Shantae Review and Retrospective (GBC)
In the dying days of the Gameboy Color and after the release of its successor, the Gameboy Advance, one last 8-bit gem was released and served as the GBC’s final send off swan song. That game was Shantae by small developer Wayforward Technologies.
Having previously honed their skills on the Gameboy Color with excellent titles such as Wendy: Every Witch Way and Xtreme Sports, the team at Wayforward poured all their experience into one last GBC game that pushed the limited Gameboy Color to its limits and beyond. One glance at Shantae will reveal to anyone that it’s not only one of the most technologically and visually impressive 8-bit games to ever be made, but its a complete labour of love.
Released in mid 2002, Shantae had been delayed from a mid 2001 release so Wayforward could really work on milking every ounce of power from the GBC. The delay hurt sales, but allowed the team to craft Shantae into something truly special.
Still, as we all know, technical achievements alone don’t make games good. So should you play Shantae? Short answer: yes. long answer: keep reading.
Shantae is the story of a spunky, sassy and downright sexy teenage half-genie girl named Shantae strangely enough. Shantae has been hired to protect the small fishing community of Scuttle Town. When Scuttle Town falls under attack from the infamous (and not surprisingly, sexy) lady-pirate Risky Boots, Shantae springs into action to fend off the pirate attack. During the raid, Risky manages to steal town inventor Mimic’s prize, the “steam engine”. Shantae soon learns Risky plans to use the steam engine to power a giant robot that would make her invincible.
Playing the part of the heroine, Shantae plans to get the engine back from Risky. Shantae soon learns that Risky plans to enhance the steam engine by infusing it with the powers of four elemental stones, So Shantae journeys around to collect them first and foil Risky’s evil plans. Does any of this make much sense? Not really, but who cares.
Being a half genie, Shantae can wield her magic to swing her ponytail as if it were a whip and also preform magical transformation dances. These magical dances prove to be a large part of the game’s unique charm.
As the game progresses, Shantae gains new dances to transform her into various animal forms. Each new form enables greater mobility and allows Shantae to access places she cannot in her human form, somewhat like Metroid games. The monkey form allows Shantae to jump very high, access narrow holes and scale vertical walls. The elephant form can push around heavy objects. The spider form lets Shantae climb background walls and the Harpie lets Shantae freely fly anywhere. These animal forms cannot attack when you first get them, but you can find secret items that allow you to do that as the game progresses. In Harpie form, Shantae is pretty much unbeatable.
Shantae is a brilliant mix of many successful game types all melded together. First take the basic structure from Castlevania 2 Simon’s Quest. Then sprinkle in Zelda style dungeons and puzzles, and finally add in a slight Metroid element of upgrades to find and vast areas to explore both above and below ground.
Visually Shantae is a drop dead gorgeous game. Character sprites are large, detailed, colorful and have extremely fluid movements. Environments are well detailed and well designed. Some areas even have multiple background layers like in Super Mario World. Best of all, there is no slowdown or sprite flickering at all. The game’s only visual fault is the frequency of deaths caused by the limited viewing space, causing “leaps of faith” to often land you in pits or spikes.
A totally unexpected touch Shantae features is a day/night system like in Castlevania 2 for the NES. During the day the world is colorful and vibrant, but when night falls, everything gets darker, enemies become stronger and shops are closed. As well, fireflies can only be found in hidden areas at night.
I don’t quite recall what firefies do when collected, but their inclusion adds extra depth.
It’s little details like this that send Shantae over being just another platformer to a true visual masterpiece. Pokémon Gold and Silver may have previously employed a day/night system on the GBC, but doing so in a platformer was unheard of.
As for sound, Shantae features a full set of memorable, fun tunes.
The GBC was blessed with some truly awesome chiptunes as well as truly awful ones. Luckily, Shantae stands up as one of the better soundtracks produced on the hardware. There’s an upbeat, Arabian vibe to them music that keeps things upbeat and energetic. I really like the music in this game and would love to hear remixes if a sequel should ever actually materialize.
There’s very little in the way of Shantae remixes, but this video does a fairly good job while showing off much of the awesome gameplay that makes Shantae such a winner.
