Last year, I made a big point to revive older series when writing new articles for Retronaissance and I’d like to think that, for the most part, I was pretty successful. Yet there was always one that eluded me. What better way to renew my vow to revitalize old ideas than to finally bring back one of my oldest concepts? If the title hasn’t already given it away, after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, Sum of Its Parts lives once more. I’ll be honest, I wish I could’ve thought up a new topic in this series much sooner than I had, but I’m proud that I’m finally revisiting the concept: if you couldn’t tell, it’s always been one of my favorite concepts.
Since it’s been so long since I’ve written one of these, explaining the concept behind it feels necessary. There’s one word that I would often use to describe just what Sum of Its Parts is all about: “Frankensequel”. Existence of the word in question notwithstanding, I reminisce on a series that has more than a few titles under its belt – especially ones where gameplay tends to evolve or vary between games – and try to hack off the best parts of many (if not all) those previous games and cobble them together into what I’d consider the ideal sequel. Hopefully, this will end up with something that serves to develop a game that exceeds the series’ reputation while feeling like a legitimate successor.
With almost all its post-launch content released – we’re still waiting on the Costume Packs as I’m writing this – Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is pretty much complete at this point. While the game was a bit on the short side (though the bonus modes helped to offset that) I still enjoyed it, despite making various departures from the series’ tried-and-true formula. As such, I’ve seen many reactions online compare it unfavorably to its predecessor, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Pirate’s Curse seemed to deliver on the previous games’ potential, perhaps delivering what WayForward had envisioned since the first game was released on the Game Boy Color back in 2002.
So why have I decided to take the Sum of Its Parts approach with a potential Shantae 5? While I did enjoy Half-Genie Hero, the game itself seemed to be an attempt at a soft reboot: early impressions of the Kickstarter seemed to imply that it was going to be a remake of the first game. HGH was clearly intended to introduce Shantae to a much wider audience compared to previous games. After all, the game launched on almost every platform available at the time (and was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch), while the first three games in the series made their debuts on whatever Nintendo handheld was out at the time – the second and third games would eventually get ported to other platforms as well. Shantae still seems to be popular, but to please fans both new and old, the next game in the series should definitely reintroduce elements from previous titles, while maintaining HGH’s modern sensibilities.
Of course, the logical first step when designing a new video game would be to determine the base engine. I think Half-Genie Hero’s engine worked out well, as most of the complaints about the game stemmed from design issues rather than the game’s mechanics. Shantae is at least as responsive in HGH as she was in Pirate’s Curse, and both of those games far exceed their predecessors on the Game Boy Color and DSi. It seems like when they were creating the fourth Shantae game, WayForward put most of their resources into building a quality engine – likely using the one from the similarly 2.5D Ducktales Remastered as a base – which would hopefully be used in future games in the series. They did a good job with that, so they’re no reason to drop it in the next game.
Level design, on the other hand, was a major point of contention. It seems like most fans of Shantae want a return to Pirate’s Curse’s Metroidvania stage layouts. It makes sense, considering that the fourth game in the series is the only one that goes for more linear stage designs. Personally, I say why not do both? While HGH’s stages deviated from what the Shantae series is known for, they weren’t bad. I’m sure that if they were offset with more traditional non-linear “dungeon” areas, they wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial. Originally, I considered having one of each in each “chapter” of Shantae 5, but frankly, I think it would be cooler if they just alternated between the two between chapters – it would break up the monotony of exclusively using either one, which is a plus in my book.
The overworld, on the other hand, is an element of the game that I felt both Half-Genie Hero and Pirate’s Curse failed to deliver on. For the most part, both games relied on a singular hub area for the trappings commonly associated with Shantae – the shop, the bath house and various NPCs – but honestly, both games relied on a menu-based approach when it came to choosing stages. Quite the departure from the first two games which both utilized an overworld between areas, like Simon’s Quest, Faxanadu and The Battle of Olympus. I’m not quite sure why, but I think I preferred the older method overall: it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it made the world feel interconnected and served to accentuate the exploration themes present in the dungeons themselves.
