There’s something really satisfying about the title “Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse”. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d have had on my bookshelf as a kid — part of a series I’d have almost certainly wanted to collect an entire set of. Remember books? They were pretty all right.
Anyway, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the third installment in the Shantae series, marking a few fundamental shake-ups to the game structure we’ve come to expect by this point, an interesting new narrative, absolutely beautiful pixel art and some of Jake Kaufman’s finest soundtrack work.
Oh, and it’s also one of the slickest, most satisfying titles in the series in terms of gameplay, too. If you only play one Shantae game, play this one… although I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear by now that you should probably actually play all of them. In order. One after the other. As soon as possible.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse follows on directly from Risky’s Revenge. Owing to the events at the conclusion of that game, Shantae has lost all of her magical powers apart from her ability to whip her hair back and forth. Early in the narrative, Shantae is approached rather forcefully by her nemesis Risky Boots, who appears to be having some difficulties: not only has she lost all her pirate equipment, but her army of Tinkerbat minions have turned into horrible slobbering monsters through some sort of dark magic curse. Oh dear.
Risky reveals that the curse is the work of her former captain, the Pirate Master. Said villain was banished by the Genies, including Shantae’s mother, in the dim and distant past, leaving only Risky to continue his legacy — but now it seems, for one reason or another, he is stirring once more, putting all of Sequin Land at risk as the curse grows in power and spreads. Thus, the ever-practical Shantae begrudgingly accepts that the best way to deal with this situation is to team up with Risky in something of an uneasy alliance, attempt to gather up all the chaotic Dark Magic floating around the place and stop the resurrection of this new-old threat. Or, if that doesn’t work, to hair-whip the shit out of him until he explodes overdramatically.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse marks a significant shift from the previous two Shantae games in a large number of ways — though its overall experience is still very much recognisable as part of the series. Evolution rather than total reinvention, if you will. Let’s take a look at some of those differences, one by one.
First up is the presentation of the game. While the original Shantae represented the best of 8-bit and Risky’s Revenge was a convincing attempt to recreate the experience of games on 16-bit home computers and games consoles, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse draws heavy inspiration from 32-bit CD-ROM consoles such as the PlayStation and Saturn. Rather than going for a 100% authentic look and feel, however, the game also incorporates a few modern elements here and there to improve the overall experience. It’s in full widescreen rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio of Risky’s Revenge, for example, and on-screen interface elements are now presented in high definition rather than being heavily pixelated. These are changes for the better, on the whole.
The area of the overall aesthetic that has undergone the most noticeable improvement is the music. Rather than the chiptunes of the first game and the deliberately tinny “sampled” sound of Risky’s Revenge, here we have high-quality digital music with few limitations. Jake Kaufman was clearly told to let rip and have fun with this one, though in keeping with the 32-bit CD-ROM feel, it’s not fully orchestrated with live instruments. Instead, it adopts a variety of convincing wavetable synthesis sounds, the sort of deliciously rich textures built-in sound chips synthesising music on the fly could only dream of, and presents us with some of the series’ best tunes.
Rather delightfully, while Pirate’s Curse does feature a number of new, original compositions, it also has a significant number of tracks that reimagine music from the previous two games. Of particular note for me was the song “Back to the Roots”, which starts sounding rather reminiscent of Yamane-era Castlevania soundtracks before segueing beautifully into a glorious remix of the first Shantae’s labyrinth theme. If you’ve played the games one after the other in quick succession, you will almost certainly experience the goosebump effect.
Aesthetic aside, the overall structure for the game has had something of a revamp, too, in that it’s abandoned the interconnected open world concept… to a certain degree, anyway. Instead, Pirate’s Curse unfolds on several different islands from around Sequin Land, with a new one generally unlocking when you beat a locale’s main labyrinth. This isn’t to say it’s a linear level-based game, mind; there’s still plenty of going back and forth between different islands to solve sidequests, using later abilities to reach previously inaccessible areas and a significant number of collectibles to find if you want to power Shantae up to her maximum and get the game’s true ending.
Each island is, in itself, something of a miniature “world” of sorts, generally having a number of different zones to explore, often with multiple routes to proceed through. The game is also very fond of teasing you with things that you can see but can’t reach; if you want to unlock all its secrets you’ll need to be observant, remember these situations when you first stumble across them and come back later when you’re more suitably equipped.
