Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse

A game by WayForward for PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Wii U, and 3DS, originally released in 2014.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse stars Shantae, a purple haired heroine with a storied past… Shantae got her start in a self-titled adventure on the Game Boy Color in 2002, but despite the critical praise it received, the game arrived late in the system’s lifespan and only saw moderate success. WayForward struggled for many years to bring Shantae back, with plans to deliver a retail sequel on the Game Boy Advance or Nintendo DS, but they were ultimately unable to find a publisher for these projects.

Finally, in 2010, WayForward released a downloadable sequel in the form of Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, which sees Shantae facing off against her nemesis, Risky Boots, after her defeat in the first game. However, defeating Risky a second time came at a price, as Shantae lost her magic and was changed from a half-genie into a human.

This new sequel picks up where the last game left off, with Shantae living her life as a human. However, a new evil is rising…

Long ago, the Pirate Master was defeated by the last of the world’s genies, but a new source of evil has been found, and the Pirate Master hopes to use it to rise once again. As it turns out, Risky Boots once served under the Pirate Master’s flag, and her crew are now being controlled by this new dark magic.

Scuttle Town once again finds itself under attack… Well, technically, the hapless Mayor Scuttlebutt sold the town to the Ammo Baron (again) and then proceeded to spend the money on chocolates, which he immediately consumed. Later, while the major was divesting himself of said chocolates, the Ammonian Army began forcefully moving into the town. Fortunately, an old law gives the mayor 30 days to refund the money before they can take up residence.

In an odd turn of events, Shantae ends up teaming up with her old nemesis, Risky Boots, and the two set sail for the nearby islands to uncover the mystery of the dark magic and prevent the Pirate Master from returning to power. Shantae remains the sole protagonist, however, as she is left to explore the environments and defeat enemies on her own while Risky waits aboard her ship.

While it’s not strictly necessary to have played any of the previous games in the Shantae series, it certainly helps players to better understand the characters’ relationships with one another, especially since some of these relationships are upended in the new adventure. Teaming up with Risky Boots is just one oddity, as Shantae’s strange relationship with Rottytops undergoes a change here as well. There are numerous references to prior events to help bring new players up to speed, and some self-referential humor to appeal to returning fans.

The most important change this time around is the fact that Shantae is no longer a half-genie, which means that she no longer gains the ability to transform into various animals with different environmental navigation skills (such as climbing walls and swimming underwater). Instead, Shantae slowly discovers various pieces of pirate equipment formerly owned by Risky, each of which offers new abilities. In addition, Shantae’s secondary magical spells have been replaced with items, and Shantae can only carry a limited quantity of each.

Shantae’s primary attack is the ability to whip her long purple hair to hit enemies. The default speed for this attack has increased somewhat in comparison to the previous games in the series. Players may purchase upgrades to incrementally increase the speed and strength of this attack as well. Shantae also has a variable 2x jump and the ability to duck and crawl.

Shantae begins the game with a paltry two hearts in her health meter, which may be lost in quarter-heart increments when dealing with weak attacks, although later enemies can drop a full heart or more with just a single attack. As such, it is very important that the player thoroughly search each environment in order to find heart squids.

Following The Legend of Zelda structure, four heart squids are equivalent to a single Heart Holder (as opposed to a Heart Container). However, there is an extra step to the process, as Shantae must bring the heart squids back to the local “squidsmith” in Scuttle Town, where a lady melts them down with a flaming hammer, adding a new heart to Shantae’s health meter. There are 32 heart squids to be found in the game, allowing for a maximum of 10 hearts.

Health restoratives are infrequent, with each collected heart only adding a quarter unit back to Shantae’s life meter, so players must make use of potions and other health restoratives in order to stave off death. Most restoratives must be manually activated, although there is an auto potion that engages upon Shantae’s death, making it particularly useful during boss encounters where the player may sustain damage quickly. Most health restoratives come in the form of food items, each of which restores a different amount of health. Potions must be purchased in a shop in Scuttle Town, whereas food items may be purchased or found as occasional drops from defeated enemies.

As in the previous game, speaking to a short bearded man in a green outfit allows the player to manually save the game, and Shantae is respawned here upon death. Oddly, the player’s health is not restored at save points, but the player may exit to the main menu and resume the game with a full health meter, making it functionally equivalent to a health restore for players willing to take the extra steps. Given that inventory items are in limited supply and health drops are infrequent, a manual restart may be the player’s best option, particularly if he’s holding onto some auto-potions for an upcoming boss fight.

Other useful items in Shantae’s inventory are buffs in the form of monster milk that temporarily increases attack power, a bubble that protects Shantae from projectile attacks, and spinning pike balls (formerly one of Shantae’s magic spells) that encircle Shantae and cause damage to nearby enemies. There is also a flare that allows Shantae to warp from any outdoor location back to Risky’s ship in order to immediately set sail for a new location.

Where previous games in the series focused on Shantae’s magical transformational abilities, progress here is made by discovering five pieces of Risky’s pirate equipment, most of which serve dual roles as tools for combat and for environmental navigation, per metroidvania standards.

The first piece of equipment that Shantae finds is the pistol, which allows her to deal weak damage at a distance, as well as flip switches that raise and lower cages and cause platforms to appear. Similar to her hair whip attack, the pistol’s attack power may be upgraded three times in the shop, allowing it to deal somewhat more damage.

The pirate hat is the only item that is used strictly for environmental navigation, allowing the player to glide slowly downward and cross large gaps. The scimitar allows Shantae to drop down on enemies from above, bouncing on their heads to cause continuous damage, and it also allows her to break through blocks on the floor.

