Right after the heels of reviewing Shantae and the Seven Sirens, I decided to do something that, in hindsight, I should’ve done years ago: replay Pirate’s Curse. For those unaware, Pirate’s Curse is the best Shantae game… at least, everyone says it is (including me). It had been many years since the game firmly entrenched me as a Shantae (and WayForward) fan, so what better way to celebrate Seven Sirens being “pretty good” than by going back to see if it really is the best.
Spoiler: it is.
To fast-forward past the introductory stages, what was most prominent to me when going back to this game was just how floaty Shantae is. Playing Seven Sirens had undoubtedly spoiled me, as its control scheme was fairly tight and quick. Pirate’s Curse has jumping feel more loose and, admittedly, old-fashioned. Hard to explain to those outside the know, but there’s a certain motion to her here that seems to align with classic platformers. Perhaps “mechanical” is a good word for it, though again, I wouldn’t expect non-platformer fanatics to understand.
Initially, I believed this would ruin the game for me, that the lack of fluidity I typically prefer in platformers would sully what was once a near-classic gaming title. Fortunately, not only did I become accustomed to it, but I ended up preferring it within the context of the game’s level design. Ledges, moving platforms, floating blocks, and more make up a large portion of the platforming finesse within Pirate’s Curse. And while it isn’t strictly a platformer game, it combines dozens of different elements to keep the player accustomed to controlling Shantae through dozens of different situations. One could almost call it a… risky venture.
Such variety there is, too! Speedrunning one-hit KO runs, cannon sections akin to Donkey Kong Country, stealth sections, puzzles galore, fetch quests, backtracking, collect-a-thons, and a large buffet of secrets. It may not be a particularly long adventure, but it’s one filled to the brim with memorable events and interesting happenings. What would you prefer: a long, repetitive adventure or a short, chaotic one? It can be difficult to pick a side definitely, as a game spanning 20 hours with an enjoyable, albeit simplistic gameplay style can be just as good as 2 hours of spontaneous creativity. In this case, Pirate’s Curse will have people spend 6-8 hours on the main campaign (with some time spent collecting stuff), which I think is an adequate length for a game, particularly one technically labeled as “indie.” (WayForward really doesn’t seem like an indie developer these days.)
When I played this game for the first time, I was somewhat aware of the tongue-in-cheek writing style that WayForward enjoys displaying. Having played Risky’s Revenge beforehand, the amount of “WTF” moments didn’t take me by complete surprise, but I was effectively charmed by some of the quips made in the game. Playing this again in 2020, I did not expect to be as charmed as I was the first time around… only to be taken aback by how charmed I was. It didn’t really hit until the end of the game, where the final cutscene played and most major characters were interacting with one another. The camaraderie, no matter how shallow due to the comedic writing, was surprisingly splendid, and far more developed than, say, Seven Sirens.
There’s a very subtle, but noteworthy emphasis on trying to make these characters, despite their silliness, rounded. Bolo wants to feel desired and accomplished in his life, Sky wants a boyfriend (okay), Mimic is trying to help Shantae in any way he can, and Risky—oh, Risky—she gets a ship’s worth of backstory and intrigue attached to her. She’s by far the most interesting character in the game! Her sensibility underneath the rough exterior is such a suitable attire for her character, and it’s a horrible shame that they regard her as little more than “main villain out of obligation” for subsequent sequels. Many recurring characters in this series can (and probably should) be taken more seriously, even within the context of a sarcastic, silly story.
Shantae herself is kind of a weird figure in the series. Despite not analyzing her personality in every game closely, she does come across as something of a dumb, excitable kid (she’s “supposedly” 16). Pirate’s Curse does well in procuring this excitement into an almost self-aware fashion, blurring the line between actual character and the writer behind the lines. Shantae, again, seems excitable and naive, with an unquestioned sense of justice and empathy, even for Risky. At the same time, she often goes along with dumb tirades from side characters and occasionally plays devil’s advocate for their weird requests. Hard to pinpoint what exactly is made for the sake of her character and what’s just in service to the “lolwtf” humor. Nevertheless, she does make for an appealing lead, if nothing else than for her energy and goofiness.
