Shantae: Risky’s Revenge Review
I had originally intended to play through Okami next, but nostalgia is a hell of a drug and it ended up being littered with various problems that had me yelling at my television screen despite showing up in just about every “best games ever” list I’ve read. The more I tried to play it, the more irritated I would get at its shortcomings, and I found myself playing a few minutes of other games as a palate cleanser of sorts. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the third game in the Shantae series, is the one that I kept returning to. The more of it I played, however, the more apparent it became that I was missing out on back story and potentially spoiling plot points from the first two games, so I decided to play one of the earlier games instead of continuing. Risky’s Revenge, to be more specific. While the first game for the Game Boy Color would probably make for a better starting point, I wasn’t very impressed when I watched footage of it on Youtube, and the thought of giving Nintendo a cut of an eShop purchase after they so recently butchered my favorite series of all time made me feel ill. Besides, Risky’s Revenge popped up in a bundle after I decided to wait for a sale (patience is a perk of having a backlog in the quadruple-digits), and between Okami irritating me and my interest in these games suddenly coinciding with them showing up in a bundle, it felt like fate.
And it might have been, because this game is fun
This will be review #261, and while my early reviews were objectively awful, surely we can all agree that 261 is a lot of games to play. Especially since I’ve only given up on a few of them before reaching the end. Trying to keep this site on a fairly regular schedule of 4 reviews a month in addition to having played through that many games of varying quality to completion has given me a unique appreciation for underrated game elements like pacing; after awhile you begin to recognize the cheap little tricks used to pad out play times and resent the games and their developers for wasting your time with such underwhelming fluff. Risky’s Revenge is the polar opposite of that, with brisk pacing that allows you to finish the game in a matter of hours (it took me 4 and a half for a blind playthrough, but it can apparently be finished in under 2). This means that something is always happening in the story and you feel like you’re actually making progress each step of the way rather than spinning your wheels with busywork.
The story itself is nothing special on paper: Shantae the half-genie faces off against her nemesis from the first game, Risky Boots, and races to recover the three magic seals that turn a lamp the latter steals minutes into the game into a dangerous weapon. It all ends up being predictable, and yet the characters are so charmingly weird and the tone so lighthearted (to the point of breaking the fourth wall on occasion) that I was compelled to keep playing anyway.
The game’s short length keeps the characters from getting fleshed out in any meaningful way, of course, but deep character development isn’t really necessary when the game refuses to take itself too seriously. Most characters fare like Shantae’s friend Rottytops—who she apparently met in the first game—and only show up once or twice in the entire game, but have such strange dialogue that they manage to be memorable nonetheless. A few other characters show up more frequently such as Shantae’s other friends Sky and Bolo, Rottytop’s brothers, and even Risky Boots herself (having the villain appear periodically rather than only being present in the beginning and end of the game is refreshing, honestly), and all manage to be equally weird and memorable. Even the random NPCs littered around the town had interesting enough lines that I found myself checking back with them at various points in the story just to see what new things they had to say.
Platforming, quest stuff, and animal transformations
I’ve seen this game called a metroidvania, but to be perfectly honest, my experience with those types of games is virtually nonexistent and I have no idea if that’s accurate or not; Metroid and Castlevania have never really been favorites of mine (though there’s a special, purely nostalgic place in my heart for the original Game Boy’s Metroid 2), so I don’t even know where I’d begin if I were to try to judge it by those standards. Sure, there’s a world that’s largely open to explore, backtracking to use new abilities in areas that served no obvious purpose when you first found them, and a healthy dose of platforming, but at the same time the dungeons are all distinct and many areas are initially blocked off to gently build up the world around you rather than giving you free rein of everything from the get-go. The only thing I’m really qualified to say is that I enjoyed Risky’s Revenge more than the few Metroids and Castlevanias I’ve played, so being immediately turned off by the mention of the term doesn’t preclude enjoying the game.
The best way to explain the general gameplay is by explaining how you gain access to the first dungeon. It’s simple, really—after being told to talk to Rottytops, you find your way outside the city and talk to her, and she gives you a dog to taste. Instead, you return it to its owner, who gives you “tasty food” in return, and this food is enough to convince the first boss to open the door to their lair. The whole game is like this, though you’re eventually also looking for ways to get into every area you see in the hopes of finding a hidden item like a magic jam or heart holder. Magic jam functions a bit like a secondary currency, by which I mean higher-end upgrades have both a currency cost and a magic jam cost that both have to be paid. This keeps you from farming early enemies to get the best magic and attack speed upgrades early in the game. The game’s heart holders, on the other hand, function identically to heart containers in Zelda games and increase your maximum health.
