Sunday, April 19, 2020

Shantae Review

Developer: WayForward
Publisher: Capcom
Original Release: Game Boy Color 2002
Also Available On: 3DS Virtual Console

Shantae is probably best known for being super rare. I usually see it going for over $500 on ebay, and that's for loose carts. It came out very late in the Game Boy Color's life in 2002. That's a year after the release of the GBA. It also had a very small print run, so naturally, it didn't sell a lot and it got almost no attention from gaming media at the time. It did manage to get a small cult following, though. Mostly because it was one of the best looking games on the GBC. It was also a revival of the ZeldaII/Simon’s Quest style of action adventure game, which we weren't getting much of around this time.

I remember watching an interview with Shantae co-creator, Matt Bozon, in which he said he envisioned Shantae as the Parodius to Castlevania. If you're not familiar with Parodius, it's Konami's goofy version of their own Gradius and Life Force games. At its core, Shantae is a cute and light-hearted take on Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. It shares a very similar day and night system, looping world map, and upgrade-based progression. It’s a Metroidvania, but more like Zelda II, Rygar, and the Wonder Boy/Monster World games than the more SOTN and Super Metroid-inspired stuff we get so much of today. There’s towns, dungeons, puzzles, NPCs, sidequests, and a cast of lovable characters that are still a big part of the Shantae games to this day.

Shantae’s abilities are also heavily influenced by Castlevania. Her main attack is a hair whip, which works a lot like Simon Belmont’s whip. She has magical hair because she is a half genie. Her Dracula parts, or Power Suit upgrades, come in the form of animal transformations she learns in each dungeon. She can transform into 4 different animals and use their skills to open new paths and reach areas she wouldn’t be able to with her normal abilities. She can transform into a monkey, harpy, elephant, and spider. You can wall jump like Mega Man X in monkey form, ram and break obstacles in elephant form, fly in harpy form, and climb on spider webs and the surface of walls in spider form. This might sound a bit like Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, but your mobility and attacks are much more limited in these forms than they are in WBIII. None of them can even attack without a special item. You also don’t have to go back to town to change forms, like in Wonder Boy III, Shantae can dance anywhere to transform.

You can also buy a bunch of subweapons for Shantae, which are also inspired by games like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden. There's pike balls that rotate around you, fireballs, lightning, and a cream that creates a shadow clone and doubles your attack power. Unlike in later games, Shantae doesn't get any upgrades for her hair's whipping speed or attack power, so the subweapons are the easiest way to increase your damage output. They’re much more important here than in later Shantae games. There are a few permanent attacks you can buy for Shantae, like a rising kick and elbow tackle, but I found them kind of hard to use in combat because of their controls. Remember we're limited to GB controls here. You have to stand still and hold down the attack button for 3 or 4 seconds to do the elbow tackle, for example.

Where I think Shantae truly shines is in its dungeons. There’s only 4 real dungeons, since the last level is more about straightforward platforming, but what's there is really good. They remind me a lot of Zelda dungeons. They’re all about exploration, platforming, and using Shantae’s animal forms to solve puzzles and get past obstacles. There's also a lot of very Zelda II-like key hunting to open locked doors. Like Zelda dungeons, each one has some kind of unique puzzle type or obstacle that requires you to use the animal form you learn in that dungeon, so they all feel very different. I thought the dungeon bosses were all pretty underwhelming, though. They all just felt like pretty standard game bosses. Nothing special about them.

Shantae's overworld is where things start to fall apart. In between dungeons, you have to trek through 2 or 3 huge outdoor platforming areas full of enemies to get to the next town. You can get dances which will teleport you to each town, but you have to get 4 Baby Squids from the dungeons to get them, and you have to get to the town on foot first. You might run across the next dungeon before getting to town, but since you always have to talk to someone in town and do some kind of quest to get the dungeon open, you can’t just go in the dungeon. That means you’ll be going through some of these areas multiple times. This wouldn’t be a problem if Shantae got some kind of hair upgrade to make combat easier, but she never does. The enemies keep getting tougher and tougher, but Shantae’s hair does the same amount of damage throughout the whole game. Near the end of the game, you’re fighting things that take like 5 or 6 hits during the day and then twice as much at night. And since Shantae has no back dash or block, you’re probably going to get hit, too. I guess the game wants me to use subweapons to take care of these enemies, but since Shantae’s special moves are so expensive, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on subweapons and then have to grind for money. A map would have been nice, too. It all feels very unbalanced.

Another thing that makes the overworld a pain to travel through is how zoomed in the camera is. Shantae is about as tall as one third of the game screen and she’s always right in the middle of the screen when you’re running, so you can’t see very far ahead in any direction, making it really easy to run into enemies and fall down pits. Sometimes, you can’t even see where you can jump, so you just have to make a leap of faith. The areas in between the first and second town, which you have to go through to get to the first dungeon, are by far the worst in this regard. I could see many people having a really tough time getting into this game, or just giving up on it before even making it to the first dungeon. It’s a shame because the dungeons have much better designs that feel right for the game.

Shantae might just be the best looking GBC game. It puts many NES games to shame, and even looks better than some early SNES games. It’s pretty amazing what WF got out of the GBC. There’s games with more detailed sprite work and games doing crazy stuff on GB, like low res pre-rendered backgrounds, but as far as cartoony games go, even those late Zelda and Wario games on GBC pale in comparison. I think the way that colors are used is what makes it look so great. A lot of GBC games used a very small palette and just kind of drew outlines around some objects and let a background color, like yellow or white, fill in the rest, but not Shantae. The animation in this game is so full of personality, too. All of Shantae’s dances, attacks, and transformations look great, and she even has a bunch of cute facial expressions. The framerate is pretty good, too. There are drops, but they’re few and far between. This game feels like it’s getting everything it possibly can out of the GBC. The music is also on another level. It’s not just that it has an awesome soundtrack by Jake Kaufman, who you might know from Shovel Knight and many WayForward games, the audio quality is way higher than most GBC games, too.

I like a lot of things about Shantae, but I can’t recommend it to anyone who’s not already a Shantae fan and willing to put up with the limitations of a Game Boy game. It just feels like a game that would have been much better on PS2, GC, or even GBA, where it could have used more buttons, had a higher resolution, and pulled the camera back a bit. Shantae is just too ambitious for its own good. Hopefully, WayForward remakes it someday because it would probably be amazing.