Review: Shantae

Ret-2-Go for the first grand(?) adventure!

Console: Nintendo Switch
Shantae is the flagship series, the mascot, of developer WayForward. Hitting store shelves for the GameBoy Colour in 2002, the original game was met by critical praise yet sold poorly. The GameBoy Advance had already been out for a year at that point and while I can see the logic in making your game for the console with the bigger install base, the GBA completely overshadowed anything GBC related.

While the first game didn't sell well, WayForward's continued commitment to the series has turned its fortunes around. Now, 5 games in, the series is moderately popular. Popular enough to have sold over 3 million copies by 2020 and to warrant re-releases of the older games on modern platforms.

It is through this re-release that I've played the original Shantae, the final game in the series I had yet to play (though not review). Is it worth checking it out all these years later? I don't think it is. I found this game to be rather rough all over. Without the conveniences of suspend points, I doubt I would've finished the game at all.

Let's dive in!

Just a normal run through the living scarecrow infested fields!

When the notorious pirate Risky Boots attacks Scuttle Town Shantae, the town's guardian genie, manages to send Risky and her crew running but not before they steal uncle Mimic's plans for a Steam Engine. Risky plans to use four magical elemental stones to power the engine and turn it into a weapon of mass destruction. To stop her, Shantae travels all across Sequin Land to find the elemental stones before Risky can use them for evil.

The story of Shantae does what it's meant to do for this type of game. It gives a solid reason for setting out on the journey, establishes the characters and even has a little bit of growth for Shantae herself. The dialogue isn't as plentiful or snappy as in later titles but the makings of that are present.

Gameplay-wise, the game is a Platformer and MetroidVania hybrid. Sequin Land is set up like your typical sidescrolling platformer with towns, collectables and labyrinth sprinkled throughout. These labyrinths are the more Metroidvania heavy aspect of the game while also sharing similarities with the dungeons in Zelda. An interesting mix of the two that doesn't quite come together due to some unfortunate design decisions. It doesn't know what elements of both genres to keep or not, giving rise to frustrations.

Take the life system. Run out of lives and instead of a reset to where you entered the 'zone' it's a game over. This decision is counter-intuitive as it overcomplicates, the simple act of exploration, something that's very important to a MetroidVania. It makes the lengthy time it takes to backtrack to where you died from one of the very few (and scattered) save points a real slog.

A problem that is made bigger by the game's one-hit-kill gimmicks such as bottomless pits and spikes. Gimmicks you will fall victim to. A lot. Sommecallmejohnny gives this game the name 'Shantae: Leaps of Faith' and I have to fully agree with him. The camera is very close to the player making it very difficult to see what's up ahead. To see where you have to jump down to exactly leading to, again, a lot of deaths.

Shantae, as a Half-Genie, has two special abilities going for her. She uses her long hair as a whip to attack her enemies and can transform into different animals through dance. The latter is a big part of the game, with each new transformation integral in completing the game's labyrinths. You transform by pressing the ´X´ button and then pressing the correct buttons in the correct order on the dancing rhythm to transform.

The monkey is the first, and arguably the most useful, animal transformation.

The dancing is a fun way of explaining how Shantae transforms, but not that well handled in the control department. The time it takes to input the right combination leaves you vulnerable to attack and having to remember the right combination is a hassle. With how though enemies are in this game, you often can´t afford to stand still that long.

Shantae herself got a nice weight and speed to her, especially once you get her running with the ´Y´ button. The problem here lies in the input delay. Whenever you, for example, press down to duck Shantae won´t duck instantly but remain standing/running for about a second.

Items usage is also irritating. Necessitated by the original hardware, the selected items are consumed when you press the 'Y' and 'Up' buttons simultaneously. The game doesn't properly register this input half the time. That's a shame considering how fun the items can be. The fireball gives Shantae a much needed ranged option, the pike ball is such a handy weapon to get extra damage off on bosses while healing items and the vanishing cream are near essentials.

Luckily, this port did add/change some other things. It adds in suspension points, accessible to you anytime and anywhere. It's a godsend. It makes up for the lacking amount of in-game save points (none in labyrinths even!) and allows to quickly get back into the game after a mistake without the need for endless backtracking.

This version allows you to choose between the original, GameBoy Colour version and GameBoy Advance Enhanced edition, Tinkerbat transformation included. There are in-game changes to menus to reflect the Switch buttons, filter options and comes with some added fluff like an art gallery. It also runs quite excellent. No glitches, bugs etc. MVG, you can be proud of your work!

The visual difference between the original and GBA version of the game. Yeah, the original is my favourite. The GBA version looks washed out to me.

The game's music is fine. The tracks are not quite as catchy or elaborate as in later games, but they still have that recognisable Kaufman/Shantae twang to them. Plus, as a fan of the series, it was neat to listen to the original version of series mainstay tracks such as 'Burning Town'. Really underscores the evolution these tracks have gone through over the years.

Graphic-wise, Shantae looks excellent for its original hardware. All the sprites and textures have a lot of detail to them. The colours are nicely rich and all characters, enemies included, have more frames of animation than I expected. The graphical prowess of this game shows best in the towns. These are viewed from an over the shoulder perspective with the town 'scrolling' by. Seeing the work that went into this, as well as the animations to create depth, is noteworthy.

Conclusion

Where the other Shantae games I've covered were easy recommendations, that's sadly not the case for the game that started it all. I can see why at the time of its release it garnered positive in 2002 but I can't do the same now. The game hasn't aged well, with lots of small problems that weren't a big deal back then feel much worse due to the improvements games have made in the last 20 years.

The addition made to the game in this port, the suspend feature especially, ease the pain so to speak but aren't enough to make up for all the shortcomings that make this game a much more frustrating experience than it should've been.

Unless you're already a fan of the Shantae series and want to (re-)experience her beginning then I would stay clear of this game.

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