Sunday, August 25, 2013

Shantae (Game Boy Color) Review

I've always thought that the infamous Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was a good idea, but one that was poorly executed. I liked the idea of a sprawling 2D world full of branching paths and dotted with towns and dungeons, but in the end the game just turned out to be pretty boring. There were several factors that weighed the game down: tedious grinding in place of actual challenge, bland dungeons with boring design, and just other silliness like the slow text boxes marking day and night transitions. The idea of having one seamless, explorable 2D world was later translated into the Metroidvania formula made famous by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the PS1 and later perfected (in my own humble opinion) in the Aria and Dawn of Sorrow titles. But we never really got another game quite like Simon's Quest. Zelda II (which was released before Castlevania II) comes to mind, but Zelda II features an overhead world map and various separated 2D action environments instead of one continuous 2D world. For the record, Zelda II is also just a much better video game than Simon's Quest on every level. The concept of a 2D scrolling world that eventually loops with townsfolk to talk to and dungeons to explore is a game concept that sadly seemed to have died with Simon's Quest's flawed execution of the concept.

Until Shantae was released for the Game Boy Color in 2002 (and FINALLY re-released for the 3DS Virtual Console about a month ago, meaning I don't have to shell out over $200 to play the game anymore).

Shantae takes everything that made the concept of Simon's Quest interesting: a big scrolling 2D overworld that's filled with monsters and different pathways as well as several towns, but does everything so much better with a charming story full of very memorable characters, interesting and well-designed dungeons, a similar day and night system without the text boxes, and other tweaks like retaining progress even after all lives are lost. The only risk in losing all of your lives in Shantae is being sent back to the nearest save point; all other progress, including all acquired items and gems (the game's currency), sticks.

Shantae, forced into action after pirates cannonball her lighthouse home

But Shantae is much more than just a well-realized execution of Simon's Quest's concepts. Ir's hard not to remember the troubled second chapter in the Castlevania legacy when playing Shantae, but Shantae is also just a damn fine, refreshingly original 2D action adventure in its own right.

You play as Shantae, a "Half-Genie", belly-dancing, transforming, hair-whipping storm of awesomeness. Shantae is the self-appointed guardian genie of a small fishing village called Scuttle Town. The story kicks off when the adorably named, yet incredibly villainous lady-pirate Risky Boots attacks Scuttle Town in order to steal a Steam Engine from Shantae's adopted Uncle, Mimic, named so for his ability to discover and duplicate ancient relics from the old world (in this case, a steam engine). After learning that Risky plans to steal four elemental stones (like a stone that produces an endless stream of water) to help power the machine and fuel her plans for steam-powered conquest, Shantae sets off on a quest across Sequin Land to unearth four labyrinths, find the stones before Risky, and foil the evil pirate's plans.

Shantae is not amused by Risky Boots' antics

It's a very Zelda-ish plot, but one with an entirely unique flavor. Genies protecting fishing villages? Evil pirates using steam-power for world domination? The way Shantae combines so many disparate elements and blends them into this wildy fun (and funny) adventure is big part of the game's charm. And I haven't even mentioned the roaming caravan of friendly, sapient zombies yet!

Shantae's action is split between the large scrolling overworld (which eventually loops around if you go far enough to the right or left, just like in Castlevania II), towns, and dungeons. Town exploration is particularly interesting because while in a town, you view things from a third-person, behind the back perspective and move left and right. This differs from the rest of the game which plays out in a standard 2D side-scrolling fashion. While in a town, you can talk to passing townsfolk and also enter different buildings and shops in the town. One of the main delights of visiting each town is all the weird people walking around, especially at night. Half of these characters barely even look human, and I love how during the nighttime, everyone is wearing dark cloaks and looks super shady. Townsfolk offer advice for your adventure, foreshadow future discoveries, or just offer some funny gossip. All towns have a save room, a bath house (for health recovery), and a shop. Some towns even offer unique mini-games like a dance parlor and a gecko race. Also, living in every town is a friendly, quirky character who will help Shantae on her travels, like her dim-witted sparring partner Bolo who has eyes for Risky Boots, or her old friend Sky, a trainer of "war birds" (whatever those are) who lends her trusty bird Wrench to Shantae (an animal who lives up to his name in a comically literal way).

Hanging out at the dance parlor

In the overworld, Shantae will travel over plains, through forests, across deserts, through swamps, and over mountains. Upon leaving Scuttle Town, players can travel in whichever direction they would like, but they may run into more difficult enemies and puzzling roadblocks if they go a certain way. It's usually pretty clear where to go next, but it's nice that players are still given a choice on which direction to travel in. There's a lot of backtracking involved, but overworld travel is kept engaging by the classic Metroidvania/Zelda formula of finding new abilities that allow Shantae to access new areas and uncover hidden shortcuts and collectables, like heart holders that permanently increase the genie girl's health. Ordinary-looking tree stumps and rocks can be broken apart to find hidden caves, and walls and special surfaces can be climbed to reach new areas. Shantae doesn't find a set of tools or weapons to reach these new ventures though (although a plethora of different subweapons can be bought from shops and used); instead she uses her natural genie abilities to transform into different creatures.

