Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is a complete surprise. Developer, WayForward, unsuccessfully searched years for a publisher that would be willing to invest in the game; a fact that may be an indictment of the current state of the industry. But, despite the financing issues, the independent developer found a way forward (oh yes, that happened) with Nintendo DSiWare, a service that has struggled to build a compelling library. These two facts are what make this title such a surprise. A game that a publisher wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole releasing on a bone-dry digital service should be a sketchy proposition. But, somehow, Shantae manages to be one of the best portable games released in 2010. It is the must-own app on DSiWare.
What makes Risky’s Revenge great is not innovation, or some kind of wild unique experience. Instead, the game is the best recent expression of classical game designs. At its heart, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is a Metroidvania game. For those that don’t know, Metroidvania games are identified by their open level designs and fast paced action. In these games you will have to explore the levels and find power-ups that will enable you to access more areas to explore. As you quest, you will face hordes of enemies that present different kinds of challenges. While playing Shantae, you will appreciate that the development team really loves the genre, and understand how to make it great.
Shantae channels Metroid games of old with its level design. Once the game starts the whole world is available for exploration, and each area is a vastly different stage. At first you will be limited on where you can explore due to a lack of abilities, but as you gain abilities more of the map will become accessible. There is an interesting twist in the basic layout as stages are spilt into environments, like deserts and forests, while other stages are elaborate dungeons or mini dungeons. As you explore these environments and dungeons you will uncover new abilities and treasures that can be used to power up Shantae. Having dungeons instead of huge sprawling areas is the perfect compromise between DSiWare size limitation and gameplay extension. Each dungeon is satisfying and follows the Metroid motif of unraveling the level by exploring while at the same time having a little inspiration from Zelda by requiring puzzle solving and key finding.
The bigger criticisms of these kinds of games are how easily you can get lost and the amount of backtracking needed. WayForward addressed both elegantly. First, they made sure not to mitigate the exploration aspect of the game by directly guiding your journey, but in case you do get lost, you have NPC characters that will offer clues as needed. As for the backtracking, there are pylons added in the game that enable warping from area to area once they are activated. The dungeons also help reduce backtracking since they effectively segregate areas of the game from the overworld.
If the overworld and stage designs are more like Metroid, then the battle system moves the scale to the Castlevania side. Again, this decision works well, but more importantly it illustrates the clarity the creators had when embarking on making a quality Metroidvania game. Shantae’s primary attack is a whip, but instead of wielding the Belmont’s classic weapon she whips her long purple hair. The hair whip is your primary attack, but you also have magical attacks at your disposal. The magic attacks must be purchased at the merchant and include a fireball, lightning cloud, and metal ball that will circle around you and harm nearby enemies. You can use the hair whip freely, but magic does use up you magic meter. All of your offensive attacks can be upgraded with money and bottles of magic jam. Money is found by killing enemies, while magic jam is found by exploring for treasures and mastering mini-dungeons. Shantae can also purchase non-offensive abilities which include a magnet ability for attracting money and dropped items.
Shantae also gains abilities that will transform her into an animal when she dances. The dances she does are very funny and come complete with a goofy grin. These transformations are key to reaching new areas and completing dungeons. They also empower Shantae with mobility options that will come in handy for speed runs and exploring for treasures.
Each area is stuffed with enemies. The normal enemies are varied just enough to warrant all the different offensive abilities, but unfortunately the enemy design and variety is a weak point in this title. They feel mostly generic and offer little challenge. The boss battles are a mixed bag. There is one boss (the first one) that is both hilarious and fun to play against, but the others range from contrived to ‘not as good as the first one.’ This is not to say the boss battles aren’t fun, it just seems that after setting a high bar with the first the rest seemed less inspired.
While the gameplay is a blast, the presentation was not tucked away and forgotten. The original Shantae was an ode to 8-bit gaming, and has become a cult classic. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge follows suit as an ode to 16-bit gaming, and it’s glorious. It’s amazing what WayForward were able to squeeze out of DSiWare. Everything is beautifully rendered with sharp textures and bright colors. There are many layers from foreground to background with superb effects through each. Background layers are faded and have a slick focus blur, while foreground layers add depth and lighting. The best foreground effect is the underwater effect which ripples light and distorts the view. Shantae can also leap from layer to layer in certain places. The animation of her leaping from layer to layer has a striking faux-3D effect; one that just screams for a Nintendo 3DS port.
The sprites and music both receive the same kind of meticulous attention. Each sprite is well animated and brimming with style. The sprite work in this game is the best on DSiWare, and may be the best of the DS library. Of course, Shantae herself has the most fluid animations, and most of her movements are charming. Her belly-dancing animations for transformations are pretty funny to watch and can be enchanting. The musical score is also some of the best on DSiWare. Each area has a catchy tune that seems to balance between swashbuckling and Arabian inspirations.
The story rounds off the presentation package neatly. It is a simple story, featuring a half genie that, as you can guess, is named Shantae. The game starts with Shantae’s nemesis, Risky, starting some trouble. In order to foil her, Shantae must collect three magical items and find out what Risky’s end game is. Like I said, it’s a simple story. However, what makes it unforgettable is how well the narrative is developed. Shantae is a love letter to 2D games, and the tone of the story captures that sense of humor. There are entertaining jokes and fourth wall winks thrown throughout. The characters are also amusing; each has some kind of twisted personality. This includes Rottytops, a daisy duke wearing teenaged zombie (I get it!).
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is an amazing game on a first play through, which will take about 6 hours. For 1200 DSiWare points ($12 USD) this is the best deal available on Nintendo’s portable download service. It even rivals the big boys XBLA, PSN and WiiWare. This doesn’t even factor in the quality and replayability. Once you beat the game, it pulls one last Metroid allusion; rewarding you with one of multiple fan-service pictures that are dependent on your completion percentage and time. You can replay the game for a speed run or to 100%. If you’re really good you can try both. Also, there is a shop in which you can receive a bonus for owning WayForward’s Mighty Flip Champs.
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is the killer app that many DSi owners have been looking for to justify DSiWare. Sure, there is some interesting software on the download service, like Flipnote Studio and PhotoDojo, but Shantae is a quality traditional game. It is a complete package with a witty story, beautiful graphics, and spot on gameplay. This is a game that was made for fans of 2D games, especially Metroidvania games, by people who obviously love 2D games. It would be unjust to understate how well WayForward captured the Metroidvania spirit, so I’ll say this: Shantae: Risky’s Revenge in many ways is a better Metroidvania game than Nintendo’s own Metroid: Other M. If that doesn’t motivate you, nothing will.