Version tested: DS
If Treasure and Intelligent Systems – and lately, Visceral Games – seem the most appropriately-named developers, WayForward is perhaps the least suitable moniker, given the studio's output. The Californian team specialises in looking back to the 16-bit era for inspiration, with the likes of Contra 4 and the adorable recent Boy and his Blob remake applying a contemporary polish to determinedly old-school mechanics.
Shantae continues in a similar vein, though rather than a remake, it's a follow-up to an under-appreciated Game Boy Color title from 2002. Like the original, Risky's Revenge is a platform adventure of the 'Metroidvania' ilk, blending running and jumping with exploration and a world that gradually opens up the more powers you accrue.
The protagonist is a half-genie, tasked with saving Sequin Land from the brilliantly-named pirate Risky Boots. The world is predominantly populated by female characters, which would be refreshing were they not all dressed in outfits designed to show off both midriff and cleavage. At times you wonder if Risqué's Revenge might be a more apt title. Don't expect double-entendres from the script, though – the dialogue is sometimes silly but it's reasonably sweet, even if most of the gags fail to raise a chuckle.
To begin with, Shantae's only weapon is her hair, which she uses to whip enemies in a manner suggesting a familiarity with the Belmont clan. Indeed, Shantae shares Castlevania's love for enemies which don't just dissolve with a single hit, as well as the Konami franchise's predilection for irritating flying creatures that always seem to be at just the wrong height or distance for you to hit easily.
The gems you'll collect from destroying the denizens of Sequin Land can be spent on power-ups in the Scuttle Town shop, the two most useful being a fireball attack and a metal spiked ball which swirls around Shantae, delivering damage to any enemy stupid enough to step too close. The third option is a slightly capricious cloud which shoots out bolts of lightning at random. All three can be upgraded twice, though you'll need to collect the magical jam pots secreted in the deepest and darkest corners of the game world. You can also trade jewels for health vials or potions to fill your magic meter.
As you progress, you'll gain the ability to temporarily transform into three different creatures: a monkey, an elephant and a mermaid, each of which has two unique abilities to help unlock new areas. No prizes for guessing which one can leap across large gaps, which can smash through boulders and stone golems and which lures sailors to a grisly demise (and can swim through watery areas, obviously).
In theory, this should encourage backtracking through locations you've previously visited in order to pick up items you couldn't reach or pass through doors that were locked. I would have felt more inclined to do so were it not for the fact I'd already traipsed through areas on two or three occasions before being called upon to do it once more. WayForward frequently sends you from one corner of the map to the other on simple fetch quests and back again, and with enemies respawning every time you pass from one area to the next, finding new secrets is much more of a chore than it should be.
After a bright opening, niggles soon start to pile up. The in-game map is worse than useless, covering exterior areas while stubbornly refusing to detail the more intricate dungeons. Sporadically, you'll be tested by tricky platforming challenges, with one mistimed jump sending you all the way back to the start of the area rather than the platform you last landed on safely. The later stages introduce new enemies seemingly intended to infuriate rather than challenge. And occasionally the design is almost wilfully obtuse, leaving you slowly combing every screen until you figure out exactly where you're supposed to be, or who you need to speak to.
One layered area – where Shantae can leap into or out of the screen onto a new plane – seems to deliberately misdirect the player, ensuring most will miss the one place they need to go to progress the story. Whether you'll make the necessary discovery through happy accident or process of elimination, one thing is clear: this is not good design.
That said, Shantae herself is a delight to control, animating beautifully as she leaps and whips her way through Sequin Town. Often it resembles the best 16-bit game you never played, with silky smooth parallax scrolling, detailed characters and backdrops, and a couple of terrific boss battles that throw huge sprites around the screen with gay abandon but no hint of slowdown.
Curiously, it's a game you imagine would have looked at home on the Amiga rather than a console, but perhaps that's just personal nostalgia talking. And though I had a whinge about it before, the layered background effect on some screens is another delightful visual flourish.
An exceptionally pretty game this may be, but strip away the sumptuous graphics and you're left with a standard platform adventure that doesn't always compare too favourably with its influences. There's little of the depth of the best Castlevanias, and certainly none of the considered intricacy of the Metroid games. The fact that most of the secrets are a means to an end rather than the end itself makes them less attractive to seek out. Sure, finding them might mean you eventually have more offensive options available, but in the end you're still hunting for jam jars.
The Metacritic tally for Risky's Revenge – it was last year's highest-scoring DS game upon its US release – suggests its calculatedly old-school approach will find favour with some players. But for my money, it's a reminder of how far gaming has come since the 16-bit era.
There are lessons to be learned from the elegant simplicity of the best retro titles, though the likes of Super Meat Boy and Pac-Man Championship DX prove you can make concessions to modern gamers without compromising your traditionalist ideals. WayForward would do well to realise that its name needn't be a misnomer – occasionally, Risky's Revenge proves you can look to the past with one eye on the present. If only its creators had done so more often.
6 / 10