Shantae and the Seven Sirens

I have a sorta-kinda reputation amongst my viewers for being a huge Shantae fan.

And I am a fan, unquestionably. But not as big a one as people probably expect. I like Shantae. I like the characters, I like the dance magic, I like the corny sense of humor. I like that the games are breezy fun, and don’t aspire to be much beyond that. I like the gameplay, too, despite how sloppy it can be. I grew up in the ’90s, so I especially like how each entry to the series feels like it could be an episode of its own Saturday morning cartoon.

Do you zoomers even know what the phrase “Saturday morning cartoon” means, or why it has different connotations than if I’d just said “cartoon”? If so, you understand a small piece of why the games are special.

But I didn’t like Shantae and the Seven Sirens much. I was bored for most of my time with it, and so I had a lot of time to think. About Shantae as a character, about Shantae as a series. And I’ve concluded that while Seven Sirens is the only one I didn’t really enjoy playing, if I’m being honest, the series as a whole isn’t… great. Good, certainly. Flirting with greatness, at times. But almost always falling short.

A Brief History

I’m going to have to do a lot of work to make that statement make sense. I’ll start with a bit of history. I own a copy of the original Shantae GBC cart. A good friend of mine is a pixel artist by trade, who has a great admiration for the craft that eventually grew to be his career. Way way back in the long-long ago, around the first time Cave Story was the new indie hotness — that’s 2005, not 2010, for you zoomers — this friend recommended the game as being quirky and having really neat pixel animation. I do not know whether he had played it or not. Copies of the game were widely available at the time. I bought mine for $20 and played it on my GameCube’s Game Boy Player and then did not think about it for years.

Back when my YouTube channel was even smaller than it is now, I had a pretty good idea I wanted to be doing gaming commentary videos for a very long time but also realized the stable of NES titles I was actually good at would run thin very quickly. And I wanted to record something that wasn’t already covered to death on YouTube. Shantae seemed like a perfect fit, and it was. I got to showcase a game most people didn’t know existed, and had a crisis of conscience about whether anyone would actually watch fifty-nine videos of me getting lost in swamps and snowbanks. I created two Shantae playlists: one that included every video in the series, and one which only included videos in which I made actual progress, which I dubbed the “Platinum Edition”. (I eventually deleted that nonsense.)

The folks at WayForward watched that series, including Matt Bozon, who co-created the character with his wife Erin. I didn’t know this until several years later when the sequel, Risky’s Revenge, was greenlit for the Nintendo DSi. They plugged my YouTube series on the Risky’s Revenge development blog, which caused a huge influx of viewers to my channel. Matt reached out to me to offer me a download code for the game, but I didn’t have a DSi at the time, and so the company sent me one. It’s in a drawer right now with like 40 other DSes I’ve accumulated since.

Risky’s Revenge includes three corny references to my original video series, which still make me grin every time I pick up the game and replay it.

I really, really like Risky’s Revenge. It’s the only game I’ve ever attempted to seriously speedrun; at one point I managed to climb as high as #5 on the leaderboards. The game is smaller than the other games in the series, by like a lot, a fact which I’ve seen attributed to early DSiWare limitations. But the smaller size makes it feel punchier than the original. Each area is filled with more purpose. One of my most ironclad beliefs about game design is that limitations and restrictions drive creativity rather than stifle it. I realize the game wasn’t WayForward’s ideal Shantae vision, but for me, it was just the right mix of all the components to really shine. The game gets in, does its thing, then gets out without really having space to drip and droop.

Drippiness and droopiness were some of my complaints with the following title, Pirate’s Curse, which WayForward also provided me a copy of. I got to play it a few days before everyone else did, as long as I promised to not spoil the final boss for anyone. That final boss is so terrific I won’t even spoil it here. Really one of the all-time greats. (I did a full write up of the game in an old blog post here: Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.) Teal deer, the game is fine but not a smash like its predecessor, and it has one really godawful level that I still see sometimes in my darkest and most fevered nightmares. I played through it a second time when the Steam version dropped, but not again since.

