I was able to spend about 45 minutes with Shantae: Risky’s Revenge today before I had to force myself to go to bed. Hey, I know. But don’t blame me. If I’d been able to download the game at 8am like I wanted to, I would have spent the entire morning with it.
The first thing you notice about this game is how gorgeous it is. This is simply the best spritework in any game I’ve ever seen, ever — and I’m one of those sadsack chumps that actually still plays sprite-based games here in 2010. I’m still of the opinion that sprites are the only real way to make a platformer, and that there is a lot of artisitic merit to them. Basically, this is what Rocket Knight and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and New Super Mario Bros. should have looked like.
There is merit, from a gameplay standpoint, in being able to count pixels. I kind of need to be able to count pixels to play a platformer effectively. If you give me polygons or absurdly high-res HD graphics I can’t keep the hitboxes straight. Now, that’s not a dealbreaker, of course; I still played NSMB and I’m planning to at least glance at Sonic 4. It’s just that Shantae lands in that sweet spot between “this is really beautiful” and “this is really playable”. Last time a platformer did that to me was back in the PSX era.
I was most interested to see how the gameplay had been changed. The original Shantae was a fun, quirky game that was just headache-inducing enough to make you not want to replay it very often. (It doesn’t help that I have nothing to play it on except my Gamecube, which is in the closet under a bunch of junk.) I had heard both first- and second-hand that the developers had watched my Let’s Play series to get ideas on how to improve the gameplay, so I’d been curious for a long time to see what lessons, exactly, they had learned.
Lesson one: bad guys die in just a couple hits. Really tough bad guys might take four. About 80% of my video series was just me idly whipping scarecrows and nagas and what-have-you. Shantae’s standard attack was just too weak, and her karate attacks were too finnicky to use reliably. Fighting monsters was not the most interesting aspect of the game, and giving Shantae the ability to just mow through the trash mobs really does a lot for the sequel’s pick-up-and-play-itude. It’s pretty fun now to just waste five minutes running around collecting gems.
Lesson two: the world map isn’t such a pain to navigate. The original game had no map system of any kind; not like one was really required, considering it all boiled down to either “go left” or “go right”. You couldn’t really get lost in the world, unless you mixed up your easts and wests, but you could get lost on individual screens, which were enormous. The issue with freeform platformers is that worlds you can travel from both directions have to be more tepid than worlds you only need to travel from one. You can’t include a jump which, once made, can’t be unmade. Yeah?
Well, Shantae tried to solve that problem by making these huge, elaborate areas with lots of nooks and crannies. This kinda worked, because the world was fun to just poke around in. But it also kinda didn’t, because it just became too difficult to find your way around. After three screens of forest level every tree starts looking the same, so it’s no use trying to navigate by landmarks. You don’t really gain any understanding about the shape of the world beyond “keep going left, and eventually you’ll get to that one town”.
Risky’s Revenge fixes this from three directions. First, you get a map, so it’s easy at a glance to see where you are in relation to where everything else is. Second, the giant overworld levels seem to be broken up into smaller bite-sized chunks. Easier to digest. And third, instead of a string of towns with vast expanses between them you have one central hub town, from which the other areas of the world branch off.
Lesson three: the warp system is now 80% functional instead of 20% functional. The correct way to build a warp system is to offer several warp nodes. When you reach a warp node, you can warp to it from any other warp node. The original game tied the warp system to hidden dungeon items, some of which couldn’t be recovered without severe backtracking. That’s right: you can’t save time on travel unless you spend lots of time searching. Cue trombone sounds.
In Risky’s Revenge there look to be several pairs of warp nodes, and using one lets you teleport to the other node in the pair. Only having explored one area of the world I haven’t made much use of the warp system yet, so I’m not sure if this will end up working for me or not. My knee-jerk here, though, is that if the warp nodes are close enough to the hub that I can quickly reach one from another, why not just let me warp from any one to any one? And if the warp nodes are far enough apart that I can’t quickly reach one from another, how does it function as a warp network?
Lesson four: most freeform platformers don’t have insta-death traps, like spikes or lava or bottomless pits. Shantae did have them, and they were frequently annoying because, like, is that hole going to kill you? Or is there something down there? The solution Risky’s Revenge came up with to delineate the difference is so elegant that I honestly can’t believe I’ve never seen it used before. This allows the game to be both kinds of platformers I love, at the same time; I get the big open world to explore, with all its secrets and hidden goodies… but I also get the stage gimmicks and jumping challenges that aren’t found in games like Castlevania or Metroid.
There is one downside to Risky’s Revenge that I’ve identified: I can’t take it out of my DSi. It’s going to be sitting there, every night, forever. How am I supposed to get any further in Etrian Odyssey III when there are haircrows to be whipped? It’s a conundrum for sure.