Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Shantae

Shantae is considered by many to be the swan song of the Game Boy Color. Originally released after the Game Boy Advance in 2002,  Shantae didn’t see initial financial success, but has secured a cult following in the years since, even spawning a DSiWare sequel in 2010. I had never played the game before, and because of its initial commercial failure and subsequent cult fanbase, it’s very hard to get a copy of the original game, so when I discovered that it was available on the 3DS Virtual Console, I decided to finally give it a try.

In many ways, Shantae makes me think of Castlevania. It’s a platformer that moves at a slower pace than most games today, and it certainly takes some getting used to. Protagonist Shantae runs surprisingly fast, and I found that a great deal of my frustration with the game dried up when I started walking instead of running. Shantae is a game that wants you to take your time and observe each challenge before tackling it. It’s a refreshingly methodical platformer in much the same way the classic Castlevania games are.

Still, though, I was disappointed with Shantae. Perhaps my expectations had simply been built up too high from the game’s reputation as an under-appreciated classic that never got the success it deserved. I wanted to like Shantae, I really did, but there's just too much wrong with it for me to overlook, and I don’t think that the game holds up particularly well compared to some of its GBC peers.

I’ll start with the positive. Shantae is a gorgeous game. It looks at the graphical limitations of the GBC and laughs in their face. The game genuinely looks good, even today. I’ve always been a fan of good spritework, and Shantae undoubtedly has some of the best the GBC can offer. Shantae’s movements are fluid, and her face is expressive. Character designs are wonderful, and the environments are visually interesting. Do the graphics show their age? Sure, but all of the designs were crafted with such a keen aesthetic sense that you’d have to be awfully cynical not to appreciate how much they’ve done with so few pixels. The music is similarly impressive; it too shows its age, but is catchy and memorable. I feel like I overuse the word “charming” in my reviews, but everything about Shantae is very charming.

Unfortunately, Shantae also has to be a game, and that’s where problems arise. Shantae is a metroidvania-style platformer in which the titular Shantae, the half-genie guardian of peaceful Scuttle Town, must travel the land in search of four elemental stones to keep them out of the hands of the evil pirate Risky Boots. Along the way, she learns a variety of magic dances that transform her into different animals, enabling her to access new areas.

Really, ninety percent of my complaints could be boiled down to the terrible level design of Shantae’s overworld, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time there, so the problems stick around. Everything just feels so uninspired. Sure, it’s all visibly vibrant and well-decorated, but there’s nothing memorable about the level design itself. This is a bigger problem than it appears at first glance because of Shantae’s metroidvania nature. It’s very difficult to tell one part of a forest area from another, and with all the backtracking Shantae requires, it can be easy to forget where things are, like collectibles you bypassed earlier because you lacked the necessary transformation dance. The placement and design of enemies often feel at odds with Shantae’s abilities, and encounters that seem like they should be easy just turn out frustrating. Shantae’s primary attack, using her hair as a whip, has an extremely short range, and it can be unreasonably difficult to actually hit enemies with it.

The overworld is just unfairly difficult overall. Now, I like hard games; I play Dark Souls, X-Com, and Super Meat Boy, but Shantae just frustrates. There’s a reason instant death spikes and pits don’t often make appearances in metroidvania games, a reason Shantae seems to forget. Dying will send you back to the beginning of the area, and areas in Shantae can be huge. It is immensely frustrating to make good progress only to have it all undone by one bad jump. Add into this that many jumps become difficult to make unless you’re running, and running is a fast way to find more pits and spikes…

Part of the problem is that the screen just doesn’t show enough of the environment. Shantae herself is about a quarter the height of the screen, and as a result, it feels like everything is zoomed in too far to get a good idea of your surroundings. I usually consider relying on emulator save states to be cheating, but I found myself thankful that the 3DS Virtual Console offers a state save function and relied heavily on it to finish Shantae.

Breaking up the overworld exploration, are the four dungeons where the elemental stones are kept, and in these places, the gameplay comes alive. It feels like much more effort was put into the dungeons than the overworld. Everything feels like it was made with Shantae’s abilities in mind. The placement and design of dungeon enemies feels like they were done keeping Shantae’s extremely short attack range in mind. The dungeons, despite being more maze-like than the overworld, give a much better sense of space and location. The level design offers plentiful landmarks to orient yourself, which are sorely absent in the overworld, and the platforming is mixed with some clever puzzle challenges like managing arranging spinning discs or managing giving Shantae a particular magnetic polarity. Difficulty is still high, but it feels more fair. Boss fights punctuate every dungeon, and they’re all interesting designs.

In conclusion, Shantae has some great elements. If the overworld was designed as well as the dungeons, I would feel much better about the game as a whole, but it’s just too big a part of the game to ignore, and the fun you’ll have in the dungeons simply isn’t worth the boring and difficult slog through the overworld. At the end of the day, Shantae is a museum piece; something to be observed and admired, but not touched.

Find Shantae on ebay | Amazon

Developer: WayForward Technologies
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 2002-6-2 (GBC), 2013-7-18 (3DS Virtual Console)


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