Summer is almost over. Somehow I managed to finish 18 different games this summer. Some are ones that I’ve already written reviews on like Magicka 2 and Arkham Knight. And other games have reviews incoming like the Kingdom Hearts spin-offs.
But there was one game series I played through this summer that I thought really deserved the spotlight. Shantae is not a popular series, it’s nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary, but the people who have actually played it, like it a lot. And hopefully, when the next game comes out, it won’t just be another small, cult hit. Maybe this one will be the critical and commercial success it deserves. I managed to play and finish all three released Shantae games this summer, so for the next couple of days, I’m going to be releasing reviews of all three games in the series. Here’s the original one for the Game Boy Color:
Ever heard of a little game called Shantae? I sure hadn’t. Turns out that it was one of the hidden gems of the Game Boy Color. Since then, it has slowly but surely gained a cult following as more and more people have been exposed to it. Highly underrated and unknown, I set out to find whether this series was worth it or not. My consensus, you should definitely give it a try.
Shantae is a series of Metroid-vania games created by indie developer Wayforward (Ducktales: Remastered, Contra 4, Mighty Switch Force, etc.). They feature Shantae, the buxom half-genie who uses her belly-dancing to transform into various animals and defeat the even more buxom pirate, Risky Boots. Travel the world around you, explore the dungeons, beat the bosses, find the stones, and stop Risky Boots (the sexy pirate antagonist) from destroying the world.
A Solid Metroid-vania, Adventure
If you like Metroidvania games, you know what you’re in for. Run around, kill enemies, explore a persistent 2-D sidescrolling world, gain new powerups to unlock new ways to progress and then use those new powerups to explore older areas with new eyes. It’s a good formula that has been perfected by other notable games (Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). I will explain how this one is different though.
Instead of exploring a large structure like Zebes or Dracula’s Castle, you travel across Sequin land, which is primarily (though not exclusively) explored horizontally, not vertically and horizontally like other games. There are towns, where you buy items and gain information to advance the quest. Overworld sections which connect the towns, filled with collectibles to increase your health and power up your transformations. And dungeons which you have to find in the overworld and unlock through a series of interactions with characters found in various towns. Shantae sets itself apart by being more focused on character interaction and questing than on pure exploration. It’s limited by the platform it was made on (the original Gameboy Color), but you can tell they put some effort into making the story itself something worthwhile. The transformations which are like the upgrades you’d find in Super Metroid or Castlevania, are all fun to use and have different uses and abilities for getting around. You can upgrade these transformations too in order to open up more areas and let you kill enemies more easily.
The most fun I had in the entire game was during the dungeons. Despite having a heavy focus on platforming, they reminded me of Zelda dungeons. A mid-level item unlock (a new transformation), doors with keys, extra items hidden in chests for optional bonuses, some simple puzzles, finish up with an interesting boss that uses your new transformation, and TADA, you’ve got a perfect recipe for dungeon crawling.
The system works, and it’s just a lot of fun to play. It’s actually one of the better variants of Zelda dungeons that I’ve played, most games just can’t get the feeling right. Despite not playing like a Zelda game at all most of the time, Shantae did a really good job of maintaining that same feeling. It’s both surprising and refreshing.
Actually, for a game boy game the sprites in this are pretty good. They’re detailed, unique and clear. You can tell what each one is supposed to be, which is pretty impressive considering the different designs that they use. Each environment is unique and doesn’t just use your standard: fire, desert, forest, etc. levels. Even the dungeons, which could have all just looked the same, have their own personality. All of them feel dark and oppressive, but not in the same way as any others, which stands in sharp contrast to most of the bright cheery overworld. Overall, it’s very impressive what they managed to do with the system.
Limitations of the Game Boy
Unfortunately, there’s one very important problem, this game was made for the Game Boy Color. That means that everything in the game, the combat, the sprites, the exploration, the music, is all hamstrung by a 17 year old system. The screen is too small which means that the sprites, with their level of detail, make it impossible to see less than two character lengths ahead of you. Since you can’t see, you are constantly getting killed by enemies off screen. The speed of the CPU of the Game Boy stops you from attacking fast enough to kill enemies before you get hurt.
You don’t have enough screen length to attack without being in range of other enemy attacks. There aren’t enough buttons to do all the things that you want to do. You frequently have to jump off of ledges without knowing whether or not you have a platform to land on. On top of that, it’s super difficult to figure out where you have to go next. Due to the limited size of the cartridge, they didn’t have much room for text, leaving players lost and confused about where to go next. If the game had been on SNES or even GBA it would have been fine, but that itsy-bitsy GBC screen, and all the problems that come with it are just awful.
I’m willing to give Wayforward some lee-way here, especially since this was one of their first games, but as a whole the game is very poorly balanced. Enemies attack in numbers that are too large. The difficulty curve is too high. Your basic hair attack doesn’t do enough damage and never gets any upgrades. The enemies in the overworld hardly ever give you any health, leaving you just barely scraping by on your last leg. Health expansions are way too hard to find. When you dance to change into another animal, in order to climb a wall, the game doesn’t pause, leaving you exposed while enemies attack your flank and cancel your dance routine. This becomes even more problematic when being attacked by long range enemies out of reach until you transform. Heck, the dungeons are supposed to be a test of skill and they’re the easiest part in the game. Your character doesn’t really get any stronger either, so as you go through the game, enemies just have more and more health, while you whittle their health away doing one damage at a time. There are fighter moves you can buy to make yourself more powerful, but they all suck. There’s not even a map in this Metroidvania game. How do you have a Metroid-Vania game without a map?
Shantae v.1 was a good game at its core. Despite doing well with critics, it didn’t do very well in terms of sales due to the recent release of the Game Boy Advance. Until recently, it was only possible to get ahold of the game via the original GBC cartridge which regularly went for upwards of $200 due to its rarity and relatively low sales. Nowadays though, it can be easily found on the Nintendo 3DS eshop for $5. It would be cheaper to buy a 3ds, and the VC version of Shantae, then to buy the original cartridge. That’s always a sad thing. Regardless, Shantae is still a fun game, and despite my frustrations I had a lot of fun with it. The dungeons and transformations are a lot of fun, and the dancing concept was really unique and hadn’t been done by anyone else in the Metroidvania genre. I do hope that Wayforward eventually does a formal remake and makes the game available to more people in a more palatable form, but this version will do just fine until then. If you want to get into the series, don’t feel like you have to play it, but if you are interested it’s worth your time.
Note: I used a walkthrough in a couple of places in order to find my way to the correct spot. It is definetly hard to decpiher occassionally. Especially if you pick it up and put it down over the course of a long period of time. If you must resort to such a resource, feel no shame.