2D: Living well is the best Revenge

So maybe it’s true that we’re on the cusp of a new ice age of game localizations; U.S. publishers are looking at their bottom lines and saying, “Huh, maybe we can’t afford to cater to the niche quite so enthusiastically when no one has money to spend.” Interesting-looking games like Blood of Bahamut and SaGa 2: Goddess of Destiny and 7th Dragon seem likely to die a lonely death in Japan, just as in the 16-bit era, and there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it. (Unless you are the business development director of a niche publisher, of course, but I’m pretty sure Shane Bettenhausen never deigns to reads this site.)

It sucks, huh? Yes, it sucks. But there’s still light in these dark times, hope for little flickering spots of joy to blaze against the darkness of a million identical first-person shooters slogging through the shiny grey dross of the Unreal 3 Engine. Not hope from Japan, no. Japan is less and less of a player every day; accept it and move along. But there’s plenty of talent much closer to home, talent capable of looking beyond the obvious lure of the cutting, cookie-cutter edge of technology. There always has been. The difference is that now there are more venues for that talent to be expressed beyond iffy PC freeware, console and portable venues that cut through the inevitable driver and controller and update issues of PC gaming and offer the simplified experience preferred by those of us who’d rather not have to work for their entertainment. XBLA and WiiWare and PSN and PSP Minis and DSiWare. And now it all has the perfect poster child: Shantae

I’ve written about the Game Boy Color version of Shantae a few times over the years, because it’s a fine little game. It was, in effect, a really fantastic non-linear NES platformer shoehorned onto a portable system; it was fun, it looked great, and it had an amusing sense of humor. And, eight years later, it’s still the only game in what should by all rights be a series at this point.

It’s not for lack of ambition. Shantae’s creators, WayForward Technologies, shopped the prospect of a Game Boy Advance sequel around for years. Unfortunately, no one took the bait. Who knows why not, but in retrospect it was kind of a miracle that the first game ever made it out at all. It just so happened that Capcom decided there was money to be made in supporting the end-of-life Game Boy platform while everyone else was bracing for its successor and pushed out a ridiculous amount of good content for the system long after it had otherwise been abandoned. For whatever reason, no one was willing to take a similar risk with the next portable generation, and so Shantae languished but for a wistful dream on the company’s fansite and a handful of obsessive fans. (For the record, I don’t count myself among their numbers — I want a sequel, but I do have some sense of perspective about it all.)

Shantae Advance looked pretty good, even if it was only a mock-up; the images above were officially released to press sites by WayForward to drum up support for the game. And when news came that Nintendo would be offering DLC software for DSi, one of my first thoughts was: Hey, this would be a great fit for Shantae. When WayForward announced support for DSiWare in the form of the pretty darned good Mighty Flip Champs, I nodded and thought: This is a good sign. And now, finally, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is a real thing that has appeared in the pages of Nintendo Power, and it was written up by Phil Theobald, who is a good person and would not toy with our feelings.

Risky’s Revenge wasn’t a shock, really. The big surprise is just how much better the game looks than it really needs to. WayForward could have gotten by with simply repurposing Shantae Advance assets and calling it a day, but based on the images I’ve been able to dig up for Risky’s Revenge — I assume the one above is legit, since it looks pretty much the same as the screens in Nintendo Power — it looks much, much better. And knowing WayForward’s penchant for crazy animation, I’m sure it moves with as much grace as the DS can muster.

The really interesting thing about Risky’s Revenge is that WayForward is publishing it as episodic content. That’s pretty much accepted practice for point-and-click adventure games and even first-person shooters, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an episodic 2D platformer before. It’s a smart idea, though. For one thing, DSiWare has a hard ceiling for file size (I’ve heard it’s 50 Mb, but Nintendo won’t say for certain), and graphics this detailed take up a lot of space. For another, it means the game won’t be a money-losing prospect for WayForward. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy who believes that creative people deserve to make a living from the fruits of their labors, and taking the episodic approach allows WayForward to release what will probably be a rather substantial game without taking a bath on it. As the carping over yesterday’s PSP Go sticker shock has demonstrated, gamers are reluctant to pay big gobs of money for digital-only content. But bite-sized chunks for bite-sized prices will help to keep things within a psychological safety zone.

I’m really glad to see WayForward seizing the opportunity to use DSiWare as a chance to self-publish where no one else would take up their cause — and it’s good to see self-publishers experimenting with different release and pricing structures. There have been some complaints that WayForward will be bilking gamers with the episodic structure, but I doubt that will be true. Good games are always worthwhile, and services like DSiWare will (hopefully) continue to remove the barrier represented by publishers that’s long existed between developers and fans.

It won’t get 7th Dragon translated, of course, but that’s why I bought a copy of the strategy guide while I was TGS. You gotta known when to cut your losses, these days.

19 thoughts on “2D: Living well is the best Revenge

  1. Well that’s all well and good, but when are we going to see Panzer Dragoon Saga on something other than the Saturn?

  2. This is really good news! I’ve always wanted to play the original GBC game, but at the price it goes for these days that will never happen! It least I have this to look forward to!

  3. I’d never heard of Shantae until I read about it in Gamespite Year 1/Volume 1: The Darkblade Wars, but that original piece was well-written enough to get me jazzed about this sequel to an ancient GBC game I’ve never played. That’s a hell of a thing.