Even before Pirate’s Curse came out, WayForward organized a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next game, Half-Genie Hero. I backed the campaign and was not disappointed one bit upon finally getting my hands on it. I’m always wary of HD graphics in platformers, as many developers use the extra pixels as an excuse to cram lots of unnecessary detail on each screen, making them harder to read. Half-Genie Hero did not do this. The game looks fantastic and showcases some truly creative level design. The biggest compliment I can pay the game is that it eschews the Metroidvania structure of the previous titles for a more Mega Man X style level select. This was the perfect move for a series that had never quite gotten the hang of Metroidvania-style level design, but having now played Seven Sirens, I also suspect it again wasn’t WayForward’s ideal vision. That maybe there was some technical limitation why Half-Genie Hero couldn’t be a big connected world. If this is the case, it again just supports my theory that restriction drives tighter, more creative game design. Since it came out, Half-Genie Hero has been my go-to for replaying games in this series.

So now that Seven Sirens is out, that leaves me with two games in the series I really like, one I like with several asterisks, and one I probably won’t play again. And the original, of course, which I haven’t played since I recorded that YouTube series, and which I definitely will never play again. Because it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Why the Original Shantae is Bad (and Why That Doesn’t Matter)

The original Shantae is a labor of love like no other I know. It’s big and ambitious, but also clearly held together with spackle and stardust. The team that made it was driven and talented, but also clearly working with thin resources. It barely clawed its way onto a dead handheld at the tail end of its lifespan, and even that must have been a herculean effort.

It’s not a terrible game, but it’s far from a good one. My friend who recommended it to me was right about its absolutely charming art style and the wonderful animations, but as time went on I also realized he was willing to overlook large gameplay flaws in his search for beautiful pixel art. Shantae has a lot of flaws, which are on clear display if you watch any of those videos I made which I originally deemed unworthy of the “Platinum Edition”. The world is vast, but it’s also sprawling and hard to navigate. The screen size is tiny and there’s no map, and large areas all made out of the same grey blocks make getting lost inevitable. Shantae moves faster than the screen can keep up with her, but the view doesn’t pan in her direction of travel, so running into monsters you couldn’t possibly see or dropping into pits you couldn’t possibly know were there are just everyday occurrences.

So the game is unpolished and clumsy, and kind of a real chore to play, if you hunker down and go through it. It starts out as good fun but becomes wearying quickly as you realize all the little niggles and irritants are going to be with you for the whole rest of the playthrough. I know it’s getting released on Switch soon, so if that’s going to be your first time playing I guess this is your fair warning. It’s old and stingy and definitely not a showcase of the best the series has to offer. All the charm is there, so if that’s what you like the games for you probably won’t be disappointed, but you are going to die a lot and it won’t be your fault and if you’re anything like me that sort of thing makes you sour.

A year or so ago I recorded a few short serieses I called the “old mean NES games”. This included Castlevania II, Faxanadu, Conquest of the Crystal Palace, and Battle of Olympus. This is about where on the 2D platformer spectrum I’d put the original Shantae. They’re decent, and it’s certainly possible to enjoy them for what they are, but they’re very hard to recommend nowadays because of their jank and rough edges.

But.

Shantae might still be one of the most important games ever made. The late ’90s and early ’00s weren’t a kind time to 2D platformers. The big companies weren’t making them anymore and neither were the small companies. Metroid and Castlevania kept rolling on sheer inertia, but outside of that and a couple of Mega Man X spin-offs the genre was dead, dead, dead. There wasn’t a proper mainline Mario platformer on either the Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance that wasn’t a port. There wasn’t much of an indie scene to speak of either. If you liked platformers a lot, as I did, Shantae was important because it was bearing a torch no one else wanted to carry. This is what I meant when I said the game was a labor of love “like no other”. Someone in the world, for some reason, stood up and said, you know, we’re gonna make an oldschool platform game. Even though it won’t sell. Even though nobody wants it. Even though we’re not Metroid. We’re gonna make it because we know, in our heart of hearts, that classic 2D platformers are one of the truly timeless video game genres, even if these turdbois with their PlugStations and their Q-Boxes have temporarily forgotten that fact.