The game controls are well as you expect and then some. Shantae can crouch and crawl, even backgrounds. Button combos are employed to let Shantae preform some impressive Melee attacks, and the control remains fluid regardless of what form Shantae is in.
The precise controls are broken down as follows:
D-pad: Move left/right, Up+B use special item
B: Hair Whip Attack or hold to run
Select: No function
Start: Pause and bring up the menu
The game is also quite lengthy, especially for a GBC platformer. There are a number of towns, dungeons, bosses and hidden goodies around and I’d say the game should take first time players around 4 hours to complete.
This might not sound like a lot, but consider that Super Mario World has about the same amount of game time, if not less. This game is bigger than the game that launched the SNES.
Everyone – Shantae may be sexy and wear what amounts to a bikini bra, but this game is kid-friendly. The strong woman lead and ease of play also make it welcoming to many female gamers too.
When Shantae was finished, the Gameboy Advance had already been on the market for almost a year and the GBC lineup was quickly drying up as many gamers switched to the new hardware. Seeing the quality of the game, Capcom decided to publish the game in America, but in limited quantities only.
The limited release and the timing of the release were obstacles Shantae ultimately could not overcome, and despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from nearly everyone who had a chance to play Shantae, the game sold very poorly and quickly disappeared from store shelves.
Even at the time, I knew Shantae would become difficult to find so I tracked down a copy when I could get one, and I’m glad I did – today, Shantae is one of the most sought after GBC titles and like Earthbound, prices for even loose copies often exceed $100 USD. I recently checked ebay and saw prices hovering between $300 – 500 USD. Ouch! $40 for the game in 2002 doesn’t seem so expensive anymore.
Throughout the life of the GBA, Shantae fans including myself were on edge to see if Wayforward would make a sequel for the GBA, and Wayforward worked away on doing just that. Tentatively called Shantae Advance, road blocks were quickly formed when Capcom decided they did not want to publish the title a second time for Wayforward after how poorly the first had sold. The game was delayed and delayed and eventually just like the GBC, the GBA too had become obsolete and the game was canceled after being half done.
Last fall, Wayforward announced the long awaited sequel would be coming out for DSiware entitles Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. According to the report, there would be not one but three new Shantae games for the DSi platform as digital downloads. It’s not clear yet if Risky’s Revenge will be broken up into three parts, or this means there will be three different DSi games.
However, in typical Shantae tradition that game too was delayed and currently has a scheduled release of only “soon”.
I can only hope that someday Shantae will become recognized for its true platforming brilliance and the game that everyone ignored can finally get its much overdue appreciation.
In the meantime, here’s the Risky’s Revenge trailer to go crazy over:
Graphics – 9.5- Technically and visually a masterpiece. This is not only be best looking gameboy Color game, but the best looking 8-bit game ever made. It is extremely colorful, lush, sprites are detailed and animate extremely fluidly, and the whole game carries a distinctive Arabian vibe that’s hard to dislike.
Sound – 8.5 – While not the best on the system, the music for Shantae is much better than you probably will expect. I hope to hear some good Shantae remixes someday.
Gameplay – 8.5 – Nothing earth shattering, Shantae is a simple two button platformer with an attack and jump button. That said, this formula works and Shantae is a ton of fun. The only gripes I have are that the GBC screen is too small to allow you to see what’s coming up (pits, enemies) and that some of the items are too expensive compared to their usefulness.
Control – 10 – Brilliant, perfect, fluid, responsive.
Lasting Appeal – 8.0 – Shantae is a lengthy game that can be further enhanced on the GBA, allowing you access to a secret zombie-town and increased color depth. The best way to experience Shantae is on the Gameboy Player or the 2006 GBA SP 2.0. At four hours, this game can be completed in only a few weeks or even days, but don’t rush this one – it’s too good for that.
Overall – 9/10
Shantae is excellent.
Platform: Gameboy Color
Genre: Action Platformer
Release Date: Mid 2002
Devoloper: Wayforward Technologies
Developer’s notable other works: Xtreme Sports, Wendy: Every Witch Way, Sabrina: Zapped
Buy or skip: Buy