The only problem with it is that neither the original Shantae nor Risky’s Revenge quite perfected the concept. Both games had a lot of brilliant ideas behind them, but neither game really explored some of their more intriguing gimmicks. For example, the original Shantae took Simon’s Quest’s day/night cycle mechanic and essentially perfected it, replacing the stilted text-based transitions with a silky-smooth palette swap. Shantae 1 also had a much less linear overworld, with branching paths that would lead to completely different areas and even a few dead ends to keep players on their toes.
The second game eschewed these features but brought in some interesting concepts of its own. The original Shantae’s Warp Dances were replaced with various warp statues strewn throughout the overworld, rewarding exploration without focusing on unnecessary collectables. The game also included a map, which made navigation easier in the long run: one of the major issues with the first game’s overworld design was just how similar many of the screens in each area looked, making it difficult to navigate the various paths to specific areas. My favorite feature from Risky’s Revenge was Shantae’s ability to jump into the foreground and background. This was only used in the first two areas in the game – Scuttle Town and Tangle Forest – but I think the mechanic had a lot of potential. Honestly, I think it would even be an interesting gimmick for a level, whether it’s linear or a Metroidvania-style dungeon.
There’s also the question of Shantae’s abilities. Obviously, she should retain her trademark hair whip and crawl. There’s also no question that her transformation dances should return, but which input method should they use? The first game’s button and direction combinations were impractical and cycling through every dance one-by-one like in Risky’s Revenge just doesn’t seem viable anymore. HGH’s method of cycling through four directional seems like the best existing method, but I’d also consider taking inspiration from the MegaMan series. I liked how MegaMan ZX Advent allowed players to sift through its transformations in a menu brought up in-game, but honestly, the upcoming MegaMan 11 seems to have an even better concept: switching between weapons on the fly using all 8 directions on the right analog stick. Obviously, keeping Shantae’s dancing animation is crucial, but the ability to choose between eight dances at once is tempting. As for the transformations themselves, Half-Genie Hero already contained all the dances from the first two games – Monkey, Elephant, Spider, Harpy and Mermaid – and Pirate’s Curse didn’t use that mechanic at all, so the onus should be on coming up with entirely new transformations in a fifth Shantae game.
Ever since Risky’s Revenge, the Shantae games have included some form of post-game content, usually in the form of a “new game+” that either modifies Shantae’s stats to change up the game itself or a mode specifically built for speedrunning that give Shantae all of her abilities from the beginning of the game. Half-Genie Hero managed to go above and beyond with this, ushering in new modes on top of existing content. “Hero Mode” gives Shantae access to every mandatory transformation (specifically the ones received after clearing a chapter) from the beginning of the game. The game also includes a second difficulty setting, “Hard Core Mode”, a first for the series.
Then there’s the DLC – free to backers and people who decided to buy one of the later physical versions of the game – which offers three new scenarios. “Pirate Queen’s Quest” puts players in the role of antagonist Risky Boots, who informs us of what really happened while Shantae was under the spell of dark magic. Risky plays similarly to how Shantae did in Pirate’s Curse (which makes sense, because Shantae relied on Risky’s gear after losing her magic in that game) but adds in unique abilities of her own. There’s also “Friends to the End”, a Trine-like puzzle platformer with Bolo, Sky and Rottytops working together to navigate Shantae’s memories and save their friend from her dark side. Finally, the “Costume Pack” DLC is set to include 3 separate “arcade-style” adventures with Shantae donning one of three costumes: a stealthy ninja outfit, a summery beach bikini and even a reference to Patricia Wagon from Mighty Switch Force. That last one isn’t out as I’m writing this, but it sounds like a vast improvement over the original concept – allowing for replaying the main campaign with different stat boosts, much like the “Magic Mode” in Risky’s Revenge.
