Though definitely flawed, Shantae is certainly one of the most impressive and ambitious projects of the Gameboy Color era
A superficial look at Shantae, the classic 2002 Gameboy Color game that was brought to a whole new generation of fans thanks to the Nintendo 3DS’ virtual console, may lead one to think it is a standard platformer; a fruit of an era where the genre still towered over everything else. All elements of a title of the kind are, after all, evident here: the sidescrolling perspective, the colorful world put together by a collection of outrageous characters and varied landscapes, and a simple storyline to get the ball rolling. Initial impressions, however, can be deceiving, and anyone who is willing to sit down to give the adventure a try is bound to quickly figure out why exactly it is such a well-regarded work.
The starring female figure is a half-genie tasked with protecting Scuttle Town, a small fishing village located on Sequin Land. The peaceful setting is disrupted when a gang of pirates, led by the evil Risky Boots, attacks the place and sails away with the prototype of a steam engine designed by one of its inhabitants. Aware that the theft of the object could only have dark purposes, Shantae sets out to get it back.
As soon as the journey gets going, Shantae’s two major qualities become obvious. The first one is visual; the game’s graphics, created on the hardware of an 8-bit handheld platform, are spectacular. The scenarios are multi-layered beauties whose colors and shapes depict an astounding variety of settings. The software’s biggest technical prowess, however, are its sprites. Characters are portrayed in astonishing explosive details, and both the heroine and her enemies showcase animations whose fluidity borders on unbelievable given the flooring amount of frames each model packs.
The title’s second, and most important, positive attribute is structural. Instead of, like average platformers of the era, being neatly divided into worlds and levels, Shantae throws that organization out the window and opts to set its adventure on a sprawling overworld filled with the kinds of secrets, caves, shortcuts, and hidden locations one would expect to find on a Metroid game. As a statement on the game’s elevated ambition, Sequin Land is set up as a circular map. In other words, if players choose to walk towards the right for a good amount of time, they will – after dealing with a bunch of enemies, traps, and quirky terrain – find themselves back on the journey’s starting point: Scuttle Town.
Shantae’s world is, then, made up of a number of towns – including a wacky and always-on-the-move zombie caravan – connected by big expanses of enemy-ridden locations. She must, with precise and valuable information given by side-characters, advance through those ordeals – sometimes in a not-so-linear manner – to stop Risky Boots’ evil plan.
The areas in-between villages play like well-designed, and brutal, levels on a combat-based platformer. Although there is a great amount of exploring and jumping, most of the difficulty stems from guiding the half-genie through hordes of varied and carefully placed foes by using her long hair as a whip or via other battle-related abilities that can be optionally acquired from shops within the towns. As an added twist, and as a sign of the game’s complexity and attention to detail, those segments implement a night-and-day system that alters enemy behavior, power, and presence according to each period.
The culmination of that exploration, and the peak of Shantae as a game, comes in the four dungeons that need to be found and cleared. Inside those, players must navigate a series of rooms that strike a flawless balance between tight platforming; a good deal of battling, including nice – albeit a bit too easy – bosses and mini-bosses; and puzzle-solving. In the best Zelda fashion, those mazes have plenty of locked doors and corridors that cannot be accessed until Shantae tracks down the dungeon’s core technique, transforming the act of walking around the place itself into an exercise in reasoning.
Within each dungeon, Shantae will rescue a genie that will teach her a new dance, hence allowing the character to turn into a specific creature that contains a unique skill (the monkey transformation, for example, can climb walls and perform higher jumps). It is an utterly clever and inventive mechanic whose only minor drawback is the fact that performing the dances in order to transform (something that should take about five seconds or so) breaks the pace of the gameplay a bit.
With those abilities in her power, not only will she be able to advance far into the depths of each building, but also – through a great amount of exploration – obtain well-hidden optional treasures on the overworld, such as heart holders for extra HP; items that give Shantae the power to attack while transformed; and a dozen fireflies, which when collected allow her to learn a health-regenerating special dance.
The dungeons themselves feature their own extra collectible in the shape of Warp Squids. There are five tucked away inside each maze, with one of them usually requiring that players revisit the place with a transformation learned further down the line. By taking four of them to any of the towns, Shantae will gain access to a warp point. It is quite a reward considering how cumbersome and tough it can be to travel between villages; in fact, it is so vital and time-saving that it is questionable if, instead of being an unlockable, the warp points should have been implemented as an automatically granted option once Shantae gets to a new town.
Despite all of its prowesses, Shantae is ultimately an ambitious and creative title held back by simple design issues. For starters, given its marvelously big scope, the lack of a map – either for the dungeons or for the overworld itself – is really troublesome. While neither are impossible to navigate without one, it certainly would not have hurt to have a simple Metroid-like chart displaying all the intricate connections between locations, which can sometimes get a bit confusing to figure out.
Secondly, perhaps bent on showcasing its graphical fireworks, the camera is heavily focused on Shantae, making her sprite occupy a considerable portion of the screen. Since, as a combat-based platformer, the game often requires a mix of precise jumping and anticipating incoming enemies, it becomes problematic when bottomless pits sometimes appear way too suddenly to be avoided and foes are only seen from a short distance away.
The game’s most fatal mistake, though, is one that is – thankfully – alleviated by the built-in save-state function of the 3DS’ Gameboy emulator. Shantae’s save points are extremely scarce, with each town containing one such location, just a few of them placed out in the overworld, and absolutely none inside the dungeons. Given the game uses a life-system, has a serious amount of one-hit-kill spikes, and possesses a level of difficulty that borders on brutal, the chances of losing considerable progress – like reaching the boss of a dungeon, dying, and having to return all the way back to the town from which your exploration of the region started – is always palpable.
Games of the 8-bit era always compensated their lack of length by forcing players to replay huge segments, or to start from scratch, if they failed a lot. Shantae safely clocks in over the ten-hour mark even if just a few of its collectibles are tracked down, so it certainly did not need to go to such frustrating extents to stretch the duration of its great quest.
In the end, though definitely flawed, Shantae is certainly one of the most impressive and ambitious projects of the Gameboy Color era. Its mixture of Metroid, Zelda, and combat-based platforming is rather unique, and it is inserted in a world with great characters, a lot of soul, and a dash of humor. Its successors would eventually improve on it by a large margin, but Shantae did one incredible job by putting in place the pillars that would support a great 2-D saga.