Introducing: Shantae Review
Most fans would give up anything to play the entire history of their favourite franchise on one console. Now, thanks to developer WayForward, you can! As long as that franchise is Shantae. Back in the early 2000’s this game was hard to find. With it being a single run release on what was a “dying” console. However a combination of forwards compatibility and a lot of positive buzz surrounding it made the original a hard sought copy. Since then Shantae has achieved a cult like following, with 5 titles in the series and a number of re-releases on various formats. The real question is, does the original still shine like a freshly polished lamp? Or do it’s limitations dull it’s nostalgic luster?
I Dream of Shantae
Shantae Is the creation of Matt Bozon, taking the artistic direction from his wife Erin. The character is a half human, half genie plying her trade as a guardian of a small town. You arrive at the moment her lighthouse home is being attacked by Pirates. Lead by the fearsome Risky Boots, the Tinkerbats set about procuring a steam engine discovered by your friend and mentor figure, Mimic. Shantae, already insecure in her abilities, sets out to retrieve the elemental stones needed to power the device.
Ixnay on the Wishing for More Wishes!
The game itself is a classic adventure-platformer. For the majority of the game you will be walking, running and jumping through the various towns that make up Sequin land. Enemies will block Shantae’s path and can be dispatched in a number of ways. The most common weapon at her disposal is her hair but the D-Pad controls sometimes make this more difficult. Shantae’s main “weapon” is her purple ponytail but she also has access to weapons that can be purchased for gems.
Each town has it’s own individual area. Unlike similar platform games of the time, there is no “Hub” or overworld map. Instead, the game has a “WonderBoy” style system where you can travel to each area. Once in that particular town, the game changes camera angles to an over the shoulder view. This gives you a whole new dimension to the game as you explore the various locations. Many are similar, which is expected due to the fact this was a Game Boy title and as such, capacity is a premium. But there are some interesting variations that give each locale it’s own spin.
Each area has an associated “dungeon” to unlock and work your way through. Once complete, you encounter a boss battle and subsequently, gain an elemental stone in your quest to bring peace back to Sequin land. There are also side quests to tempt you, completing them will unlock benefits to assist you in game. For example, collecting all the warp squids (that look like an early precursor to A Link Between World’s “Mother Maiamai”) allows you to… well warp!
Ten Thousand Years will give you such a…
The gameplay is pretty complex for what is a ported Game Boy Colour title. Interlaced with challenging puzzles is a distinct Metroidvania dungeon crawler. During the course of the level there is also the chance to unlock transformations. These act similar to a lot of power ups in adventure gaming. For example, being able to transform into the monkey allows Shantae to climb walls and reach areas in the map that she otherwise could not.
The power ups are a bit hit and miss. Some are really well balanced, some are overpowered and enable you to avoid a level entirely. In between are power ups that feel like they are just there to complete a particular task in a dungeon. Similarly to some items in a Zelda dungeon, the transformed form lets you do what the programmer intended for that part of the level but then didn’t revisit it for the rest of the game.
Boss fights are a fun end to each dungeon and in true platform style each has a particular way to defeat them. This variety affects the difficulty of each encounter though. With some being quite straightforward and others being slightly frustrating. The characters and story are enough to detract from this and encourage you to carry on though.
You Ain’t Ever Had A Friend Like Shantae…
The game play of Shantae stands up to platform and metroidvania titles of the time. Levels are challenging, with some interesting and thought provoking puzzles to challenge most players. It’s safe to say that there is no shame in searching for a walkthrough, or even just a map diagram when playing. Enemies aren’t particularly complex, but are sometimes difficult to dispatch, particularly when trying to play with some urgency.
The game play lets itself down at times though. Like many platform games of the time, leaps of faith are quite common, and start early on. This is clearly a relic of the retro gaming era, where titles had added difficulties such as this to increase their length. But as I’ve said a few times when reviewing retro titles this was a poor padding tool then and it certainly is off putting to modern retro lovers. Combine this with a lack of direction at times and you have a game where a walkthrough actually starts to sound more and more like a required accompanyment.
