Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a fantastic game, and you should play it. It’s easily one of the most enjoyable sidescrollers on the 3DS, and let’s remember this is a system that has lots of timeless NES classics available for download. Everyone on the internet is talking about how wonderful it is, and they’re right.
Everyone is also talking about how it’s the best Shantae game, too, and I don’t agree. I found Curse to be weaker than its prequel, Risky’s Revenge, in a few key ways. It’s better in some ways, too; the series is not regressing. I’m hesitant to say it’s advancing much, though. See, the original Shantae was an expansive game that had a lot of quirky gimmicks and gameplay ideas which ranged from “great” to “I have a headache”. Revenge was a much more polished experience, and a much smaller one, which didn’t have room for a lot of these ideas. What Curse does is takes the polished gameplay from Revenge and mixes all the old ideas back in, making for the most expansive and complete Shantae experience yet. And that’s the problem.
Usually when I review a game I like to get the Good Stuff out of the way first, so I can focus on the Bad Stuff, which is what I really want to talk at length about. There isn’t any Bad Stuff in Curse though, so instead I’m going to have to focus on Good Stuff With Caveats. In a nutshell, most everything I liked about Curse, even the stuff that was a marked improvement over Revenge, came with a slight tinge of disappointment.
Let’s start with Shantae’s new moveset. Instead of having a set of transformations, each of which has its own abilities and drawbacks, Shantae amasses a collection of pirate gear which changes the way she can move through the world. In gameplay terms, this was a strict improvement. It’s much more fluid and satisfying to navigate the game world without having to stop and dance every few minutes in order to change what your character can do. On top of that, all of the pirate abilities are fun to use, behave exactly like you’d expect them to, and look really cool. Because they’re always there at your fingertips, and because they’re so simple to execute, you’re motivated to play with them at every available opportunity. That’s high praise in contrast to, say, the clunky elephant form you basically only switched to when you saw a big rock.
None of these movement upgrades are breaking new ground, though. You get a slow-fall, a pogo jump, a speed booster, and so on. If there are ten traditional, off-the-shelf upgrades for a hero in a 2D sidescroller to obtain, Shantae gets five of them in Curse. Years from now we’ll look back on our favorite 2D heroes and say, “Samus had her screw attack, Alucard had his poison mist, and Shantae had her monkey dance, except for that one game where she didn’t.”
(Honestly, the monkey wasn’t groundbreaking either. “Climb up walls” is at least #9 on the off-the-shelf list I mentioned. But the requirement that Shantae actually shapeshift into an alternate form made her style of wall-climbing distinctly and uniquely hers. That’s what the pirate gear lacks.)
(I know a lot of people would argue that is exactly the point, given the events that transpire in Curse. They have a case, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the situation.)
While each individual ability was a lot of fun to use, they didn’t really combine well. There were some screens that required a speeding triple-jump, but for the most part the game presented challenges as being isolated to one of Shantae’s items or another. This never felt like a gameplay hole in the first two games, because given the nature of Shantae’s transformations it was perfectly natural to have “monkey rooms” and “mermaid rooms” and such. The moveset has been switched up in Curse, but the level design hasn’t been switched up to accomodate, and I think that’s a missed opportunity. You’ll walk into a “hat room”, and you will use your hat to clear it, and all your other toys feel like dead weight for the duration. Remember Guacamelee!, where each new upgrade built on the previous ones? How you’d walk into a room that looked impossible, and forced you to pull off some insane wallrun-into-uppercut-into-airdash stunt? Shantae’s pirate arsenal feels like it could hit that same bright note, but never does.
The level design has its issues too. As a set of individual levels that need to be cleared to reach the end of a platformer — along the lines of Mega Man or Shovel Knight — they are terrific. (Er, mostly terrific. There’s one level at the halfway mark that consists of tight hallways packed with cheap monsters who pop out of nowhere, have invincibility frames, and take seven hits to defeat. Just plain bad.) As a freeform world you’re meant to explore and discover things in — as in Shantae and Revenge — they were unengaging. Throughout the entire game, I never once got stuck or had to stop and consider what to do or where to go next. The sensation of being able to get lost in a game world is not something I usually notice as I’m playing, but it’s something I missed after the fact.
The game is structured like this: you gain access to a stage select screen with one option on it. Upon completing that level, you get an item that opens up the next option. Each stage has this sequence of events: explore overworld area, complete a brief sidequest, complete dungeon, defeat boss. You repeat this until the stage select is full, and then you move on to the endgame.