Risky’s boots operate similarly to the Speed Booster ability in Super Metroid. When running uninterrupted for a few seconds, Shantae will perform a short dash. If the player performs a hair whip attack during this time, Shantae will dash forward at a high speed, holding the scimitar out in front of her. This ability serves multiple functions, as is it allows players to move quickly through the environment; it kills most enemies on contact; it makes Shantae impervious to damage from small spikes, allowing her to run along spiked surfaces; it allows her to run across crumbling blocks without falling; and it allows her to run up icy slopes.

Finally, there is the cannon which launches cannonballs downward, causing damage to enemies and destroying certain blocks, while also boosting Shantae into the air. The cannon may be fired up to three times with the proper timing, allowing for a quadruple jump. This ability can also be combined with the pirate hat to fly across wide sections of the level, and combined with the boots to string together a long series of dash attacks.

With each new item gained, players may return to previous areas to search for heart squids and dark magic (more on this in a bit), and to fulfill NPC requests to advance the narrative, which is ultimately required in order to complete the game. A similar structure was used in Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, where new transformations gave Shantae the ability to explore previous areas and access previously inaccessible paths. However, doing so in that game was made more difficult by the game’s overly simplified map that made it impossible to tell which areas required further exploration.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, on the other hand, eschews the simplified map, replacing it with a more traditional metroidvania map with blue boxes representing each room, red boxes showing save locations, highlights showing special areas, and openings showing where the player has not yet explored. On the other hand, the world is made up of several islands instead of a single contiguous map, and progression to each island is locked until Shantae defeats the previous island’s boss and collects a map. Once unlocked, the player is free to explore any of the previous locations.

This design serves dual roles in that it allows the free-form exploration of the Metroid series, while also allowing for the self-contained dungeons found in The Legend of Zelda series. Each island has a different theme with its own set of challenges to overcome, which involve finding keys to open doors, solving environmental puzzles, and eventually discovering a piece of Risky’s pirate gear that allows the island's dungeon to be completed.

The spread of dark magic has casued many of Risky's Tinkerbat crew to be transformed into monstrosities called Cacklebats. There are 20 Cacklebats hidden around the game world, and defeating each of them unleashes a bit of dark magic, which Shantae collects in a magic lamp. The lamp is also used in a couple of other puzzles in order to capture some… smells, and it can also be used to pull dropped hearts and gems toward Shantae. Risky explains that the Pirate Master is using this dark magic to rise to power, and collecting it is the key to his ultimate defeat. While collecting this dark magic is entirely optional, doing so allows the player to reach the true final boss encounter and a considerably improved narrative outcome.

Minute-to-minute gameplay is fairly straightforward, with enemies succumbing to your basic array of attacks and puzzle solutions generally achieved through use of your pirate gear. Gameplay is broken up occasionally with unique challenges, such as an extended stealth sequence, and a running sequence where Shantae must carry Rottytops to safety while being pursued by numerous undead creatures in a forest.

There is a great deal of humor to be found throughout Shantae’s interactions with new and returning characters, as well as a long-running gag with the Squid Baron who feels inadequate because he is no longer one of the game’s main bosses. There’s also a humorous sequence where all of the lead female characters in the game are mistaken for a certain princess – despite their obvious physical differences – and are summarily abducted and dressed in “space princess” clothing. There are several serious moments as well, as the game deals with Shantae’s loss of her powers, her relationship with her uncle, and her changing relationships with Risky and Rottytops.

The game is presented in a chunky pixelated style with the only modern caveats coming in the form of HD portraits by Inti Creates (developers of Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mega Man ZX Advent, among many others) which help to bring more life to the characters. But even without this, the in-game sprites are expressive and animations are lively.

Shantae sports a jaunty standing animation and occasionally stops to tussle her hair; enemies are detailed, with occasional oddities like vomiting frogs, gelatinous black slime creatures, tentacle monsters that spit you across the screen like the barrels in Donkey Kong Country; and bosses that are huge and impressive… and occasionally silly. Scuttle Town itself even undergoes changes throughout the game, with the opening sequence featuring buildings crumbling in the background, with repairs and rebuilds being done by the Ammo Barron's men to meet a more militaristic theme, until these changes are finally completed near the end of the game.

Music for the game was composed by Jake “Virt” Kaufman, who also composed the soundtracks for the previous Shantae titles as well as Contra 4, Retro City Rampage, Ultionus, Shovel Knight, and numerous other games. While the music does have an authentic retro flavor, it also reproduces the short repeating loops that were common in the days of tighter hardware restrictions. There are different compositions for each area, but the short loops are particularly noticeable when spending a lengthy amount of time in a single area, and the game’s music cannot be adjusted separately from the sound effects.

Completing the game opens up a New Game+ in the form of Pirate Mode, which allows Shantae to start the game from the beginning with all of her collected pirate gear intact, but with her former items and upgrades removed.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse was developed by WayForward, a California-based company founded in 1990. The developer’s catalogue consists mostly of licensed titles, including Contra 4, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, DuckTales: Remastered, The Mummy Demastered, and the Adventure Time games. In 2009, the company reimagined the NES game A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia with their Wii release of A Boy and His Blob. WayForward is perhaps best known for their original IP’s, which include the Mighty series (Mighty Flip Champs, Mighty Switch Force, etc.) and the Shantae series.

The Shantae series consists of the original Shantae on the Game Boy Color, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens.