Product provided for review. Thanks, WayForward!
The end of a system’s lifespan is often an interesting time. By then, developers are intimately familiar with the platform’s capabilities and know exactly what it takes to push it to its limits. Unfortunately, these efforts are often overlooked by the general public, who are too anxious to get their hands on the next generation of hardware and games. As a result, the twilight years of a game system are a perfect breeding ground for cult classics. Such is the story of WayForward’s Shantae for the GameBoy Color. Shantae was originally released for the GameBoy Color on June 2, 2002, almost an entire year after the GameBoy Advance’s North American debut. Now the half-genie’s original outing makes its way to Nintendo Switch, thanks to Limited Run Games.
In Shantae, players control the eponymous character as she attempts to thwart the schemes of the notorious lady-pirate, Risky Boots. The story begins with Risky Boots and her crew invading Scuttletown. As the town’s designated guardian, Shantae repels the pirates, but not before they abscond with a steam engine built by Shantae’s uncle and resident archaeologist, Mimic. After her scuffle with Risky Boots, Mimic warns Shantae of the steam engine’s destructive potential. From there, Shantae sets out to stop Risky from obtaining four elemental artifacts with which she can turn the steam engine into a weapon of unmatched power.
Despite the intro sequence’s engrossing world building, the story itself is pretty straightforward. The plot plays out exactly as one would expect a MacGuffin hunt adventure story to, with no significant surprises. Its a real shame, too. This version of Shantae’s world feels ever so slightly off compared later games, like in the eight years between this game and Risky’s Revenge, the folks at WayForward changed their minds on a lot of the setting’s details. In some ways, I actually prefer this lower-tech, more mysterious take on Sequin Land.
The best part of the Shantae’s writing is its dialog and personality, something that later games in the series would run with. The jokes probably won’t elicit more than a chuckle from most players, but they do a good job keep the mood light and imbue a sense of personality into world and characters. While the characters and humor aren’t on par with later games in the series, the game’s writing presents an admirable first effort.
As with most WayForward games, the animation is amazing, made all the more impressive by the fact it all ran on a GameBoy Color and fit on a four megabyte cartridge! Shantae’s movements are hypnotically smooth and detailed, not to mention expressive. Admittedly, the other characters don’t get nearly as many frames of animation, but their sprites are still detailed and appealing. Even twenty years ago, Wayforward were master animators.
Shantae’s animations aren’t the only visual feats this game can boast. The game makes masterful use of palette swapping, going so far as to shift Shantae’s colors when walking through shadows or into brightly lit areas. In addition, the game also features foreground objects and parallax backgrounds, neither of which are supported by the GameBoy Color’s hardware, to my knowledge. While most modern players will most likely take little touches like this for granted, as a game programmer with a little knowledge of the limitations of retro hardware, I’m amazed at what they pulled off on an 8-bit handheld. My hat’s off to Ministry of Thought, the folks who made Shantae’s graphics engine.
The game’s music was composed by Jake Kaufman, who would go on to compose for every game in the series except Seven Sirens. While limited by the audio capabilities of the GameBoy Color, many these tunes still manage to exhibit some of Kaufman’s signature funk. All in all, it’s a good soundtrack and accompanies the game’s settings and scenarios quite well, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d suggest one listen to on it’s own, especially since many of these songs would go on to get better arrangements in later games.
Shantae is a 2D, side-scrolling, action-adventure game. Players must explore a large, interconnected world filled with monsters to fight, obstacles to evade, and items to collect. Along the way, Shantae will acquire new abilities to aid her on her quest, primarily in the form of dances that let her transform into various animals, each with their own special abilities. Aside from the expansive and interconnected overworld, players can also visit towns to heal, shop, and chat with N.P.C.s. Lastly, players will delve into dungeons where they will face puzzles and foes to find the elemental stones before Risky Boots can.
Shantae controls fairly well, though movement can feel a little stiff at times. This isn’t at all a problem when platforming, but I certainly took few hits due to it. Another issue I have with the controls is that due to the lack of buttons on the GameBoy Color, using items was mapped to pressing up then B, the timing of which is a little tricky to get accustomed to. Not hot keying this for the Switch release was a missed opportunity. Additionally, the game’s collision is a little spotty at times, especially when it comes to the player’s attacks. It’s only an occasional annoyance, but one that’s hard to ignore over the course of gameplay.
The world of Shantae is quite expansive, and it’s readily apparent that a lot of effort was put into making each area in the game feel distinct, as each area features unique enemies, terrain, and set pieces. Just walking between the first two towns, players will travel through a flat cornfield dotted with ancient ionic columns, a dense forest with a slightly hilly topology, and a cliff-side lake surrounded by plunging waterfalls. Moreover, the theming of these regions feels very natural to the setting, avoiding the hackneyed trope of disparate and “gamey” level motifs that don’t logically fit together. That’s not to mention some of the creative scenery, from simple things such as ancient ruins to surreal imagery such as giant insect husks.
