Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Shantae (Switch)

While Shantae is one of the more well-known indie game series now, to the point of getting a Mii costume in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it didn’t start out that way. Back when the series debuted on the Game Boy Color with Shantae in 2002, it immediately fell into obscurity, due in part to releasing one year after the Game Boy Advance and its initial low print run of 20-25,000 copies. As interest in the franchise grew, starting with Risky’s Revenge in 2010, prices on the original cartridge went up, though a digital release would thankfully alleviate the issue of accessibility. After I started the series much later, with Half-Genie Hero, I wanted to experience the rest of the games and eyed the digital release of Shantae, but instead went through a physical copy of the Nintendo Switch port from Limited Run Games. While the half-genie’s original adventure is worth seeking out, even digitally, it has certainly shown its age the most.

The notorious pirate Risky Boots attacks Scuttle Town with her army of Tinkerbats and steals a prototype steam engine from Mimic, the town’s resident treasure hunter and tinkerer. When Shantae, the town’s half-genie guardian, fails to stop Risky, Mimic tells her that if the pirate gets her hands on four magical elemental stones, she could create an unstoppable weapon. Determined, Shantae sets out on a journey across Sequin Land to retrieve the steam engine and elemental stones before it’s too late.

Though the game has a rather simple story, it helps make the game accessible and players still get a good idea of what the characters are like. There’s also at least one interesting plot twist and the basic lore of the series is established well. In other words, Shantae’s story and plot do their job well and its lack of overcomplication is its greatest strength.

Shantae wants to stop the evil Risky Boots.

Instead, Shantae saves its complications for the metroidvania gameplay. Though the player won’t have a hard time picking up the controls, there’s enough to the game that it remains engaging. At the most basic level, Shantae can attack enemies with her hair and jump across platforms, ideally avoiding slopes and bottomless pits. As those familiar with later entries would know, however, combat, platforming and exploration are enhanced with the series’ unique transformation dance mechanic. Throughout the game, Shantae gains access to four different transformations (Monkey, Elephant, Spider and Harpy) that she can access through certain combinations of rhythmic button presses. While this mechanic helps give Shantae its own identity, it does have a noticeable flaw, namely that the implementation of the actual dancing feels clunky compared to later games and the slow pace leaves Shantae vulnerable to attack. As such, it’s best to start dancing when she has no immediate threats. I also observed that, for whatever reason, the Elephant dance always makes Shantae face left. Shantae also can’t attack while in any of these forms unless she obtains their respective talisman.

Dances aren’t just for transformations, however. Throughout Sequin Land, especially within each of the game’s four labyrinths, Shantae can find Warp Squids that, when returned to the Warp Squid Hut in each of the game’s towns, grant her a Warp Dance back to that particular town. This is especially useful for finding the Zombie Caravan after the initial visit, since it randomly appears around Sequin Land. There’s also one side quest where Shantae can find and collect twelve fireflies. Finding all twelve and reading a specific scroll will then grant Shantae access to the powerful Healing Dance, which feels well worth the effort. Since Warp Dances require longer strings of button presses, it’s fortunate that just about all of the available combinations are accessible from the pause menu.

If you play the Game Boy Advance version of the game, however, it contains a secret additional transformation that isn’t tracked in the pause menu. For just 500 gems, as long as you visit a specific room in a specific town, Shantae can access the Tinkerbat transformation, which has the combined powers of the Monkey, Elephant and Spider forms. Rather notably, the Tinkerbat transformation is the one significant difference between the GBC and GBA versions of the game, but it’s well worth the cost considering its versatility and power. Its only real downside is that while it has the Monkey’s climbing abilities, its taller stature and hitbox means it can’t fit within smaller spaces designed with the Monkey in mind.

Unlike later games, Shantae also features a periodic day/night cycle. While this cycle does affect enemy difficulty, it also determines whether Shantae can participate in certain minigames, locate fireflies or find the Zombie Caravan normally. When using the in-game save system, the cycle resets to daytime once you load or reload a save. There’s also a lives system in place that affects Shantae’s longevity in the field. Losing all of her hearts in combat, falling down bottomless pits or touching spikes instantly removes a life and has her respawn at the beginning of the current area. Should Shantae lose all of her available lives, she’ll respawn at the last save point with all lives restored, as well as any gems picked up in the interim. Since this can easily reset several minutes of progress, players can help prevent this by collecting heart containers that increase Shantae’s maximum hearts and collecting hidden additional lives.

Enemies are easier to fight during the daytime.

As I played through this first entry, it felt more noticeably difficult than the others, with at least a few areas designed such that you can’t really avoid taking damage, including a few tight spaces in the four labyrinths. You can buy consumable items to alleviate this, including ones that let you float over bottomless pits or outright avoid enemy damage, as well as a few permanent combat upgrades, though you’ll be spending a lot of gems to do so and likely plenty of time grinding certain minigames for extra gems. It also doesn’t help that you’ll need specific items if you want to pass certain obstacles for helpful items (which the game can be vague about), nor that attacking, charging attacks and running are all tied to the same button due to older hardware limitations.

While the difficulty is tolerable, I wouldn’t blame anyone for resorting to a guide to make sure they’re going the right way or buying the right items at the right time. As the Switch version allows players the use of up to three save states, I also wouldn’t dissuade anyone from using them, as they act as a great way of cheesing certain minigames for a more consistent cash flow or taking a break at a more convenient point in the action.

As for the rest of the experience, even with the limited capabilities of 2002 portable gaming, the graphics and soundtrack are very much Shantae, though the GBA color palette can look a little washed out compared to the GBC version. Each of the characters and enemies, not to mention different location assets, are recognizable and familiar to those who have played later Shantae games. I continually found myself impressed with the smooth animations and techniques like transparency and parallax scrolling, but found the foreground objects occasionally annoying, along with the lack of visually differentiating between bottomless pits and those required to advance. However, I also liked that the Switch version gives you additional visual filters, like an LCD screen, should the sharp pixilation not look quite right. Jake Kaufman’s soundtrack also sounds unique and familiar, though the sound effects are generally more basic compared to later entries.

Although it’s nearly 20 years old, it’s worth looking back at Shantae, both as a rather interesting part of video game history and as the foundation for the increasingly successful games that followed. Even if you can’t get your hands on a physical copy, the digital version’s price is pretty reasonable for the amount of content.

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