It’s no secret I enjoy retro games. Whether I\’m replaying Super Mario World for the 20th time or discovering a gem on the Virtual Console service, I love the olden days of gaming. Nearly two weeks ago, the Wii U and 3DS each got a cult classic: Earthbound and Shantae, respectively. I\’ve been dedicating my gaming time to both of these titles, but this was the first time I actually played Shantae, having missed out on it during the Game Boy years and being too poor to afford a copy from eBay.
Having beaten Shantae, I can say I\’m happy to have finally played it, but at the same time, I know it’s not for everyone.
Shantae opens with the titular half-genie leaving her house and being attacked by a pirate ship. After crossing what seems to be the longest bridge in video game history, Shantae arrives in the nearby Scuttle Town to find it overrun with pirates. This acts as a memorable “tutorial” level, getting the player accustomed to the gameplay and mechanics of Shantae. From the get-go, she can jump, crawl, run, and attack with her hair while in the air or on the ground. It also teaches you that enemies can pop out from environmental objects like crates or windows – keeping the player on their toes at all times. Shantae’s health is indicated by hearts a la Zelda, and defeated enemies can drop either hearts or gems that act as the game’s currency.
Following this introduction is a mini-boss battle and a meeting with the antagonistic Risky Boots. She steals a prototype Steam Engine to use as part of a doomsday weapon so she can rule the seven seas. To do so, she needs the help of four elemental metals throughout the world and as Shantae, it’s your job to get them before Risky does.
The story is pretty tongue-in-cheek and often introduces quirky characters, such as Bolo who is in love with Risky, or Rotty Tops, a zombie who befriends Shantae after making a bet for Shantae’s brain. Throughout the adventure, numerous towns are visited and the citizens can be talked to for helpful tips. Each town has shops (that feature unique items to that particular town), save rooms, and bath houses (to replenish your health), and some towns have exclusive areas like a dance parlour to make money.
The towns also play a role in the structure of the game. The world is mostly a straight line from left to right with towns sprinkled in. Each town must be visited for a specific character, like the aforementioned Bolo or Rotty Tops, who will then open the area’s dungeon for you. The dungeons are a mix of Metroid and Zelda, featuring mazes of corridors and open areas to fight enemies in, while you collect keys to unlock doors and search for a specific tool to help you advance and beat the labyrinth’s boss. These dungeons are the game’s high points, as it’s very rewarding to explore your way through them. They also feature some unique mechanics such as using magnetism in interesting ways to delve deeper in the tunnels.
While I love the dungeons, I do have to mention that the last one gave me the wrong kind of trouble. I was exploring and accidentally ended up in the boss room without acquiring the dungeon’s upgrade, which meant I couldn\’t win. I was forced to use my last life and ended up back at the previous town (more on this later). When I got back to the labyrinth, all the unlocked doors remained unlocked and I had used all my keys. I couldn\’t enter the room where the upgrade was since all the keys were spent, thus effectively ending my game. I spent an hour looking for another key, looked up some walkthroughs, read some FAQS – all to no avail. I had to restart my last save and start the dungeon from square one. Perhaps there is a “fail safe” I missed, like a secret key, but at the time of writing I couldn\’t find a solution.
In addition to attacking with her hair, Shantae can also dance with the A, B, and four directional buttons to transform into different animals for abilities. The monkey can climb walls, the elephant can crash through walls and I won\’t spoil the rest. Throughout the world are plenty of secrets such as additional heart containers and another ability for the animal transformations. Dances are also good for fast travelling between towns, as collecting four Warp Squids and returning them to their mom will grant you a dance to travel to whichever town that Mother Squid was in.
This being a Wayforward game, it’s no shock that the controls are tight. Each animal features their own physics, so while a monkey is good for climbing or running faster, precision platforming is more tedious. The elephant is slow and can\’t jump high, but can deal out massive damage. One slight issue I found with combat is the enemies\’ hit-boxes. Sometime it feels like Shantae has to be closer to an enemy to land a blow, even if her hair visually touches them. I didn\’t find it happened often, but when it did, it was known.
Unfortunately, there are some issues in the game that will turn off more modern gamers. The first comes right after the introduction stage. While on your way to the first town, most enemies are not onscreen like normal action games. While running, enemies can jump from the background or underneath your feet. While I have no problem with this in theory (the intro stage featured them and it worked), it is poorly executed here. There is no pattern to them and often times they are hard to react to. Sometimes, they jump from directly underneath you (meaning you\’ll get hit) or slightly in front so you can\’t react in time (you\’ll get hit again). In the next area are waterfalls with dragons that poke their heads out from behind the water; while these always come out from the same spot, they tend to appear when you\’re within their range, meaning you\’ll get hit … again. The first area of the game demands careful playing, and even then, it may not help much.
Another big issue is the constant leap-of-faith gameplay. Often times, Shantae is forced to jump downwards, but what’s down there? Who knows until you land. It could be an enemy, it could be a platform, it may even be spikes that instantly kill you. This game runs on a lives system, and when they run out, you start back from the last save point. If you have spare lives you restart the area from the last screen transition. The blind jumps wouldn\’t be so bad if spikes didn\’t automatically take away one whole life. Fortunately, there is some alleviation: all the items you acquire or doors you unlocked remain that way, so it’s just a matter of getting to where you were before, which can be a bit tedious at times.
Lastly, the difficulty curve makes little sense. I already described how the opening areas are unforgiving, but after a while, when more heart containers are found and health potions are bought, very little in the game poses a challenge. Thinking back, I don\’t recall any enemies doing more than a half of a heart of damage. While this can be troublesome at the start, it’s weird six hours in when enemies are still doing minimal damage. If you can just make your way through the first dungeon, you\’re on easy street.
The presentation in Shantae is dated, but for the Game Boy Colour, it’s pretty darn great. Character sprites have animations, Shantae has a wide range of dance moves, and the bosses are pretty big for an old handheld. The world is colourful and has a classic feel throughout. There are also small touches everywhere, like ice blocks crumbling into pieces, or enemies that react to damage with animations rather than blinking in and out of focus.
The music is also exceptional. Some tunes got stuck in my head, others are forgettable, and there is even a distinct few that I fell in love with. One disappointment I had with the soundtrack is that every dungeon has the same bland music; I was hoping for each one to have an unique theme, but this is only a nitpick.
While I enjoyed my time with Shantae overall, I admit there were moments of pure frustration. For the most part, it stands the test of time and is worth playing today; however, there are some old school issues that keep it from being deemed a classic. If you can stomach some retro issues, like blind jumps, then you\’ll find an engaging game that rewards and satisfies. Conversely, if you\’re not a fan of old school platformers, then I suggest going with Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, which is a more modern experience. At the end of the day, Shantae won me over with her magic despite some flaws in her act.