You should know the story of Shantae by now: Born as a passion project by WayForward's Matt Bozon, it kicked around for years until finally coming to fruition as an homage to '80s and '90s 8-bit platformers in the waning days of the Game Boy Color.
Shantae was a fine (if flawed) game, but WayForward couldn't find a home for a proposed sequel for years. A planned Game Boy Advance follow-up withered on the vine as publisher after publisher turned it down. Even with the portable boom initiated by the success of Nintendo's DS, a Shantae sequel went unwanted by the industry at large until the advent of DSiware allowed WayForward to slip past the traditional retail distribution system and publish the game themselves.
After all those years of teases and disappointment, the latest development for Shantae seems almost like an embarrassment of riches. Not only is the third chapter of the series (The Pirate's Curse) due soon on 3DS eShop, WayForward has also launched a Kickstarter fundraiser to kick off a fourth Shantae that will slip the surly shackles of portable consoles and finally bring their heroine to televisions (without the need to shell out for a copy of the Game Boy Color game and a Game Cube Player, that is).
But does a prolific developer really need to crowd fund a chapter in a fairly established series? Absolutely, says WayForward's James Montagna.
"Shantae has been something that we’re focused on," he says. "But we do always prioritize a lot of our work-for-hire projects. For instance, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has been going on for a while. There will be times where it’s put aside or put on hold so we can prioritize and work on a work-for-hire project."
Like many smaller development studios, WayForward keeps the lights on by doing contract work for larger companies. In their case, those projects mostly take the form of portable titles based on family-friendly movies, though they've also dabbled in popular game franchises such as DuckTales and Silent Hill: Book of Memories. Shantae, like Mighty Switch Force, is a wholly original WayForward project, which means it doesn't benefit from outside funding.
"There are always people who are just mad at the idea of Kickstarter," WayForward director Tomm Hulett concedes. "But I think what they don’t realize is, when we work on [something like] DuckTales, we’re being paid to make the game. We get our milestone checks as the game is being made. Once the game is finished, Capcom doesn’t say, 'Hey, thanks for making that, here’s a ton of money.' We finished the game. Our contract is over. We’re done. We’re not 'building up a money bin,' is what Matt says."
"The Shantae games do very well," Montagna adds. "I think it’s just a matter of, those games are self-funded. Up until now, those games have been funded by us." By turning to crowdfunding, WayForward hopes to ease the financial strain of their independent project and speed it through development.
The downside to Kickstarter, of course, is that a project needs to hit its funding goals in able to reap the payout from its supporters. While a few lucky ventures achieve meteoric success -- see Keiji Inafune's Mighty No. 9 project for a recent example -- most experience a hard struggle to the finish line. Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero seems fairly likely to mop up the remaining $130,000 it needs to hit its goal within the next 20 days, but nothing is given. Would a Kickstarter failure spell the end of Shantae?
"I cannot accept that outcome," Montagna says.
"We’re pretty tenacious," explains Hulett. "If it’s funded, then the fans are guaranteed this game in this time frame. Whereas if we don’t have the money, we’ll have to slowly self-fund it over the course of several years. We don’t know what the landscape will be like in three years. It’s less of a sure thing. Using Kickstarter, we can say, 'Here’s our schedule. Here’s our goal. How much of it do you want? How much are you willing to fund it?'
"The backers are basically our publisher. Hopefully, if we’re funded, they’re saying, 'We want a new game like the one you proposed to us. Here’s the money that we want you to make it with.' Then we get to go make that game. It’s the same process we would go through with a publisher. It’s just us direct to the fans, instead of having a middleman."
"It’s kind of silly to hate Kickstarter," Hulett adds, "because if you don’t want the game, just don’t put money toward it. I understand some people maybe have been burned, or they’re thinking, 'Well, if I’m putting my money into this, they’ll just go and waste it somewhere and I’ll have nothing to show for.' That’s fine. But they shouldn’t hate the venue that lets us get that money, because it’ll let us make a really cool game. If we don’t get any money from people, that game won’t exist."
"When we work on something like DuckTales, we’re being paid to make the game. Once the game is finished, our contract is over. With Kickstarter, the backers are basically our publisher. We take it as seriously as we would take a project with Capcom or WB or D3 or any of our publishers."
Despite its unconventional funding source, WayForward vows that they'll treat the development of 1/2 Genie Hero the same as they would any other venture. "We take it as seriously as we would take a project with Capcom or WB or D3 or any of our publishers," promises Hulett.
The other proverbial spanner in the works could be 1/2 Genie Hero's close proximity to The Pirate's Curse. Gamers complain about annualization these days, but in truth they've always been skeptical of rapidly iterated franchises -- look back to wariness about the later Mega Man NES games, or even the confusing morass of Pac-Man titles that appeared in the golden age of the arcade. Shantae has suddenly gone from famine to potential feast, which could raise eyebrows among gamers.
To help allay these possible concerns, WayForward wants to make it clear that the two games will be very different and very distinct, even beyond their respective visual styles. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, Montagna says, is about "wrapping up the story that we’ve already established and tying up the loose ends for the Shantae series." In short, it marks the end of the portable trilogy, while 1/2 Genie Hero is the genesis of a successor series that takes place after the previous trilogy.
Despite its narrative connections to the previous games, Montagna promises Pirate's Curse will play differently than its predecessors. "Gameplay, as a result of the different pirate gear, will slowly become faster," he says. "It’ll start at a moderate pace, and then as you earn things like Risky’s boots or a scimitar or a pirate hat, you’ll be able to use those for greater mobility. Shantae will be doing a boot dash. She’ll do a cannon double jump. She’ll start gliding with the hat. You’ll chain them together. Gameplay is a lot more frantic in this one than in previous games.
The structure will also differ from the expansive, contiguous Monster World-like format the earlier games incorporated. "Now we have a sort of stage select screen... it’s actually Risky’s ship. You’ll find various docks throughout the game, and you’ll be able to ride in Risky’s ship and go to different islands. Previously, Sequin Land has been one big Metroid-style map. This time we’re breaking it into chunks, so each individual island is its own Metroid map area that you would pick on the stage select screen. You won’t be going through those in sequential order. You’ll have to go back and forth between different islands a few times on different quests."
Structurally, Pirate's Curse sounds remarkably similar to the Game Boy Wario Land titles -- a connection Montagna downplays but doesn't deny. As for the specifics of 1/2 Genie Hero, however, WayForward won't say much beyond promising it won't simply be a rehash of the previous games.
"There’s a lot of stuff we’re still working on for Half-Genie Hero, so it’s hard to say at this point," admits Montagna. "Some of it might be hinged on our funding goals as well. The game is in development. We can’t say too much specifically."
One definite difference between the two games appears in their respective art styles. Where Pirate's Curse employs the company's usual lovely sprite art, packed with detail and fluid animation, 1/2 Genie Hero uses a flashier hand-drawn style that scales up to high-definition resolutions better. That may come as a disappointment to some sprite art fans, who have turned to WayForward as a last bastion of great traditional game art in recent years, but Montagna stresses that 1/2 Genie Hero doesn't mark the end of he style.
"I don’t see [pixel art] going away. It’s just another option regarding aesthetics that we can choose from. Personally I’d be pretty bummed out to learn that pixel games were not a thing anymore. I think the style of art you mentioned, the hand-drawn style, high-definition artwork… It’s just another thing that we like to explore sometimes. But I don’t see pixels going away."