How does the Half-Genie Hero's debut hold up after almost 20 years?
WayForward, an independent videogame developer and publisher based in California, have certainly made reputation for themselves over the last decade. Though the company was founded in 1990, it's not been until the last decade that they've become a common household name. Memorable titles like Ducktales: Remastered, Aliens: Infestation, and most recently River City Girls have well and truly proven the studio's knack for creating modern side-scrolling games and keeping this retro genre alive.
However, one WayForward series stands hips and shoulders above the rest. I'm of course talking about the entrancing, belly-dancing, eponymous Half-Genie Hero: Shantae. Conceptualised in the mid-'90s during the boom of Nintendo's killer handheld, the Gameboy, it wasn't until the end of the console's life cycle that Shantae made her debut on the videogame stage. In a bold move, the game was developed entirely for the GameBoy Colour and released in 2002 after the launch of the GameBoy Advance, a choice that game director Matt Bozon says contributed to the game's poor sales.
Despite its poor sales performance, the original Shantae is widely-recognised as one of the best games released for the GameBoy, and it pushed the hardware to its limit. Additionally, gaining quite a cult following, it has become one of the most valuable games on the handheld, with original boxed copies occasionally going for upwards of $3000USD. Almost 20 years since its inception, WayForward's flagship character now boasts five separate entries and over 3 million sales across the entire series. An incredibly impressive figure for a series that initially struggled for financial success!
Now in collaboration with Limited Run Games and Modern Vintage Gamer, WayForward have revived the original Shantae title, republished, enhanced, and ready to dance on Nintendo Switch. This means that for the first time ever, all 5 games in the series can be played on a single console! So forget about taking out a personal loan to secure a copy of the original Shantae, because for a mere $10 it's time to step back in time to one of the best GameBoy Colour games ever made.
Scuttle Town is a peaceful abode by the sea, bordered by a vast desert and inhabited by a cast of quirky characters. It's also home to a mystical Half-Genie who lives not in a bottle, but in a lighthouse. However, that peace is soon interrupted by the nefarious lady-pirate, Risky Boots, who catches wind of a ancient technology recently unearthed in Scuttle Town: the Steam Engine. With the ability to produce an immense amount of power, Risky will stop at nothing to make this mystical invention her own, and whisks the dangerous device away for her own selfish plans.
As the self-appointed "Guardian Genie" of Scuttle Town, it's up to Shantae to get Scuttle out of trouble! In order to thwart Risky's plans, Shantae must recover the four Elemental Stones, each of which can be used to harness a unique power that can run the steam engine indefinitely. Spread out across Sequin Land and protected within ancient labyrinths, Shantae will need to uncover her hidden genie powers to obtain the mythical items and put an end to Risky's escapades once and for all.
This initial entry in the series introduced a style of gameplay that has helped define all the other Shantae games that followed it. A unique blend of side-scrolling adventure, platforming, exploration and RPG elements combine with clever animal transformations making for a GameBoy experience unlike any other. I'd go so far as to say this is some of the most ambitious gameplay you'll find on the console, and thanks to this it has aged incredibly well. The game takes place over three main areas: the overworld, dungeons, and towns, splitting the game into three distinct styles of gameplay.
Exploration: Spread across a sprawling map, there's a vast world to explore in Sequin Land, which at times sometimes feels a bit overwhelming due to its impressive size for a GameBoy game. Each location has distinct enemies, platforming challenges, and environmental puzzles that you'll need to overcome by using abilities that are acquired throughout the game. Using her hair as a weapon, Shantae will also need to fend off enemies spread throughout the overworld.
With a day-night cycle, numerous hidden collectibles, and expansive exploration, you'll spend the majority of your time trekking the overworld in between its dungeons and towns. This can occasionally become bothersome, as the technical limitations of the GameBoy mean the screen is only capable of displaying a small portion of the area, and considering Shantae at times controls like a floating brick, you'll often fall into obstacles that you have no way of predicting or avoiding.