In contrast, Revenge had a single, interconnected game world with a few standalone areas branching off of it. Its sequence of events went more like this: explore, dungeon, explore, combat challenge, explore, dungeon, explore in a brand new way, shooter section, final boss. And between each step you could add “figure out what to do next”. You had to consider much, much larger sections of the game world at once, rather than just what was in front of you. Curse is the bigger game, no question, but by slicing the content up into small chunks and settling into a discrete formula, it felt much smaller.
An example: underground labyrinths have been a staple in the Shantae series since the beginning, and Curse has more individual labyrinths than the other two games. The labyrinths are shorter, though, and there is seldom more than one direction you can take in them at a given time. Shantae and Revenge frequently had you solving Zelda-style environment puzzles, moving pieces from room to room and interpreting clues. You solved the dungeons in the first two games, and this undertaking could take a considerable investment in time. There is video evidence of me being stuck in the original Shantae‘s labyrinths for thirty or forty minutes at a stretch. I doubt I spent half that time completing any single area in Curse.
There were a lot of boss fights, and I’m sure they were all good, but I didn’t notice because I popped all my buffs and cheeseballed my way through them. Bosses were a weak spot in Revenge too though, so I won’t harp on them too much. Notable exception: the final boss was wonderfully-designed and includes a surprising but perfectly logical gameplay twist. Upon completing the game I immediately booted it back up and completed it again — simply because the fight was so great.
As for the rest of the combat, Curse mostly undoes the improvements Revenge made to the formula; we’re back to enemies that block your path and soak up hair whips like crazy. The game tries to help you out in several ways here, usually by placing monsters so they can be easily dispatched or avoided by using your pirate toys. This works fine, presuming you have the toy you need, and that you aren’t in that one terrible level I mentioned earlier. Other than that you’re left at the mercy of the shopkeeper just like you were in Revenge. The shop is a cold comfort, though, and I was disappointed with just about every item I purchased there.
For one thing, the shop only accepts hard currency. This would be fine, except Revenge had a superior system where the shop required hidden items to unlock upgrades. This was a clever system which hid the upgrades out in the game world, still allowed the player to upgrade in whatever direction they wished, and set a loose benchmark for Shantae’s power level as the game progressed. Curse maintains that player freedom but ditches the other two aspects. If you want upgrades, you can now just grind them out if you want.
As for the upgrades themselves, they aren’t great. The best ones are the ones that increase your hair whipping speed, just like in Revenge. There are new ones that increase your damage output, but these seem to only exist so you can see your on-screen damage number go up. A +1 damage increase doesn’t really matter when monsters that took three hits to kill at the beginning of the game still take three hits to kill after spending hundreds of gems.
These two issues combine in a really unfortunate way. I still felt really weak even after investing in some upgrades, which made me want more of them, which made me wonder if I was supposed to devote time to collecting gems. I admit I never spent time farming up gems to buy new stuff, but I’m sure someone out there has, and if that player was bored while doing it then Curse has committed the same sin as Castlevania II.
The biggest bummer upgrade is the most expensive one: a karate kick which is in all respects inferior to the hair whip. It does very slightly more damage, at close to half the speed, at the same range, and only on solid ground. I immediately wanted my money back. I tried to use this stupid kick in every situation I possibly could for the entire duration of the game, but it never killed anything as quickly as my hair whip and usually just resulted in trading damage with my target.
I really don’t mean to run the game down too much with all this peripheral kvetching. Understand this: the core gameplay of introducing monsters to hair whips is still really good. The controls are spot on, the monsters are varied and full of personality. Your pirate toys double as a weapons as well, so you have a lot of options. Enemies randomly drop buff items and pike balls, ensuring you have a supply of consumables even if you don’t make regular shop trips. If the enemies were a bit less tank-y this aspect of Curse would be just right. In light of all that good stuff, I’m just not sure what the RPG-style upgrades are supposed to add.
There is one bright, shining change that represents an objective, unambiguous improvement over Revenge: Shantae’s backdash move now has a considerable cooldown time, so you can’t chain backdashes together. It’s still useful as an escape technique, but backdashing is no longer faster than walking. Backdashing everywhere is by far the most obnoxious thing about speedrunning Revenge, so I’m glad this was changed. I doubt any normal player will even notice this change, but then I doubt any normal player will notice half the things I complained about in this post.
That’s as good a summary as any, I suppose: Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is an amazing game and everyone should play it, but a bunch of things nagged at me after I finished it and reflected on what I’d played. I had a blast with it, but Risky’s Revenge is going to remain my go-to when I need a purple genie fix.