Risky’s Revenge, like the first game, allows Shantae to pick up animal forms that she can then transform into and that open up new areas. For example, her elephant form can smash stone blocks, while her monkey form can climb certain walls. There’s also a mermaid form that enables her to swim below water (in her normal form, Shantae always floats to the surface). Two of these three transformations are found inside dungeons and the other one is obvious, though the same can’t be said about the hidden monkey and elephant upgrades; while the mermaid form is upgraded automatically late in the game, you have to manually find the upgrades for Shantae’s other two forms, and the process proved to be one of the few things that had me scratching my head. The monkey one in particular was maddening, and it was only when I took to the internet that I realized fire magic burned away the vines that had been impeding me. Once I knew that, the monkey upgrade was mine within minutes, but I can’t recall ever being told that fire magic could burn away vines (though maybe I just missed some dialogue somewhere), and the game had effectively trained me that such obstacles were for a new form to overcome. It felt like a rare bit of directionless design in what’s otherwise an incredibly focused, logical game.
Some miscellaneous flaws
These are all minor issues, but there are enough of them that I feel the need to first balance them out with some unexpected positives. For example, there’s no fall damage. The game also does a great job of communicating things to the player, like in one part where you’re platforming as a monkey and can’t see the ground itself, but palm trees in the background show you where the ground is. Pits that harm you are also denoted by little skull-and-crossbones symbols, so there’s no blind jumping down lethal pits in the pursuit of something hidden. How I’ve never seen this before in a game is beyond me, but it’s so simple and useful that it should be a standard in platformers.
Moving on to the flaws, there’s really no better place to start than with the “warp pedastals” (which seems to be one of the game’s rare typos). Basically, these squid statue things are found throughout the game and allow you to warp between them. This ends up being incredibly convenient overall, though it’s bizarre and a bit irritating that there’s no warp pedestal in the hub town that you constantly find yourself revisiting. Instead, you have to use one a few screens away, which means running through the same mobs of enemies every time you need to head back to town.
Then there’s platforming as a monkey. To be honest, this was the hardest part of the game for me because of how fast the monkey climbs and how unruly its tendency to stick to every nearby surface ended up being. It was far too easy to miss a jump, or to intend to gently slide off a platform I was clinging to, only to quickly climb to the top of it instead. Sometimes I’d even overcorrect and leap into a pit in the process. The problem seems to be the small size of the monkey—it doesn’t move noticeably faster than Shantae herself, but its relatively small size ensures that you don’t have much margin for error when you’re jumping from platform to platform.
There’s all kinds of minor stuff like that. The “import room” doesn’t serve any obvious purpose, for one, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that it was a meaningless relic from the game’s original DS release that was left as-is for one reason or another. Then there are the jump pads, which basically let you jump from the background to the foreground and vice versa. They’re only used in 2 locations, though, and on one occasion I actually got hit by an enemy the second I jumped forward, which is incredibly unfair when you consider the fact that it was impossible to see where enemies were in the foreground before jumping. I even suffered a game crash, though it seemed like a pretty rare thing and it took a lengthy spell animation combined with the monkey form’s special skill to bring it down. Even then, I’d be surprised if it were reproducible bug instead of just a weird one-off. Finally, we have the battle tower area; two of the magic seals are inside dungeons, but one of the three is offered as a prize in a timed gauntlet where you have to defeat several rooms full of enemies before getting to the end and being able to claim the seal. Timed sections are never a fun addition.
The graphics and music tie everything together
This was originally a game for the Nintendo DS, so by default it displays in a 4:3 aspect ratio with pillarboxing. You have three different choices for how the graphics are displayed, though: full, stretch, and original. As you can probably tell, full is the pillarboxed default, while stretch lives up to its name and stretches the image to fill in the blank space. Original is just a smaller version of full and kind of meaningless as a result. Personally, I chose to live with the pillarboxing because it seemed like that’s how the game was designed to be played, and after awhile I didn’t even notice it anymore. The overwhelming prettiness of the game probably had something to do with that; while I was initially apprehensive about the sprite-heavy art of the game, especially coming from Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse and its more high-res heart and money icons, I was quickly won over by the detailed animations and the uniqueness of the areas. This made it easy to remember where everything was, which contributed to the fact that the only point in the game where I ever became lost or confused was when I didn’t know that vines could be burned away with fire magic.
The music contributes to the overall feeling of quality in a similar manner, adding atmosphere to each area with a bunch of tracks that all manage to be both memorable and fun. The only downside to the soundtrack is that tracks don’t seem to loop, so spending too much time in one area (such as in a dungeon, or the sidescrolling shooter stage toward the end) means hearing the song fade out and then start over again. The last game I reviewed does this, too, and it’s starting to get under my skin for whatever reason. On the bright side, the brisk pacing means that there are only a handful of areas you’ll be spending enough time in to hear this happen.