Someone said this even before Cave Story. And I can do nothing but salute that sort of dedication.

We are awash with 2D platformers in this golden modern era, more than a man can ever possibly play. And there probably always will be. And to be clear, Shantae was not a herald. It didn’t cause the genre’s return to glory. But in the Dark Ages it was there, alone in the wasteland, carrying the standard.

So Okay, Seven Sirens, Then

The original game was a great release for 2002, for reasons I’ve mentioned, but I have serious doubts it would have cut the mustard if it had been, say, a 1994 Super Nintendo release. Standing alongside Metroid Fusion and Castlevania: Whatever of the Whocares I think the game did fine; if it had stood alongside Mega Man X and Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi’s Island and Sonic & Knuckles and fifty other titles, I think it would have been washed away like so many other long-forgotten platformers of the era.

And this is the problem I kept having with Shantae and the Seven Sirens. In 2020 it’s simply not enough to be a 2D platformer, or even a Metroidvania. Nowadays you have to compete with, just as a sampling, Axiom Verge, Micro Mages, Bloodstained, Guacamelee!, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, Mark of the Ninja, and a thousand others. To even register on the scale, your game has to do something really special.

And Seven Sirens doesn’t. As I reached the end of the game, I realized that I had only bought it because I liked Shantae, and that was really the only reason to play it. Other Shantae fans are the only people I would recommend the game to, but that’s pointless, because other Shantae fans already know about it.

Again, all the charm is on display here, and if that’s what you like most about the series, you probably won’t be disappointed. Alas, charm alone isn’t enough for me anymore. I need the gameplay to sink its talons in deep. This means different things for different genres; for Metroidvania titles, though, it means the first and most consistent thing I’m going to notice is the moveset.

In Seven Sirens Shantae can wall climb. She can air dash. She can ground pound. She can double jump. And that’s… it, as far as general use movement options go. Her moveset is rounded out with two “move through special types of ground” transformations that are functionally identical to each other, and four full-screen “trigger the special onscreen thing” magic spells that are functionally identical to each other. Oh, and her usual repertoire of attack items and potions, which are barely worth mentioning, because the game is so easy anyway that combat just doesn’t matter.

Here’s a hot take: I don’t want combat to matter in my Metroidvania titles. I had to give up on Hollow Knight and, while the original Guacamelee! won me over I wasn’t quite as enamored with Guacamelee! 2: ┬┐No hemos hecho esto antes? The explore-y bits are what I’m here for. I’m the stubborn jacknose that hundo’d Axiom Verge without a walkthrough, even though it came down to painstakingly drilling individual blocks one at a time and mapping the whole world out by hand on graph paper. I think X-Ray Scopes are for weiners. I want a bunch of trivially-cleared enemies that I don’t have to think about as I plow back and forth through areas I’ve seen a hundred times. I got stuck for hours in Bloodstained and refused to look up the solution even as my Twitch chat was watching and slowly going insane.

(And the solution was dumb, I decided. If it weren’t dumb, I’d have figured it out sooner. Of course.)

So believe me, I don’t want Shantae to nerf the pike ball and limit my potions. Toothless, softball monsters and infinite healing are not why I was bored.

The game world of Seven Sirens is closest to the original Shantae in terms of navigating the world. The screen size is much bigger, and you have a map now, so you won’t get lost or fall into a cheap hole. But you will spend a lot of time in very same-y looking environments, screen after screen of perfectly uniform blue or orange blocks, with just not a lot of interesting things to do.

It really does come back around to that boring moveset. In a Metroidvania game I want to unlock a move that’s so fun I just can’t help but do it everywhere. I want to chain Juan’s uppercuts or fling Ori around like a pinball. All Shantae can do here is jump to the next platform or, if it’s a little too high up, turn into a lizard and climb up to the next platform. Or, if the screen has one of the Special Things on it, you push the matching Special Thing button to unlock it and get some goodies. It’s up to you if you want to stop and fight the monsters or not, but I certainly didn’t.