Phenomenal Cosmic Power…. Itty Bitty cartridge space
One of the key mechanics introduced in Shantae is her ability to control magic with dance. Not only that, Shantae is able to generate coin by performing for punters in the evening. Performing for an audience opens up a tiny rhythm mini game reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution. Executing perfect moves throughout the routine earns you more cash, with bonuses to help top that up. The mini game has a difficulty which the player selects before hand also. Whilst this is a great feature to help players gauge their ability, I found myself struggling to break into one category but being frustratingly bored at the lack of challenge from the grade below.
Dance moves are also required for Shantae to both transform and use a number of her spell abilities. These require similar, but shorter, rhythm movements to achieve. Imagine a simpler ocarina mechanic but instead of calling your horse, you’re turning into a Harpy! Whilst this started as a great idea, it quickly became tiresome having to stop and input codes.
The other big issue with the dance mechanic is that, while a great idea, it struggles to implement itself on the Game Boy Colour. This is more noticeable now in an era of greater technology and as such starts to highlight the game’s age a little. While I will admit I am no rhythm game afficionado, I have played enough of them to know when my missed hits are my fault, and when they’re not.
Genie…. You’re Free! Well No, But There’s A Free Artbook?
Whilst the game has some clear legacy issues that are placed into the spotlight, through no real fault of it’s own, it also stands up for itself and holds it’s own against more modern titles. A great example of this is in the game’s aesthetics. Artistically the game has a great handle on the sprite based graphics. Animations are pretty fluid and clean and the use of colour really shows the capabilities of the console. This is further enhanced with the Game Boy Advanced mode, where everything seems just that little bit sharper.
The art is supported incredibly well by the soundtrack. Music tracks help to create a great sense of escapism, even when confined to the realm of chiptune. This hits you the moment you load the game up and immediately are met with beautiful “Arabian Nights” like introduction. The soundtrack is bouncy and lively and helps to support both the platforming nature of the game, but also helps to support Shantae’s pep and sass as a character.
Porting this to the switch appears to have been flawless. It runs with no glitches in both docked and handheld mode. The issues with the dancing mechanic I feel are more tied to the original version than the port itself, though I am unable to test this. The file size is, as you’d expect, incredibly small and therefore is a great game to consider digitally. There are no real issued with frame rate and the parallax scrolling translated well. But to be honest, considering the jump in hardware, these are expected.
2 games on one cart?! That’s wishful thinking!
The game does have a few added features to push it past a simple port. With both the Game Boy Colour and Game Boy Advance versions available to play there is a whole extra dimension to explore. The GBA is essentially the same game, but with the added code that was put in to stagger the game across the two consoles. This meant that aside from some technical upgrades, there were also some additional game content, including a new transformation to explore! If you can only devote time to one version, the GBA is the one I would suggest.
Shantae is a great Game Boy Colour game. It is clear to see how this game started the cult following it did. Even with only a handful of titles in the series, the Purple haired half-genie is a firm favourite. I love the colourful characters and even with a recycled “McGuffin hunt” story line I still wanted to dive in and save the world. Add to that the variety in your interaction with the world around you and how these are animated shows that when this was first created, it was clearly a labour of love. It is certainly a great nostalgia trip for some and a beautiful retro port for others.
That doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have it’s flaws. The game play relies on now outdated tropes which can be off putting to newer players and players with large backlogs alike. While I loved playing Shantae, in the back of my head was always the phrase “but would I have stuck with this with <Insert backlog title here> still waiting?” Taking leaps of faith, only to miss a landing and have to start again quickly became rage inducing. Hit detection had the same effect when you’re struggling to crouch quickly to land a hit. The only real saving grace here is that save states are now a thing, though I would have really appreciated a “rewind” feature that WayForward has used in other retro titles.
- Captivating characters with great depth
- Challenging puzzles
- Amazing aesthetics
- Leaps of faith are common and frustrating
- Some issues with hit detection and responding to controls
- Some mechanics and items feel they are only there to complete a set goal