Thursday, June 21, 2012

Game Review: Shantae

Shantae
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: WayForward
  • Release:
    • Game Boy Color, 2 June 2002
    • Nintendo 3DS, 18 July 2013
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Battery, 3 files
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Game Boy Color: Rare, US$150-300
    • 3DS: DLC, US$5

I cannot believe it, but this month marks ten years since the release of Shantae for the Game Boy Color.  Its star character has become an unofficial mascot for its developer, WayForward Technologies, and the girl herself instantly became one of my teen-era sex symbols.  So why didn't I pick up the game on day one?  Welp, the best reason I can think of is a botched release: the game was first reviewed in the Februrary 2002 issue of Nintendo Power, but it didn't get released until June that same year, and by that time I had forgotten about the game (but not the girl ^_^).  Failing to pick it up is one of my life's greatest failures, just behind not applying to the German Honors Society and not going to the Genesis reunion tour.  I finally caught up with the game in early 2008, buying it cartridge-only for about US$40.  And guess how much it's going for these days?  A minimum of $150!!  Yeah, I just broke you.

Not helping matters was the unusual amount of sex appeal for an otherwise kid-friendly title, which as you recall I fell victim to.  Whilst the level of violence was tame enough for an E rating in North America (these days it might have to settle for the new E10+), picture this: all four named female characters (the hero Shantae, the villain Risky Boots, the falconer Skye, and the zombie Rottytops) wear outfits that bare their midriffs.  To be fair, the Game Boy Color's screen doesn't show that much detail, and there's a balance between the characters' sexy-cute and adorable-cute appeals.  Plus, I've read reports that the character was first conceived by a woman (Erin Bozon, future wife of the game's director, Matt Bozon).  Besides, the most likely cause of Shantae's failure was because it was made for the Game Boy Color, a system which in 2002 was being phased out in favour of the Game Boy Advance.  Heck, its final title would be released less than half a year later!  (It was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which I also happen to own.)  So, I can understand Capcom for the lack of promotion.  (And to think this was well before Capcom became public enemy No.1!)

Belly-dance moves trigger transformations.
I'm sorry, enough of my musings, let's get to the review.  Our eponymous heroine is a half-genie, employed as the protector of Scuttle Town.  In the first act, the town gets beseiged by the crew of lady pirate Risky Boots, who makes off with a steam engine.  In order to make it work, she requires the spirits of Water, Earth, Metal, and Fire, so Shantae must acquire them from the four dungeons to keep them from her.  Good luck with that...  Shantae is at its core one of those Metroidvania-style platformers, where the game takes place in one large world but sections are blocked off until you acquire certain abilities.  In the case of this game, these abilities include transformations such as a monkey (for climbing up walls), an elephant (for breaking rocks), and a harpy (for flying).  Since our hero is a genie girl, these are triggered through belly-dances: press Select to toggle the dance mode, and perform moves with the Control Pad, A, or B.  In practise, it works out like playing the Ocarina from some of the Legend of Zelda games, only demanding tighter timing.

Following the Metroidvania formula does lend itself to some problems, namely, backtracking.  If you want to alleviate some of the frustration, you can collect baby Warp Squids and trade them to learn transport dances.  Not helping matters is the zombie caravan town, which shows up in a different location in every day/night cycle.  Speaking of which, enemies have double the defence during the nights, as if they weren't tough enough already during the day.  You can even the odds by purchasing projectile items such as Fireballs, Pike Balls, Storm Puffs, or support items like like health potions or Double Mints, which temporarily let you deal double damage.  Don't forget, you have to trigger them by pressing Up and B, like in the original Castlevania trilogy.  So yeah, if this game wore a shirt, it'd show its classic-style difficulty on its sleeves.  If that's too much for you to handle, I don't have anything to say to you. 
Enemies take double damage during the night.  Oh joy...
Which is a shame, because you'd be missing out on a wonderful universe.  The animation is some of the best I've seen on any 8-bit platform; even Shantae's standing animation is quite bouncy (both in the chest and otherwise, nudge nudge).  The environment designs utilise a vivid colour palette, and coming out only months after 9/11, it's a nice change of pace to see the brighter side of Arabian culture used as an inspiration.  As such, it's easy to see from all this that Shantae was a labour of love, and it's a shame it didn't get the recognition it deserved.  As such, it proved difficult for WayForward to generate a sequel.  They've had several false starts through the rest of the decade, but come 2010 they finally managed to cut out the middleman and self-publish Shantae: Risky's Revenge as a DLC title for the Nintendo DSi, followed by an enhanced (and cheaper!) port for iOS devices the following year.  (We've got a Shantae sequel, a Duke Nukem sequel, a Diablo sequel... your time's running out, Capcom.)  Even better, the original game has been made available on the 3DS's Virtual Console shop for a paltry US$5.  I am glad this has come to fruition so that a new generation of gamers might be able to experience Shantae without breaking the bank, because it's worth playing -- it's just not worth spending three figures on.

Positives:
+ Lots of items and transformations to play around with.
+ Fun setting and characters.
+ Wondrous animation and soundtrack.
Negatives:
- Some enemies take a lot of hits, especially during the nights.
- Large areas make for painful backtracking.

Control: 4 transformations out of 5
Design: 4 transformations out of 5
Graphics: 5 transformations out of 5
Audio: 4 transformations out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

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