This has always been at least a minor issue with this series. The first game gets a pass, for being the first, and coming out during the Dark Ages before the pulsating ooze of the Igavanias seeped into the genre. And the second does too, for sticking to punchier, nicer-looking versions of the first game’s abilities. The third tried to innovate by replacing the standard dancing moveset with pirate gear, but the pirate gear was just the bog standard “double jump air dash wall grap slow fall” kit. It worked well enough and some of the gear combined in fun ways, but there were no surprises. Seven Sirens not only has no surprises, it tries to make do with fewer actual movement options than any of its predecessors.

(This is another area where Half-Genie Hero’s level design really wins the day. Because it wasn’t made out of interconnected levels, it could afford to lean way harder on its gimmicks and platforming challenges, giving every location a unique feel. You were hanging from fish hooks, or leaping between magic carpets, or racing a volcanic eruption. That’s not something a Metroidvania can easily do, and one of the reasons I felt moving away from that archetype was good for Shantae.)

There actually was one surprise waiting for me, as I traversed the map: the load times between each area. I have to say I really wasn’t expecting that. I couldn’t swear they’re longer than the ones in Guacamelee! or Bloodstained, but I definitely noticed them a lot more. Maybe the load screens just pack a bigger punch when all you’re doing is switching from blue hallways to brown ones.

Most of what you’re doing, on a moment-to-moment basis, is running fetch quests for NPCs. So-and-so wants the such-and-such, or maybe four or five thingamajigs, and wouldn’t you just be a doll and go gather them all up? Risky’s Revenge did a little of this to squeeze some extra use out of the game’s limited areas. Pirate’s Curse did it to sort of introduce you to each new area as you reached it. But neither of those games were what you’d really call pure big-boy Metroidvanias like Seven Sirens is. And the convention just doesn’t work here. The NPC sends you off to some part of the map, yeah? But I mean, I was going to go there anyway, just as part of my baseline exploration of the world. When I reached a new area I didn’t want to explore at all, because I knew it’d just be wasted time and I’d just have to cover all that ground again once I found the relevant NPC. For reasons I hopefully don’t have to explain in much detail, “I don’t want to explore this new area” isn’t a sensation a player should be having in this genre of game.

The dungeon content from the first three games is back. These are the areas where the level design really comes into sharp focus; small-ish but tightly-designed areas built around a common theme and, later, whatever your new dance move is. Each dungeon has a mini-boss which cheekily advances the game’s story, which is a cute idea I really liked. There is some very light “match three shapes” style puzzle matter to contend with, and then a forgettable boss fight you’ll plow through because you have the super pike ball and infinite healing.

(I think I would really enjoy a batch of Shantae dungeons that went all in on the puzzle design. There was one squid in one of Seven Sirens‘s dungeons that had me stumped for a couple minutes, because I had misunderstood one of my new dance’s interactions. My preference would be for every dungeon to stump me repeatedly, because they were deliberately designed to. I realize this isn’t part of WayForward’s toolbox, but I can’t think of another series that’s making sideview Zelda-style dungeons, so this is a niche Shantae could really occupy, if it wanted.)

What’s missing from the dungeons, much like the moveset, is creativity. You’ll shoot through a cannon maze. Okay, that was kind of fun in previous games, where it was already dropped in from Donkey Kong Country. But we’ve done it before, and Seven Sirens doesn’t do anything new with it. There are red/blue toggle switches that make red/blue platforms appear. There are breakable walls and whippable blocks. There’s… uh… Pac-Man rooms, for some reason, which at first I thought was a great gag, but then the game threw a second and later a third one at me, and I started to wonder if maybe it wasn’t a gag.

There was one dungeon I quite enjoyed, where you’re put on a time limit and given what seems like way more tasks than you can reasonably complete in that limit. But even this was an idea explored already in Risky’s Revenge, so while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t new or surprising.

There is a badge system now, where sometimes monsters will drop equippable doodads you can put on for perks like “climb ropes faster” or “fireballs deal more damage.” But you can ignore this system entirely, because there are purchasable items in the shop that replicate the few badges that are actually useful, and because the only really good badges are the boss ones you have to purchase from NPCs anyway.

