This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Shantae and the Seven Sirens.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens, as well as being a title tailor-made to get the maximum amount of spit all over my laptop screen, is a retro-style platformer by WayForward Games, with an art style reminiscent of a certain genre of Japanese anime: the kind that projects a wholesome, upbeat, innocent vibe but is somehow, at the same time, unrelentingly horny. Shantae's thesis statement is made in the very first frame of the opening cinematic, which is a zoomed-in shot of the main character's bare midsection as it writhes about like a freshly-neutered cat trying to lick its own balls.
But while anime-styled, I had a hunch that it wasn't actually Japanese which, one quick Google search later, was proved correct; WayForward are based in California. What gave it away is, while the horniness of Japanese anime isn't in dispute, in the family-friendly sector, at least, it's always had this air of plausible deniability; if you told the animators of Sailor Moon, for example, that people were jerking off to the transformation sequence, you might expect them to at least feign surprise.
Shantae has no such subtlety; not when all the female NPCs are wearing bikini tops and stand around jiggling like they're desperate for the loo, as do about 50-60% of the monsters. The very first major boss fight is against a giant girl in a bikini top, whose attack cycle involves yawning and throwing her arms up a lot. But hey, maybe this says more about me than Shantae; sure, every pose Shantae adopts during dialogue sequences in some way involves stretching or leaning forward, but... maybe her back hurts. Maybe I'm just projecting the horniness I brought to the table. So let's talk about the game. It kind of sucks. Oh well, back to the tits.
Shantae is a half-genie girl - presumably the top half - who comes to a tropical island resort along with several other half-genie girls who all, it seems, independently decided to show up wearing about two dish towels apiece, which must've been embarrassing. In short order, all the other half-genies get mysteriously abducted, and Shantae has to venture into an undersea labyrinth to rescue them from the monstrous Seven Sirens, who all wear bikini tops, while also dealing with a redoubtable pirate queen with her own agenda and a bikini top. Maybe there was a fabric shortage, and everyone donated their sweaters to be made into nightgowns for underprivileged babies. And that's why they're jiggling around so much, 'cos they're really jazzed about the nightgowns.
Sorry, yes, gameplay, I remember that. Seven Sirens is the first Shantae game to be a true Metroidvania; that is, set in a single interconnected world. Previous Shantaes were more hub-based, Metroidvania-adjacent; "Metroid-feign-ia", if you will. You get new abilities from saving the other half-genies that open up more areas of the world map, but ironically, for such a titty game, the environments seem kind of flat, as in, dull and without much variety beyond color scheme. As for the core gameplay, it's really quite amazingly off-balance, and I'm not talking about the jiggling; for your basic attack, you whip your hair back and forth, whip your hair back and forth, which can be upgraded to do a whole 3 more damage and go from "quite" fast to "instant severe spinal injury" fast, and that's about it as far as evolution goes.
A lot of the boss fights involve the boss standing in one place for long periods, because anything else might require work or something that doesn't involve jiggling in a bikini top, so you spend a lot of time just standing in place spamming "Attack", whipping your hair back and forth, whipping your hair back and forth, until your neck bones are reduced to a handful of gravel that your head sits on. Then there's magic spells and dances. Hair attacks and dance attacks? What is this, the Bayonetta Saturday morning cartoon? You buy combat spells like a fireball and a homing missile that do about the same damage as your hair, assuming they land. But the thing is, not long into the game, you unlock a lightning-summoning dance for free that does more damage to everything onscreen for about half as much magic, which seems a bit unbalanced. Yes, the dance takes longer to do, but not to the point that it stops making sense to use; just to the point of making gameplay slightly more annoying.
I say "dance"; you hold down a button, Shantae stands like she's balancing a plate on her head for a bit, then you press another button and a thing happens, accompanied with a picture of an unrelated girl in a bikini top in case you forgot the game's thesis statement. But I digress. When the electric dance subtracted any reason the spells had to exist, I was offended; spells were just about the only things worth spending money on up to then. If I hadn't bothered, I could've maxed out my money capacity way earlier in the game, and I liked having that "999" in the corner; it was reassuring to know I'd always have a reminder of the British emergency services number.
Yes, you can also buy health potions, but I never did, because the enemies drop food items like a serial shoplifter getting their coat caught on a door handle, to the point that I eventually stopped bothering even trying to avoid being hit, just to get some use out of the stack of sandwich tuna that was spoiling the line of my harem pants. All of this goes together to make an almost insultingly easy game; the only bit I found remotely challenging was the final boss against Mecha Girl-in-Bikini-Top, because all the platforms were moving, so the usual pro strat of "stand in one place, whip your hair back and forth, whip your hair back and forth" didn't work so well. Even then, the main skill being tested was my ability to know when to strategically duck into the menu and inhale another cream bun from my trouser pantry. "Pants-ry"? No, maybe not.
The shitty balance and dull environments give the game an amateurish feel, and there's not a lot to recommend it; I suppose the animation's all right if you can never get enough motion tweening. But that word, "amateurish", made me wonder; I'd seen Shantae games crop up before on Steam, and I assumed it was just more retro platformers from new indie developers to add to the pile, with the one unique selling point that it was apparently being drawn one-handed. But no; I looked it up, and the first Shantae game came out in 2002! It was on the Game Boy Color, for fuck's sake! Shantae's nearly twenty years old, which does make me feel better about masturbating to it. WayForward Games, it turns out, have kept the lights on over the years knocking out shitty licensed games, with Shantae being just about their only original IP, and this really threw me; if you worked as a cake decorator for twenty years, I might expect you to know how to do joined-up writing by now, so what the fuck happened here?!
In the spirit of inquiry, I tried the previous Shantae game, Half-Genie Hero, and you know what? It's not bad at all! The environments were lively and interesting; the gameplay was challenging; the first couple of bosses were jiggling bikini girls, yes, but incredibly, the next one wasn't. Also, Shantae's dancing actually looked like dancing, and not her exaggerating her fishing accomplishments. So Seven Sirens is apparently a developer getting lazy rather than not knowing any better, but man cannot live on horn alone. What happened to the ambition, WayForward Games? What happened to the creative drive that brought us, uh... Silent Hill: Book of Memories? Wait, what? That was you?! Well, fucking forget I said anything! Less ambition, please! Bikini tops all 'round!
- More accurately spelled "djinni": Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- What I wonder about is if Shantae's mum had to take maternity leave off from granting wishes to people
- Now here's nine more characters from previous games you didn't play