In Shantae 5, WayForward should recycle at least the PQQ and FttE concepts at bare minimum. While both modes recycled a lot of the main story’s art assets, they created entirely original stage layouts which felt like brand-new adventures. Pirate Queen’s Quest even managed to add new enemies – mostly from previous games, but there were also a few entirely original ones – to the game. Friends to the End, on the other hand, used all of the existing assets to create something that felt entirely different, despite reusing a lot of the design elements from the other two campaigns. While Costume Mode still hasn’t been released, it does seem like an interesting choice for inclusion in future titles as well, though WayForward would probably have to draw up some new costumes just to keep things interesting. The sheer amount of remixed content has definitely endeared HGH to me in a way that the original stretch goal pitches – replaying the main campaign with 4 new characters and 3 extra costumes – never could have, so hopefully that will become more prominent in future Shantae titles, if not WayForward’s entire library moving forward. Hero Mode and Hard Core Mode also seem like they’d be cost-effective ways to extend a new Shantae game’s replay value.
This brings us to the game’s story. Generally, I don’t offer any advice when it comes to a game’s storyline in any of these sequel proposals – I would rather not write anything that borders on fanfiction – but in the case of a fifth Shantae game, I have some advice that would prove essential with regards to the game’s writing. Half-Genie Hero felt disconnected from the rest of the series in a lot of ways: honestly, the best way I can describe it is that it felt like “Shantae: The Motion Picture”. Now, considering that back when the game was first pitched, all previous games were limited to Nintendo handhelds and so a self-contained story was probably the smartest way to approach what could very well be someone’s first Shantae game. However, by now, far more people are familiar with the series: the second and third games are available on practically everything Half-Genie Hero is, so a lot of people have become familiar with the various plotlines that were explored and teased in those games. So, the fifth game should reintroduce some of the unresolved plot threads from the previous games. Pirate’s Curse especially seemed to be hinting at some important aspects of the series’ lore – Shantae’s parentage, Rottytops’ former life and even that Risky Boots personally knew Shantae’s mother – and a lot of long-time fans (myself included) were disappointed that most of these weren’t even touched upon in HGH, let alone resolved. Even worse, what HGH managed to achieve, our first look at the Genie Realm, ended up being more of a tease than anything. WayForward should definitely look to the past when writing the next Shantae installment.
On the other hand, Half-Genie Hero’s art style is perfect for the series moving forward. I’m under the impression that a big part of the reason why WayForward had to crowdfund the game and why it was so short is because shifting from their traditional pixelated sprites to high-definition hand-drawn artwork took up a majority of the game’s budget. In the end, I’d say it was worth it: HGH is a gorgeous game. Considering the fact that Pirate’s Curse recycled several art assets from Risky’s Revenge, it seems likely that Shantae 5 would do the same with its predecessor. The 2.5D aesthetic – 2D hand-drawn characters against colorful 3D backgrounds – has become an almost iconic look for WayForward on high-definition platforms by this point. Best of all, if they don’t have to redraw everything from scratch again, Shantae 5 would most likely be much larger than Half-Genie Hero: after all, Pirate’s Curse was at least twice the size of Risky’s Revenge. Likewise, I’d love to hear the voice cast from HGH return, even the additional cast from the Friends to the End DLC. More importantly, Jake “virt” Kaufman should return for the fifth entry. Though he’s since founded his own music production studio and no longer works as a WayForward employee, he’s been the series’ composer since the very first game back in 2002. virt and Shantae are intertwined at this point.
Part of the reason I decided to write this article is that the most recent project we’ve seen from WayForward – aside from Half-Genie Hero’s post-launch content – was The Mummy Demastered, which came out late last year. Granted, even Half-Genie Hero’s development was delayed, and by Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (its predecessor) no less. Regardless, the radio silence about future WayForward projects – Shantae or otherwise – is unnerving. Still, I’m sure that WayForward is planning on another entry in the series: I doubt they would’ve ported a failed game to the Switch. I’m almost certain that it won’t be their next project (even omitting licensed games) but I’m also certain that we’ll see Shantae 5 in the next few years. Whether WayForward decides to build it based on any of the advice that I’ve written in this article remains to be seen, but I’m sure that if they somehow manage to come to the same conclusions I have, the fifth Shantae will be the best game in the entire series.