Dungeons: Four major labyrinths appear during the game, each containing one of the four Elemental Stones. These are comparable to dungeons from early Zelda games, which feature a unique ability that will need to be utilised in order to progress. Through the mystical power of dance, Shantae can transform into one of four creatures: Monkey, Elephant, Spider, and Harpy. By rescuing the dungeon's genie and unlocking a new transformation, you'll be able to gain access to new areas and solve puzzles in order to progress. Then, at the end of each dungeon awaits a large boss that often also requires clever use of the transformation. These dungeons are entertaining, satisfying to solve, and in my opinion the overall highlight of the game.
Towns: These laid-back areas are the most entertaining aspect of Shantae, featuring colourful characters and incredibly amusing dialogue. By chatting with NPCs you'll obtain not only snippets of information to aide Shantae on her quest, but also some legitimately hilarious conversation. Each town also contains a shop to purchase items like potions and weapons, a bath house to restore your health, a Warp Squid (for fast travel), and generally some form of optional minigame that can be played to accumulate currency. It's a nice change of pace and some of the most unique presentation in a GameBoy game.
When playing Shantae, there's one key fact to remember: this is a port of a GameBoy game. While the newer Shantae games feature gorgeous, vibrant, detailed graphics, the original somehow manages to achieve this despite the technical limitations of the hardware at the time. Character and enemy sprites and their animations are detailed, environments are colourful and packed full of detail, and the towns offer an impressive over-the-shoulder view unlike anything I've encountered in a game of this era.
WayForward managed to create a unique visual aesthetic drawing influence from both The Legend of Zelda, Aladdin, and real life Middle-Eastern Culture. This game's visuals have formed the foundation of the series as a whole through its distinct art style and iconic character design. For players wanting to appreciate this further, there's the inclusion of a bonus art gallery which features plenty of interesting concept art.
At the time of its creation, the music of Shantae was composed by a mostly-unknown video game musician, who had actually dropped out of school to take up game music full-time. Having made soundtracks for only a handful GameBoy games, WayForward recruited the young musician and in doing so unknowingly helped create one of the most prolific VGM composers of all-time: the now legendary Jake Kaufman. Best known for his incredible music to Shovel Knight, Jake's distinct chiptune style shines through every track of Shantae, which features many songs that have been used throughout the entire series.
Despite being a mixture of blips and bloops coming out of a Gameboy, the soundtrack has a distinct Middle-Eastern sound, as if being played by an 8-bit oud. It's appropriate for the setting, catchy as heck, and honestly never gets old, which is important considering GameBoy tracks often have very short loops.
So what's new?
Although the game is mostly unchanged, the Switch port makes several welcome improvements that help this near 20-year old game feel just a bit more modern. Save states are available, meaning that at any time the game can be paused and saved/loaded, which makes some frustrating areas much less tedious. I found myself not using it much, but it's a welcome addition for those not accustomed to retro games. There are also several added visual options allowing the game to be played at a native resolution, with a sharp filter, or with an LCD screen effect layered on top.
The entire game now also includes the "GBA-enhanced" version, which features improved colour palettes and an additional "Tinkerbat" transformation that can be unlocked, allowing Shantae to fly. These all come as welcome additions, but do not add any massive enhancement to the overall gameplay.
Considering this piece of GameBoy history would have previously cost you almost $1000 to own and play legitimately, a mere $10 feels like a bargain to experience the first game in this brilliant series. Though the gameplay at times may feel clunky and frustrating to control, there is a wealth of enjoyable content in Shantae that ensure you forget any of its shortcomings. Not only is this an incredibly charming, amusing adventure introducing an iconic cast of characters, but it's also a sheer technical marvel when you remember that it was designed solely for the GameBoy Colour. Although it might not be Shantae's most outstanding performance, fans of the series and retro gaming alike would be foolish not to at least give this excellent Switch port a go.
So, why should you play it?
You're a fan of the Shantae series and want to explore its origins.
Retro platformers are up your alley.
Gorgeous pixel art and catchy chiptune soundtrack.
Satisfying dungeon design akin to older Zelda titles.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Dated gameplay compared to the rest of the series.
Controls are at times clunky and frustrating.
Won't appeal to those not fond of retro games.
A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com