Since all the badges are monster drops and all the upgrades and spells are for sale in the shop, that doesn’t leave much to hunt for out in the game world. This is really the meaty center of any Metroidvania: worthwhile upgrades hidden in clever spots. In Seven Sirens these are all either heart pieces, gem caches, or gold nuggets used for buying the rare boss badges. This is a complaint I had about Pirate’s Curse too, where the actually good upgrades were gated only by money, and so the emphasis was on grinding up gems rather than hunting for secrets. It’s just as well, since most of the secrets in Seven Sirens are of the “use every spell on every screen and see what pops out” variety. At a certain point in the game the world becomes populated with tinkerbats poking at walls or digging in the ground. This is a clever way to hide secrets that otherwise wouldn’t be signposted. However, sometimes I couldn’t find a way to interact with them to reveal the secret. This is a pretty strong clue to come back later with a different upgrade, but tinkerbats that are poking at a secret don’t get cleared away once you reveal it. So the post-game clean-up would just be going to every screen with tinkerbats, trying each ability and spell in turn, reloading the screen in between tries, with no way of knowing whether I’d already gotten the thing from that screen already. Needless to say, I didn’t bother with the hundo.

(Sometimes the game does pop a permanent “you found this!” indicator out, but as far as I can tell these are just for an achievement and serve no other purpose.)

I think that about covers everything. Oh, wait, the final boss was really bad. That covers everything.

Who is this game for?

It’s for Shantae fans, duh. The series built up a pretty strong little following with Risky’s Revenge, and WayForward earned every inch of them. Pirate’s Curse was a more modern take on the original game, which I didn’t like as much, but which I’m sure many fans appreciated since the original was so impossible to find by that point. And Half-Genie Hero strikes out in a new direction and shows what WayForward can really do when the creative engine is burning.

What I mean to say is, the first four games all have strong reasons to bring new players into the fold. Seven Sirens feels like the fanbase is now in place, and we know how many units this thing is going to move, and we can kind of just connect the dots and color in the lines. It grabs some good ideas from the older titles and puts them back together in a way that’s new only in the sense that they haven’t been placed in this exact configuration before. You want some of that quality, in a series with five entries, for sure. You don’t want each new sequel to be unrecognizable. (Looking at you, Risk of Rain 2!) But you do want to see at least a few new pieces.

Seven Sirens is a competently-made by-the-numbers Metroidvania title. In 2020, that’s just not enough anymore. What is Shantae’s unique voice in what is no longer a niche genre? I know how Juan, or Ori, or Miriam, or the Salt and Sanctuary guy would answer that question. Maybe in Shantae 6 we’ll get an answer here, too.

Thank you for reading this long post about hair-whip girl!

2 comments to Shantae and the Seven Sirens

  • From someone who spent 18 hours 100%ing this game, according to Steam, more than my 14,6 hours total of completing 1/2 Genie Hero twice, I wholeheartily agree.

    Enviroments were dull and samey all over and I can’t recall a single room in the game that stood out to me. If I can remember a room at all it was because I went there to kill the same two monsters over and over until they dropped a card.
    I liked the bosses, some of them. I think a quick run through could be fun, but as you say, it doesn’t stick out.
    And that “try every dance in every room until something happens” certainly is true. Especially since the tinkerbats, the visual clue for “there is a secret here”, goes away after you unlock your final power, which is the point where you’d want to backtrack in most Metroidvanias to find whatever you’ve missed.

    Started playing Hollow Knight for the first time immediately after this, and say what you want about that game, but it manages to do “several different type of dark moody underground biomes” right, and stood out as a huge contrast to Seven Sirens in that regards.
    I didn’t hate Seven Sirens, the charm still won me over a lot, but I’ll probably replay any of the other four games before this. I certainly hope this one was the dud, and the next one will be better. It really needs to be.

  • Drathnoxis

    I’ve never played a Shantae game and likely never will, but it’s always interesting reading your long retrospections of games.

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