is present here as well. Sure, jumping and whipping is fun in the beginning. But jumping, whipping, floating, bouncing, running, and all combinations thereof? It makes it worth reaching the end of the game just for that.

So again, what is it that makes the core of a game franchise? Shantae ditches the single map and the transformations, and it's a better game for it. This game's successor, Half-Genie Hero, keeps the discrete levels but returns to the transformations, so it seems Wayforward really does see that part at least as the core of Shantae. And yet, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse still has nonlinear elements and backtracking, but just more focused so that it doesn't overtake the game. There are still permanent powerups that give you new mobility options, but they are now easier to use and integrate more smoothly into the action. Meanwhile, the atmosphere, animation, charm, and humor are all still present. The moment to moment gameplay is still the same great, tight mix of action and platforming. Frankly, the changes to the "core" made the game better. It's unfortunate that the odd man out in the series just happens to be the best one, but perhaps Wayforward will continue to break their conventions in the future.

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Community review by mariner (February 06, 2019)

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CptRetroBlue posted February 06, 2019:

I've never tried any of her games although her image has been tossed here and there whenever I visited gaming sites. I might check the GB game at least.
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hastypixels posted February 06, 2019:

I happen to have played all three - I got the most recent not long after launch, and I'd agree that Pirate's Curse is the most free flowing of the lot. WayForward has turned out some quality product, but like most companies their consistency varies.

What you didn't mention, and one of the reasons I haven't reviewed these games is because the series doesn't reserve its innuendo, either, which I found troublesome for an "E for Everyone" game. Two girls bathing in giant salamander drool? Yeah, that's... classy...
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Masters posted February 07, 2019:

I don't think mariner ever checks his (her?) feedback topics. That said, I really liked this review -- especially the first half of it.

Retro: You'd do better to try the latest game, Half-Genie Hero, or this one, Pirate's Curse.

Hasty: Yeah, I always found that odd about this series. The games aren't difficult, and they're bright and colourful and silly -- perfect for kids right? And yet, there's this very obvious fan service thing going on. Who's the target audience? Is the idea that pervy dads can play with their kids and everyone is happy on some level? That just might be it, because the fan service isn't overt or offensive enough for kids to necessarily notice while they're happily platforming away... but it's just sexy enough for the horndogs.
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mariner posted February 08, 2019:

Heh, I didn't mention it because I didn't really care about it. Honestly, the whole thing is probably just as tongue-in-cheek as everything else about the plots of these games. I mean, they even lampshade it in this game. At one point, Shantae is talking to a He-Man parody, and says she's not a good role model because of the way she dresses. While talking to a He-Man parody. In a Speedo. I'm pretty sure the hypocrisy there was intentional.

Really, I assume Shantae was designed in a generic genie (Jeannie) outfit, Risky had a similar outfit because she's the evil counterpart, and they just kind of went with it from there. I don't think ANYTHING in these games should be taken seriously, fanservice included. So yeah, the fanservice is obvious, but I think it's in there more to add to the silliness (one of the girls is a rotting zombie!) than anything pervy. Or at least that's how I took it. In that sense it is designed for everyone: colorful enough for kids, but constant winking at the audience for the adults.

(And yeah, I do occasionally check back here. I just usually don't have the time and inclination to comment...)
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hastypixels posted February 08, 2019:

Glad to hear back from you, mariner. There's lampshading and then there's lampshading... the silly-sexiness is more... insistent and over the top (or rather less the top) than in Switch Force, but we're also witnessing the maturation of an artist - who if I'm not mistaken is French. Their attitude towards these hijinx is easily more relaxed than our own... and I'd say that's a dicey subject for parents all round.

These series have the set-it-down-with-the-kid(s)-and-forget-it babysitter vibe, and Mario at least on its surface doesn't challenge in this way. I got a chuckle out of the He-Man joke... having grown up with He-Man and She-Ra, it was a double standard we didn't know was happening. No one cared - we was just another muscle-y hero.

Simply put, there's a risk to objectifying anyone, even if its for a laugh. Something for players to be aware of... if they aren't already drooling. The rule is better aware than not, so I'd not turn a blind eye to industry goings on, as it is said.

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