Speaking of equipment, Shantae’s lack of magic in this game means that she is not able to make use of the animal transformations she relied on in the previous two games. Instead, as she completes the various labyrinths, she recovers Risky’s various pieces of equipment, which the pirate queen allows her to borrow while their quest is ongoing. These aren’t straight analogues to the animal forms, either, meaning you’ll have to learn a whole new set of skills as you progress through the game.
By the end of the game, you’ll have acquired a hat that lets you float across gaps and be blown upwards by rising air currents, a gun that lets you attack and trigger switches from a distance, a scimitar that allows you to break objects underneath you (featuring an animation rather pleasingly similar to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick in DuckTales Remastered, another WayForward game), a cannon that lets you jump several more times while in the air, and a pair of boots that allows you to dash and knock enemies out of the way, break walls and outrun collapsing floor traps. All of these are essential to progress through the game — and often have to be used in combination to reach some of the game’s more tricky secret areas.
The game on the whole feels smoother to play than Risky’s Revenge, as well as slicker and speedier on the whole; up until Pirate’s Curse, there was an upward trend in terms of the overall speed of the series, though subsequent installment 1/2 Genie Hero dialled things back a little in favour of a somewhat “snappier” feel. The pirate abilities being mapped to controller buttons rather than dependent on Shantae’s dances help make the whole thing feel very fluid — and allow for interesting situations like the aforementioned use of abilities in conjunction with one another to traverse difficult obstacles.
You’re presented with plenty of interesting situations to negotiate, too. Shantae’s reunion with Rottytops sees you having to navigate an exceedingly perilous forest pathway without the ability to make use of any attacks and items, for example, and each of the islands has its own distinctive set of obstacles and hazards to deal with, keeping gameplay fresh. There’s even a stealth sequence that manages to not be obnoxious thanks to clever, clear use of light and dark — the sequence itself is a callback to the original Shantae, in whose labyrinths you could often hide in shadows to find your way around enemies rather than having to fight them.
Perhaps the most delightful surprise for veteran players comes in the form of the “secret” dungeon you can unlock late in the game, which is actually just the original Shantae’s first labyrinth, complete with mostly-authentic Game Boy graphics and music. (I say “mostly” because this tribute level, oddly, is lacking the colour-cycling waterfall effects and parallax scrolling of its source material, meaning it’s actually not quite as impressive as the 8-bit original.) It’s quite surprising how much smaller this area feels on a large widescreen display rather than exploring it screen by screen on the relatively claustrophobic Game Boy, but it’s also a fascinating look at how far the series has come over the years.
As for the story, this is probably one of the most interesting Shantae tales due to the fact it explicitly acknowledges a lot of things that happened in previous installments and shows us how things have proceeded from there. And it doesn’t pull any punches in the process, either; a noteworthy sequence partway through the game sees Shantae visiting an area called the “Village of Lost Souls”, in which she encounters the spirits of three individuals who were addicted to gambling in the original Game Boy game, leading us to conclude that their lives ultimately didn’t quite proceed down the path they would have liked them to. In this same area, we also learn a great deal about Rottytops — though not the whole truth behind the circumstances of her becoming a zombie, it has to be said — and an easily missed shot in the credits reveals that, canonically, Shantae seemingly did indeed kill Chef Girl’s dog Wobble Bell immediately after rescuing him in Risky’s Revenge. I hope those extra gems were worth it.
To say too much about the story would be to spoil the experience somewhat, so suffice to say for now that Pirate’s Curse features some recurring series favourites as well as some great new characters. Twitch and Vinegar — presumably a pun on the idiom “full of piss and vinegar” — turn out to be two absolutely delightful “bad girls” on the side of the Ammo Baron, for example, while Squid Baron’s increasing insecurity over his status as a “midpoint boss” following his defeat in Risky’s Revenge makes for some hilarious scenes that are expanded upon even further in 1/2 Genie Hero. Shantae herself gets plenty of development, too — she’s still a flawed character, and even explicitly acknowledges this at one point where she admits she’s not exactly role model material, but having to complete her quest without the powers on which she has relied to date brings her some much-needed perspective and allows her to mature. A bit.
The whole experience has a wonderfully enjoyable, exuberant atmosphere about it, like everyone involved had a great time while making it. And this isn’t to say that the game is obnoxiously over-the-top and wacky, either. It knows when to play things straight, and when to lighten the mood; when to challenge you, and when to let you sit back and enjoy; when to invest you in this delightful little world, and when to break the fourth wall to invite you in on the joke.
You’ve come a long way, Shantae… and your journey’s far from over!
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