When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.
Our story begins with the eponymous genie being arrested by the Ammo Baron’s corrupt new regime. Yet this plot thread quietly fades into the background as Shantae teams up with her long-time rival Risky Boots to gather all the dark magic in the world and prevent the Pirate King from coming back into power. Achieving that goal entails embarking on a journey that would feel right at home in a classic Nintendo game. From Mario, you have the slick left-to-right level design that lets you bounce past obstacles and over enemies; from Zelda, you have exploring dungeons and gaining new abilities that allow you more access to the world; and from Metroid, you have the emphasis on scouring parts of the world you’ve already explored in the hopes of finding upgrades you couldn’t previously reach.
It’s the type of experience whose surface reflects a fun-loving ethos but whose systems fail to support that ethos themselves. For example, take note of how much of the game is spent trading items. Most of your time outside dungeons is spent ferrying objects from one character to another in the hope of moving the story forward; trade the Travel Brochure for the Squid Oil, give the Squid Oil to the zombie driver, use the Ham Stink to open up the next dungeon, etc. We can even understand the game’s main activities (the activities you perform as a respite from all this trading) in a similar fashion: the game won’t allow you access to Item Y until you’ve gotten Tool X and proven that you can perform the labor necessary to earn it. Tasks like this are more akin to work than they are to play.
To elaborate, because Shantae boils down to a series of economic exchanges, players are forced to understand themselves primarily as economic actors and they begin interpreting the entire game through lenses like value and worth. From the player’s perspective, such an arrangement seems more than fair. After all, the easily recognizable patterns, the leading environments, and the trinkets signalling you to wait and come back when you’ve the tool you need to reach them offer players high reward for relatively little effort on their part, allowing them to feel productive and therefore motivated to continue playing the game.
However, that perspective conceals the fundamentally unequal relationship between the player and the game. Although you can certainly choose to participate in the game’s systems, you’re not given any real choice in how you participate in those systems. In fact, Shantae so heavily structures your experience with the game as to preclude any engagement outside the strict boundaries it sets up for you. Although the animation (Shantae’s crown jewel) connotes a bouncy and fun quality, the actions they correspond to lack any matching aesthetic appeal. Most (if not all) of them feel too utilitarian to be played with. Hair-whip this; jump over that; shoot that switch over there; continue playing the game. The narrative doesn’t do much better. Its characters lack any real character and its dramatic moments feel too artificial to leave whatever impact they were made to leave. And you may be encouraged to poke around the world to your heart’s content, but after you’ve collected every item and emptied it of all material value, you’ll find that world too one-dimensional to be facilitate exploration.
Indeed, collecting and utilizing your equipment, the central premise behind Shantae points to the game’s own lack of appeal. As I scoured previously explored islands in search of Tinkerbats to eliminate and Heart Squids to collect, I noticed myself skipping past large swathes of these islands that I’d previously played through. Doing so felt natural – what else was I supposed to use this equipment for? – but there was also a troubling logic at play here. If I was so eager (and so willing) to circumvent major parts of the experience, then Shantae had effectively trained me to see the world as an impediment to my own enjoyment of it. This raises some important questions, like why I wanted to engage in the world in the first place, or why I’d want to engage in it now that I have the necessary tools to avoid doing so.
I’m not sure these are questions Shantae is interested in addressing. The game more or less expects players to play it because they’re the only ones who can complete the lack it has within itself. It’s effectively a perfectly constructed, well orchestrated machine; every gear is where it should be, and every part is moving according to plan – including the player. As I mentioned earlier, this set-up is great for making you feel productive, but because it doesn’t hold that much respect for the player, it’s not good at making them feel anything else. Thus my own emotional stupor as I was playing Shantae. I can’t remember the game eking any strong emotions out of me during my experience with it. All I can remember is a steady stream of action as I was playing the game and a vague compulsion to play it when I wasn’t.
In theory Shantae’s surface elements should prevent me from even noticing these problems, but clumsy execution stops them from achieving that goal. On the one hand, there’s the game’s constantly high levels of energy. Color schemes are loud, songs are boisterous, and the characters are often sweating enthusiasm. Because there’s little variation in the energy level between any two scenes, the game often finds itself unable to create the mood it needs for a given situation, meaning that energy feels unwarranted in several key areas. (Perfect examples include the beginning sequence and the chase with Rottytops.) This is especially the case when juxtaposed alongisde the game’s surprisingly tame sense of humor. It’s the same sort of humor you’d find in an episode of Family Guy, where simply referencing the existence of some pop culture artifact qualifies as a punchline. Given how unwillingness this kind of comedy is to challenge the player’s assumptions about those artifacts or even contribute something beyond the reference itself, the game’s jokes are more cynical than humorous. In fact, it reaches a low point when two scantily clad teenagers make an impromptu Ghostbusters reference just because they can.
But to provide a more general reason for these failures, the game’s surface elements operate on the principle of minimum engagement: make sure the player’s engaged enough that they’re paying attention to what’s on screen, but not so much attention that they dissect their own experiences. If Wayforward’s goal was to capitalize on awareness of the Shantae brand, then this strategy works reasonably well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that well for much else. If anything, that approach brings a certain amount of transparency to the game that interferes with whatever other goals it’s trying to accomplish. What you’re left with is basically a rollercoaster without the thrills.
All this leaves me wondering what role entertainment should play in our lives. Is it meant to be a form of escapism we use to occupy our free time? Is it meant to justify the systems we exist in, not only by mirroring them so heavily, but also by filing our time away from them with nearly identical activities and then coding them as enjoyable and productive? I want to believe video games can accomplish more than this. They have the power to imagine entirely new worlds that aren’t bound by the one we live in. They can challenge our conceptions and engage us in ways we’d never thought possible. Sadly, it’s a power I don’t see Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse utilizing.