My take on the state of Wayforward and Shantae and how Yacht Club Games and Shovel Knight have them beat.
Shovel Knight is one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date. Developed and published by independent games studio, Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight is a 2D side-scrolling, retro-inspired action game which borrows elements from Mega Man, Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and even Super Mario Bros. 3. Former Wayforward director, Sean Velasco, founded the company in 2011 and released Shovel Knight in June of 2014. After the initial launch and success of Shovel Knight, the game has not only been ported to nearly every modern platform since, but has even spawned its own amiibo line. Shovel Knight has also been featured as a cameo character in various games such as Blaster Master Zero, Yooka-Laylee, and Runbow. The dirt-digging knight is also making its way to the latest No More Heroes game from Suda 51, Travis Strikes Again. To say that Shovel Knight is now an Indy darling would be an understatement!
Post-launch Support, DLC and Expansions, Oh My!
Since the launch of Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games has not only released (and still plans on releasing) all of their Kickstarter promised goals, but everything they’ve released has been fully-featured and of the same quality as the original game. Their first two expansions, Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, offered entirely new gameplay experiences. The new stories were cute, simple and as charming as ever. Each stage was redesigned in order to showcase the new character mechanics/abilities, too. Most importantly, each expansion felt like they received the same care, love and attention to detail that the original game presented. For existing owners of the game, these additional character campaigns were free to boot!
Yacht Club Games has gone above and beyond our wildest expectations when it comes to post-launch DLC/campaigns. Some have argued that they’ve already released two direct sequels in the form of Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, which I would not argue with, given their inherent quality and distinction from the base game. Their latest and final campaign expansion, King of Cards, which is set to release sometime next year, looks to retain the same quality and care that the last two characters received. So, what’s next for Yacht Club Games? Shovel Knight X (in the vein of Mega Man X), Shovel Knight 64, or perhaps an entirely new IP? Time will tell, but in the meantime, a certain purple-haired genie has been struggling to say something, too…
…but what about that Purple-haired Genie?
Before Shovel Knight, there was Shantae. What is arguably Wayforward’s flagship franchise, Shantae went from being a cult-classic on the original Gameboy Color to a mildly successful franchise with each new installment. For those who aren’t familiar with the hair-whipping heroine, Shantae is a Metroid-like side-scroller with a heavy Zelda II influence at its core. In most installments of the franchise, Shantae gains the ability to transform into various animals which allows her to gain access to new areas, items and secrets. Although the franchise is known for the transformation mechanic, the third installment, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, actually dropped the idea (which resulted in what’s arguably the best installment in the franchise, ironically).
Like Zelda II, towns primarily served as information hubs inhabited by denizens who seemingly would strut back & forth providing helpful hints/clues to the player. Items/upgrades could be purchased from shops and dungeons were located on the overworld which housed puzzles, bosses and new upgrades in order to proceed. One could say that Shovel Knight’s roots stems from not only the games of yesteryear, but also Shantae. Considering the lead developer’s history with Wayforward, it’s hard to deny the similarities. Needless to say, Shovel Knight has become a huge success while its younger sister series, Shantae, has sort of drifted out to sea…
Losing Steam Despite Steam Sales…
In an ideal world, both Shovel Knight and Shantae would co-exist and Yacht Club Games and Wayforward would be in friendly competition in order to provide us with the best of both worlds. The reality is, however, that Yacht Club Games is absolutely crushing the scene with Shovel Knight and Wayforward continues to struggle in finding a more meaningful voice for their beloved genie. Although Shantae still reviews fairly well (the latest game sits around an 80 on Metacritic, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything…), it’s clear that the franchise is slowly being overshadowed by its distant, more popular cousin. The latest Shantae game, Half-Genie Hero, initially launched as a Kickstarter and although the game was successfully funded, the final game was met with divisive opinions amongst long-time fans.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is beautifully animated, has an amazing soundtrack (thanks to the wonderfully talented Jake Kaufman a.k.a., Virt), plays, feels and looks polished, yet is somehow held back by its mediocre level design and forgettable scenarios. The few levels present are compactly designed and feature the same old hidden secrets and mini-puzzles the franchise is known for. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of fluff in the way of backtracking/fetch-questing for key items in order to proceed, which ultimately impacts the overall pacing. The transformations return, however, they’re both underutilized and uninspired in their functionality. In regards to the transformations, there’s a clear case of quantity over quality in Half-Genie Hero and it’s disappointing because not only were they missing from the prior installment, Pirate’s Curse, they’re arguably what the franchise used to be known for.
Pirate Queen’s Quest has to be one of the most disappointing DLC expansions I’ve played in the longest time, too. Stages are slightly remixed and bosses feature little-to-no difference in their patterns/designs. What’s even more disconcerting is the fact that nearly all of Risky Boot’s abilities are borrowed/lifted from, once again, Pirate’s Curse. Besides a newly animated home screen for the world map, one could mistaken this antagonist-based DLC for a throwaway unlockable mode (which, honestly, should have just been included in the main game). There’s very little creativity on display here and considering the fact that Yacht Club Games knocked it out of the park with Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, respectively, it’s difficult to walk away from this expansion feeling impressed/satisfied.
What’s Next for Wayforward? Pure Conjecture, but…
So, what’s exactly wrong with Shantae, then? The latest entry in the franchise, Half-Genie Hero, is by no means a bad game, but it’s missing something that Shovel Knight has seemingly captured in a single game. Perhaps Shantae just doesn’t hold the same cache as it used to. Or maybe the games just aren’t as well designed as its contemporaries. With Indy hits such as Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest, and now Shovel Knight, Wayforward has had some major competition over the past few years. With that said, perhaps its time for Wayforward to let their genie rest in her cozy bottle for a bit. They’re clearly struggling to find what makes Shantae, Shantae, so perhaps a short hiatus is long overdue.
For those who haven’t been following the company since their early Gameboy Advance days, Wayforward has always been known for their licensing/publishing deals. Mystik Belle, developed by Last Dimension, for example, released initially on PC/Steam back in 2015 and is now available on PS4/Xbox One, courtesy of Wayforward. They’re also developing the soon-to-be-released Mummy: Demastered game for all major platforms, including the Nintendo Switch. Despite being a licensed title, some have said it’s the spiritual successor to their Nintendo DS title, Aliens: Infestation, which was great! It’s games like these that presumably keep the company afloat.
It’s clear that Wayforward has a lot of talent. They are one of the few remaining developers who can not only leverage licensed titles to a standard higher than “garbage” but can also maintain high-quality, original IPs like Shantae. I’m not quite sure what it will take for them to level the playing field with Yacht Club Games and Shovel Knight, respectively, but I hope they stick around long enough in order to provide us with high-quality licensed games as well as one day, hopefully, finding a way to breathe new life into our favorite purple-haired genie, Shantae.