This leads me to one of my favorite features in Shantae which is her ability to use different magical dances to transform into different animals as well as perform other tasks such as warping to the game's various towns. By pressing a button, Shantae will start dancing, and by inputting different buttons in time with a beat, Shantae will perform different dance moves. Throughout the game, players will learn how to use certain combinations of these dance moves to transform into creatures such as a monkey that can cling to and climb walls and an elephant that can smash apart obstacles. Shantae features wonderfully vibrant, detailed graphics and animations, especially for a Game Boy Color game (it was one of the last on the system), and these lively animations are no more apparent than in Shantae's set of slick dance moves.


Shantae's list of dance moves and the act of dancing itself reminds me a lot of using both the Ocarina and the Wind Waker from the Zelda series. Also similar to Zelda, Shantae will acquire a new transformation dance in each dungeon and then use that dance to further her exploration of that dungeon, defeat its boss, and then explore new areas in the overworld. Every dungeon also introduces some kind of interesting new mechanic besides just the animal transformations, such as a magic panel that changes Shantae's color to red or blue, and puzzles are based around being a certain color at a certain time. I enjoyed all the dungeons quite a bit, although I found most of the bosses to be a bit too simplistic and easy. The only exception is the final boss, who is difficult, but in a cheap way that felt broken to me. I would attack the boss repeatedly point-blank with zero results only to attack it again in the same manner later and land a hit. I never quite figured out whether there was some pattern I was missing with this boss or if it really was just a clunky battle in terms of design.

I also want to point out a couple glitches I encountered in the game. I'm not sure if these were present in the original Game Boy Color cart, but both were encountered in the game's second dungeon. One of them involved me picking up one of the labyrinth's "warp squids" (collectables Shantae can find in each dungeon that allow her to learn a dance for warping to towns), after which the game became a mess of colorful lines and froze. Luckily, I was able to pick up the same warp squid without incident after retrying. The next glitch was an odd one that occurred while fighting the second dungeon's boss. First of all, either the boss is really, really easy, or a strange glitch allowed me to defeat it super quickly. Then, after I'd defeated the boss, the screen started to shake and after picking up the elemental stone that appears after each boss, the boss creature briefly reappeared, still in its death animation, before I was transported out of the dungeon. Weird. I'm not sure about the boss glitch, but I read online about the warp squid glitch happening to other people and apparently for them it also erased their save file, which thankfully did not happen to me. If you plan on playing the game on the 3DS Virtual Console (which you should because it's worth your time), you might want to be extra careful while in the game's second labyrinth.

Outside a town and inside a dungeon

Besides her transformation abilities and the wide range of subweapons available in the game (which I personally never found much use for), Shantae's main method of attack is whipping foes with her magical ponytail. This attack works fine enough, but it's held back by the attack's annoyingly short range. I found this very jarring and it's one of my few major complaints with Shantae. It's sort of hard to explain, but with a "whip" I expect there to be a certain range of attack and I just feel like I need to get too close to an adversary to land a blow. The whip's less-than-optimal performance is also exacerbated by the fact that many normal enemies roaming the overworld take about a million hits to kill, especially at nighttime when they all get stronger.

Throughout the game, other special attack skills can be purchased from a certain shop but the hair whip always remains the most convenient method of attack and it never gets an upgrade. I found these other skills in the game to be either too cumbersome to use or just downright useless. They either take too long to execute or end up putting Shantae at risk. One "upgrade" makes Shantae perform a forward dash attack. The problem here is that this attack is performed by holding down the "run" button in the game for a second or two to charge it up, which I'm usually constantly pressing. I can't count how many times I'd be standing on ledge, only to accidently charge up this attack and have no choice but to send Shantae flying off a ledge and into a pit of spikes to her death (spikes one-shot Shantae, which can get pretty annoying because they are very, very prominent in the game). This "upgrade" is more of a severe inconvenience than anything else and is also pretty useless in a fight because of how long it takes to charge. The player is seriously better off not buying this skill, and the other ones aren't much better, especially considering how pricey they all are.

Shantae vs. Risky

Other than these few flaws though, Shantae is a fantastic action adventure. It may borrow many concepts from Metroidvania and Zelda, but it melds them into a unique adventure with a sense of style all its own. Also, one of the best parts of Shantae is just how focused and tightly-designed it is; the game has zero filler and feels just the right length. Between Shantae's adorable belly-dancing, unique animal transformations, all the quirky and well-animated enemy designs and NPCs, the unique and catchy soundtrack, and just the funny and whimsical atmosphere this game presents, Shantae is a very memorable experience any player won't soon forget. You'll know what I mean when you compete in a footrace against a Zombie girl named Rottytops.

Moreover, Shantae proves that it's really not that difficult to have an action adventure video game that stars a cool, interesting female protagonist whose main power isn't her ability to grow a pair of gargantuan breasts that would break the back of any normal human female.

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