  4. I too was very happy to hear a Shantae sequel get released. I don’t care what format it is, as I’ll support it in any way I can. (I just happen to also have a DSi, which is happy news for me indeed.)

  5. why so pessimistic about SaGa? no one said anything one way or another in an official capacity. they HAVE released all the other SaGa games, y’know.

  6. With Square shifting to a more western focus (see: Eidos, Front Mission, etc.) I am simply pessimistic about the prospects of any of their non-FF/DQ Japan-developed games drifting westward — outside of download services and Taito games, anyway.

  7. I’ve been on the fence about getting a DSi until now (I’m still rockin’ a DS Phat) and this is a system seller for me. If purchasing episodic DSiWare is what it takes to keep a franchise like Shantae alive then so be it.

  8. I’m still crossing my fingers that SaGa 2 will make it over. Honestly, they might even consider doing what they did the first time with the Game Boy titles: rebrand them as a Final Fantasy game. Besides, that’s what everyone over here remembers it as, anyway. Or those of us who actually remember how great that game actually was.

    But as to the matter at hand, it is great news that Shantae is getting another life. And this means that something truly good will be available for DSiWare, and I’m rather stoked about it.

  9. Episodic 2D platformers are nothing new. The original Commander Keen and Duke Nukem games were released in an episodic format (with the first episode being free) way back in the early ’90s.

  10. Please stop saying Blood of Bahamut won’t come out of Japan, your ruining the illusion I’m having about it coming out. Man imagine if The World Ends with You came out now days, no way it would be released outside of Japan.

    Also in regards to what DIguama said, I would love it if we saw some new Keen games come out for the downloadable services, would be a great come back for the series.

    As for Wayforwad its good to see them finally hitting their stride with stuff like LiT, Boy and his Blob, Shantae and so on, hopefully this will all pay off for them.

  11. The detail in the Shantae DSi screens is incredible and lush, I’m just surprised no one else is saying how hard it is too discern the playfield. It looks really unappealing just in terms of readability of foreground and midground layers.

  12. @Sarge: If SaGa 2 does get released here, I seriously doubt that it would be rebranded under that name today with the way Square-Enix does things now. If anything, releasing it under that label to the less informed Final Fantasy fanatics might be a very bad idea, since it shares similar blood to the ever-flawed Final Fantasy II (j). The most we’d probably see is a note on the box saying “Originally released as Final Fantasy Legend II!”, like with the Advance ports of Final Fantasies IV and VI.

    As for the Shantae episodes, I’m very excited for what they could potentially do to promote more original DSiWare content and less repurposed chunks of older DS and GBA titles…..as well as for Shantae getting a second chance as a bit-by-bit sequel.

  13. It’s funny. A friend of mine (A game designer like me) originally refused to pay more than 15 dollars on any downloadable title on the merit that he hates digital distribution and prefers physical things. A few weeks later, he told me he was getting a PSPGo. His logic in doing do was more or less the same as what was in this post; Digital distribution will save niche games and creative ideas. That’s why I’m really hoping Shantae will take off. Risky’s Revenge is already a day one purchase for me.

    So my question now is: If Japanese niche titles will now stay in Japan during this economy, what’s going to happen to companies that specialize in importing them to the West like XSeed and Bettenhausen’s own Ignition?

  14. I was there back in the day (okay, the mid-90s) when 16-bit cartridges were expensive and tough to sell, except when the game was some gore-driven fighter or an attitude-filled platform game. And I also remember the days before the Playstation dominated, when a lot of good games ended up on systems that failed. Only a few companies succeeded in translating weird, niche titles. If a game wasn’t translated, then the best you could hope for was a halfway coherent FAQ in English. It was an awkward time, and from 1996 until late 1997, most of my game time was with the last few SNES carts that I’d decided were worth it.

    Now in 2009, there are still companies which publish games other than the usual serious action/FPS/sports stuff. Right now I’m grateful that there’s plans to translate niche games such as Atelier Annie, Sakura Taisen 5, and even Higurashi for PC. And I’m glad that I can purchase Holy Invasion for about $15 without having to find a UMD.

    But unlike the mid-90s, there are communities striving to translate uncommercial games on their own. I won’t say who or where, but if you know where to look, you can find translations of games such as Soma Bringer, or Policenauts, or even Tears to Tiara for PC. A cynical person might say this creates a “you mean it’s not already in English, and free?” attitude. Other people will look at this situation and say “well, at least now I don’t have to rely on an FAQ to appreciate the un-publishable Super Robot Wars games.”

  15. Reading that Nintendo Power article about Shantae is what finally made me think it was time to look into the DSi. To date, the DSiWare offerings just haven’t been enough for me to even half consider buying one, since I already have more than one functioning DS.

    My hope is that games like this (ie, actual games) will become more plentiful if there is support from the fans. Honestly, I have no problem with a purely digital format, if that means I can download an actual copy. As long as good games are released, I plan to jump right into PSP Go and DSiWare.

    The thing I don’t want any part of is the kind where I pay but only get access to the game (OnLive).

  16. I think the combination of Shantae and the inevitable Zelda: Spirit Tracks bundle in December will finally convince me to throw down for a DSi.

  17. I’m going to cry if someone doesn’t man up and give me a localized 7th Dragon. Is there a really good reason why Atlus hasn’t considered it? It would seem to be right up their proverbial alley.

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