As I mentioned before, these areas are fairly large, something I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, it gives the adventure a great sense of scale. The game features a day and night cycle, and trekking from one town to the next is guaranteed to take at least one in-game day, which really sells the sense that Shantae is embarking on a long and perilous journey. On the other hand, unlocking any means of fast travel requires the player to hunt down warp squids in the game’s many dungeons, meaning that players will be doing a lot of hiking until then. The player can eventually open up shortcuts, which I also like in theory, but few of them are all that useful in practice. Additionally, items aren’t very densely packed in the overworld, making a lot of that extra space feel like padding.
While the design and gameplay of the overworld may be hit or miss, the dungeons are far from disappointing. Every dungeon provides a fun challenge, requiring players to fight monsters, find keys to unlock doors, and discover a new animal transformation to progress, each with their own puzzles and gimmicks. The Golem Mine’s magnet themed puzzles stand out especially, and may just be my favorite dungeon in the entire series.
Other issues crop up while exploring the game’s overworld and dungeons. The game’s small screen space and large sprites mean that running through an area leaves little time to react to enemies. This is compounded with the fact that enemies rarely drop hearts, making it easy for careless players to have their health whittled down. Strangely, this makes dungeons, which have predetermined heart drops in the form of vases, safer to traverse than some parts of the overworld. Regardless, what I’m trying to get at is that there’s a reason Shantae’s default speed is walking. The problems with limited screen space aren’t just limited to combat, either, as there are many times where the player must make leaps of faith and hope he doesn’t land in a spike pit.
Throughout the game, players can acquire several new abilities, many of which are optional—something I appreciate as it rewards players for being thorough. Of course, there are the customary transformation dances that would go on to be an on-again-off-again feature of the series. Strangely, they aren’t as tedious to use as I remembered from my first play through several years ago. Still, the insistence on having the player time his button presses to the beat can be frustrating for the rhythmically challenged, especially with the much more elaborate teleportation dances. Then there’s the items and equipment that players can purchase. I like the inclusion of the fighter’s gear in particular, as the special moves each piece provides add a layer to Shantae’s combat that later games lack. That said, I really wish they had explained that those special attacks and offensive items do substantially more damage than Shantae’s default hair whip. Knowing that would have made the aforementioned hikes far less tedious and prevented me from blowing all my money of potions.
The Switch edition of Shantae includes a few nice extras. Firstly, the game features an art gallery with several pieces of concept and promotional art, though unfortunately, the game’s original manual isn’t included in the gallery. It also includes the ability to play the game in either GameBoy Color mode or in GameBoy Advance mode. Because the game was released after the G.B.A.’s debut, WayForward included bonus content and graphical enhancements that were enabled when played on the CameBoy Color’s successor. Lastly, the game allows players to make up to three separate save states, which is sure to come in handy when farming for gems at the gecko game.
I do feel it necessary to point out that, while the emulation is overall quite good, during my time with this game, it did crash on me once…and wiped my save data. Fortunately, this happened within the first hour of gameplay, so I didn’t lose much in terms of progress. Still, what a first impression that was…
Shantae is an incredibly ambitious game that sought to not only push the limits of the GameBoy Color but spit in those limitations’ eyes and take their lunch. For a portable title, the game boasts an impressive sense of scale and detail that captures a genuine sense adventure. Furthermore, many of this game’s mechanics and concepts would be either omitted or downplayed in later installments in the series, making this title stand out by comparison. Lastly, it’s just plain evident that this was a game that the development team really cared about.
Not every element fits together, however, and some outright hamper the experience. While I admire WayForward’s attempts to make the world expansive and immersive, the implementation of many of these ideas produce mixed results. The thing is, the issues in Shantae are relatively minor when viewed on their own: it’s just that they add up.Moreover, many of my problems with this game are mostly due to technical limitations such as screen size or a lack of buttons on the original hardware. Honestly, playing this game made me wish that they had made a modernized remake instead of emulating the original R.O.M. With some polish, I think this game could be my favorite in the series.
So, with all that said, my final rating for Shantae on the Nintendo Switch, is: I liked it.
As for the price, the game sells for only $9.99, which I think is fair, but there is a caveat. This game is also available on the 3DS Virtual Console for half that price. The 3DS version doesn’t include the bonus content, nor does it allow you to play the game in GameBoy Advance mode. That said, playing the G.B.A. version of the game only unlocks an optional transformation dance and an enhanced color palette. So while the Switch version is indeed the definitive version of the game, I leave it to you to decide if those features are really worth the extra five bucks.
If you’re a fan of action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda series or enjoy a good Metroidvania and you have the patience for some old-school cruft, I definitely think this game is worth your time. If you’re looking to get into the Shantae series, I’d advise you to hold off on this one and maybe pick up Half-Genie Hero: Ultimate Edition or Seven Sirens first. Oh, and if you’re a Shantae fan and you don’t already own a version of this game for some reason, of course it’s worth it.
Hey, WayForward, if you’re looking for games to give a second chance, how’s about a Sigma Star Saga remake? I know, I know, Namco owns the rights, but they ain’t doing anything with them. I’m sure they’d let you do it if you asked nicely. What do you say?