Pirate’s Curse follows a pretty stringent formula of “Go to specific area → Do a thing → Maybe backtrack to other specific area → Dungeon → Get map for next specific area.” Going into this game (again), I expected this to feel very repetitive quickly, but amazingly, the amount of variety with each area lessened the dullness. The thing stated earlier about a 20-hour adventure with fun, albeit simplistic gameplay being good is a decent descriptor for this, too. Simply running around whipping things with Shantae’s hair is a very gratifying feeling, especially when fully upgraded for power and speed. So gratifying for me, in fact, that I barely use any sub-items—almost never, frankly. Rockets or bubble shields or pike balls… they’re just taken space in the inventory. Plot structure withstanding, it’s a pretty fulfilling journey.
To bring up Seven Sirens yet again (both were played in close proximity, sorry), it was nice to face bosses that actually posed a threat again. Even the very first boss took me off-guard, almost killing me on the debut attempt. Foodstuff dropping from defeated enemies is far less common, and bosses do not give a fuck what you’re trying to do. They’re big, fast, and occasionally unfair. Nevertheless, it felt far more gratifying to be able to exploit the weakpoint and give ’em hell, all the while avoiding their onslaught. The final boss even took me, gasp, two attempts! And believe me when I say, that final boss fight is long, so that first failure felt like a nice shot to the ribs. Seven Sirens seemed to go more for theatrics than difficulty (in many facets), while Pirate’s Curse chose to keep things both controlled and challenging.
Have I ever made it apparent that I love pixel graphics? I don’t know if I ever have. Pirate’s Curse has such splendid pixel artistry (especially with bosses) that it makes me drool. Where the direction of the franchise went with the art is acceptable and valid, as pixel artistry is (hilariously) seen as “inferior” or “not as accessible” as 3D art. Not to me! Pixel art is lovely and good and beautiful, and I will always say that great pixel artistry looks better than any other form of art style. Anyway, Pirate’s Curse puts it to wonderful effect, complete with varied environments, NPC’s, bosses, enemies, and structures. Shantae and Risky Boots, specifically, don’t look quite as up to par as the rest of the models, which is both confusing and strange, but nevertheless, they’re two dull puddles in an ocean of great artistic pixeltry(?).
One other thing worth mentioning is the quality of the drawn character portraits, which remains my preferred style of any Shantae game thus far. Why? Because it looks the most anime, obviously… In all seriousness, it has a great sheen to it that’s hard to pinpoint, with a quality that the series has yet to match since. The latest outing (oops, I brought it up again) is a solid runner-up, but otherwise, Shantae games have always had a varied approach to the portrait designs, which I can respect. For me, Pirate’s Curse just has the “it” factor, that “oomph” to it, that makes it immensely attractive and memorable.
To sum up the soundtrack… big. Chef’s. Kiss. Jake Kaufman has done a great service to the gaming community for this soundtrack alone. He was sorely missed in Seven Sirens (oops, I brought it up again), but even Half-Genie Hero didn’t have the same pizzazz and enthusiasm present here. Most areas, regardless of context or subject matter, has something incredibly unique to provide to the game. Moody, energizing, spooky, or romantic; so many themes to choose, and this game does them in such a splendid way. Phenomenal direction and a great combo of ambiance and simple catchiness.
Reaching this point, do I even have any problems with this game? Yeah, certainly. While I did come to appreciate Shantae’s floatiness, I do still prefer the tight and fluid control of Seven Sirens. I also wish the story would tone it down a bit on the absurdist humor and try and properly develop these characters. And while this doesn’t apply to the game itself (sort of), it’s kind of disheartening to know that the franchise will likely never find the same level of pragmatic bliss as found in this game, when Shantae cannot even use her powers (a series staple). My issues kind of accumulate into a collection of very minor things, which don’t say much, overall.
And to cut right to the heart of the outro: play it. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is still a phenomenal game and worthy of the high praise it constantly receives from those who have played it. Among the best of the best indie metroidvanias available.
Final Score: 8.5/10
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great day.