Sigh. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
I reviewed Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse today after spending quite a bit more time than the game than I thought would be necessary. My final time for game completion was north of nine hours, and that was with 88% completion (not 100%, which is kind of important in this particular game). It would have been an hour shorter if I’d been paying more attention to some clues and not gotten lost, but that’s on me for being so scatterbrained this week.
Yesterday, former NFL player Chris Kluwe published a frothy takedown of certain awful people who have been poisoning the online video game over the past few months by using “journalistic ethics” as an excuse to abuse women. But one comment in the middle of that piece really jumped out at and stuck with me: “First off, a review, BY DEFINITION, is subjective. It’s one person’s take on a moment in time from their own perspective.” Those words rang in my skull as I reread my Shantae review this morning before clicking Publish, because I feel like a lot of the reviews I write these days reflect on the “moment in time” element he mentioned.
I’ve been doing this games press thing for more than a decade now, professionally, and sometimes I feel a little hemmed in by things I’ve written in the past. Like I recently said, being published daily for so many years has helped chart my personal maturation in a very public way, yet even so it’s hard not to feel self-conscious when something I write today seems at odds with something I published a few years ago. In the case of the new Shantae, I had a lot of positive things to say about the game and gave it a very good score… but that score was, upon examination, lower than the one I gave to Risky’s Revenge four years ago.* This, despite the fact that I described Pirate’s Curse as hands-down better than Risky’s Revenge.
I didn’t mean for my lead-in to today’s review to serve as justification for that disparity, but it kind of did that anyway. The 2D platformer is a very different creature today than it was a few years back; the recent indie boom has really seen the format explode in sophistication, and a game needs to be at the top of the class to stand out. I still like the original Shantae and Risky’s Revenge, but playing Pirate’s Curse really drives home how high the standards for the genre have become of late. Pirate’s Curse is an absolutely fantastic game… but it’s not even the best 2D platformer of the year. It’s up against the likes of Spelunky and Shovel Knight. That’s some stiff competition… I mean, damn. But frankly, I couldn’t be happier. I loved Shantae and happily forgave its flaws because I was so happy that someone had even bothered making a game like that, and that Capcom had taken a risk on it. It was the best 2D platformer around, while no one else was making 2D platformers. Now? It’s a bloodbath out there.
And for my part, my own perspective has changed. Once I started looking into the design and construction of games like this for fun, I fell inevitably down the rabbit hole and began to do it more seriously as well. But that’s OK! It’s interesting to play games like Pirate’s Curse after having written extensively about the design of Super Metroid, because it lets me better appreciate the game’s approach to things like the conundrum of powers.
Like Super Metroid, the new Shantae‘s first half is a dense and complex knot of puzzle platforming; but once you gain new powers that allow for easier and more versatile traversal of the environment, the puzzle element begins to unravel, because it’s harder to create opportunities for exploration upon the player’s return. After all, you’re near the end of the game, so why would you want to return to an area you’ve just completed? And what can the designers do to impede your progress once you have all the tools you need to get about? Super Metroid unravels at Maridia, once you acquire both the High-Jump Boots and the Speed Booster; Maridia is large and open, while Lower Norfair (which comes after) and Tourian are highly linear and combat-focused.
Pirate’s Curse deals with this sticking point (something all games of this style face) by, as I mentioned in the review, (1) pushing the double-jump ability to very late in the game, meaning there are tons of obvious, visible areas you can’t reach right up until nearly the very end, and (2) changing the nature of the game in its final areas to something more akin to Super Meat Boy lite with tons of complex and difficult (though generally forgiving) jumping challenges. It’s a strong, clever approach.
Anyway, the message here is that Shantae games have always been good for their time. As this style of game improves, it’s nice to see the series keeping pace.
* Well, according to Metacritic, anyway. But Metacritic’s challenges in interpreting non-numeric scores for games has been the subject of many long and frustrated email threads and is far too involved a topic for the moment.