Shantae: Risky’s Revenge Review «

Of all the digital platforms to date, Nintendo’s DSiWare has been the biggest flop: a haphazard collection of useless apps, sloppily ported cell phone games, and the rare worthy gem drowned beneath a relentless gusher of crap. Somehow, the long-awaited arrival of WayForward’s Shantae: Risky’s Revenge just makes the whole thing seem all the shabbier. Don’t get me wrong, Shantae itself is great. The problem, unfortunately, is that this is the sort of game DSiWare is simply begging for. Its uniqueness after a year and a half of weekly releases really throws into sharp relief just how lacking the entire platform really is.
Risky’s Revenge is the sequel to Shantae, a charming Game Boy Color platformer released in tiny quantities at the end of the GBC’s lifespan. Shantae’s combination of rarity and quality have transformed it into one of the most expensive and sought-after games for the system. Though its reputation and fanbase admittedly tend to exaggerate its quality somewhat, Shantae really was a fantastic little game, lovingly crafted with the absolute best graphics and animation to grace the GBC and play mechanics deliberately tailored in the style of open-ended side-scrolling NES adventures like Simon’s Quest and The Battle of Olympus.

If Shantae was designed to be the fake best NES RPG-platformer ever, Risky’s Revenge could be considered the best fake 16-bit sequel ever. It plays faithfully to the original, offering the same basic spread of skills, secrets, and non-linear platforming, but it’s improved on every level. The graphics are gorgeous and detailed, the action is smooth and responsive, and the soundtrack is layered and atmospheric yet still sounds like “video game music.” The difficulty has been refined considerably — Risky’s Revenge arguably drifts too far to the easy side of things, especially once you earn some cash and load up on healing potions, but you spend a lot less time chipping away at endlessly respawning bad guys with entirely too much health, so the pace is quicker.

Maybe a little too quick, actually. I’d like to call the game a love letter to the classics, but it’s more of a love note; I finished in just over five hours of play time. But even in that regard it draws on the Super Metroid school of game design, informing you just how many of the collectible in-game items you missed and rewarding you with slightly different endings depending on your speed and efficiency. It’s a game that begs to be replayed, further explored, and thoroughly exploited. Just like they used to make ’em.

Risky’s Revenge doesn’t rest entirely on backwards-facing nostalgia, either. The animation ranks among the best traditional sprite work I’ve ever seen, lively and buoyant. (“Bouncy” might be a more appropriate term, given the game’s emphasis on scantily-clad women.) Shantae’s world is detailed and colorful, full of quirky characters, and it even throws in a few clever new ideas. The most practical of these is the way bottomless pits are clearly defined, making it clear where Shantae can and can’t explore. Less practical, though much more entertaining, is the way the concept of parallax scrolling — that is, different layers of background imagery — is made interactive. Certain areas allow Shantae to jump into the world’s background or foreground layers, transforming what seems like simple scenery into a dynamic game element. If you pay attention, you can even see characters and creatures walking around in the inactive planes. It’s a neat touch that hearkens back to a couple of early Metroidvania style games (specifically Rambo and The Goonies II), but it’s integrated far more effectively here.

The core game itself is probably most reminiscent of Sega’s Monster World series, with players freely battling through a single interconnected game world and collecting the power to transform into different creatures to aid their exploration. The overworld is compact and easily navigated, while the real challenge is found in the dungeons, which are unmapped, packed with foes, and filled with daunting puzzles that lead to the inevitable boss showdowns. It’s all more or less standard fare for the genre, but WayForward has clearly put a great deal of thought into making Risky’s Revenge a perfect, polished experience for players. For instance, Shantae can explore out-of-the-way nooks to find rare collectibles (in this case, jars of jam), but these aren’t simply for show; instead, they can be traded as currency to buy upgrades for her skills.

Risky’s Revenge is literally the sort of game DSiWare was made for; WayForward has been shopping it around for years, but publishers have uniformly refused to take a chance on it at retail. Digital distribution let them cut publishers from the picture and just sell the game directly. The developers frustration is ultimately to our benefit: This is a beautiful, substantial, classic-style game, and it’s a great deal to boot. Risky’s Revenge is quite possibly the first truly decisive argument in favor of owning a DSi, and I’d love to see it succeed — not just because the game’s cliffhanger ending deserves resolution, but also because other developers clearly need a little motivation to produce work of similar quality for the platform.

 

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