Shantae is a 2D platfotmer adventure game for the Game Boy Color developed by Way Forward. You play as the titular half-genie guardian of Scuttle Town when all of the sudden the nefarious pirate Risky Boots starts attacking. You rush to stop her evil-doing and chase her away only to learn that she has stolen Mimic’s new steam engine. Rumors of four magical stones scattered across Sequin Land fill our heroine with more dread at the thought of using their power to significantly enhance the steam engine’s power. It’s your job to find the location of these stones and secure them before Risky Boots can get her pirate paws on them.
The game starts in Scuttle Town, where you can get some information from the locals and perhaps some items from the local shop before heading out on your quest. The world is essentially one large map with towns, dungeons, and secret caves throughout. It also conveniently wraps around so going left or right long enough will land you back where you started. To start with you can run, jump, whip your hair to attack, duck, and crawl. By killing enemies you can sometimes get gems which are used to purchase items from item shops. You can get consumables to refill your health and other single-use items for attack, defense, and utility. There are even a few pieces of combat gear that will give you some powerful advanced fighting moves. Along the way you’ll also find fireflies that may do something special if you get enough of them, heart holders that will increase your maximum health by one heart, and talismans that will give your transformations new abilities. Oh right, did I mention that Shantae is also a belly dancer? While we’re at it, she’s quite the attractive one as well. So each dungeon houses one of the magic stones but also has a trapped genie that you must free. In return they will each teach you a special dance that will allow you to transform into a different creature, each with an inherent ability that will not only help you complete the dungeon but also help you explore and progress outside of it. Also within the dungeons you can find baby warp squids, which can be returned to any of the mother warp squids in the towns. Once one of them has four of their babies returned you will learn a dance to warp back to that town at any time.
Each town has essentially the same kinds of points of interest. There’s always a bath house to heal up your hearts, an item shop to buy from their selection of items, a save room where you can save your game, a friendly NPC structure usually for hints or plot progression, and some form of minigame for making gems. There’s even one based on the dancing itself. The dancing is done by pressing select to enter dancing mode. Then you must time hits on A, B, and the directional pad with the beat to perform different dance moves. You can only perform dances you’ve officially learned but you can review them on your subscreen. Be careful. Dancing does not make you invulnerable nor does it stop time. The save guy also shows up conveniently nearby each of the dungeons as well, but they are the only means of saving your game. Losing all of your health, falling down a bottomless pit, or coming in contact with spikes will result in you losing a life and resetting at the start of the current screen. However, running out of all of your lives will send you back to your last save. There’s also a day and night cycle. At night the enemies take twice as much abuse to kill, but fireflies will only appear during this time. This is also the only time you can find the roaming zombie caravan which pretty much acts like a moving town. There are also different NPCs roaming the various town streets at night that will give you different bits of info than in the day or just some goofy flavor text.
This game is pretty impressive considering the hardware. It has a lot of fluid animation, great use of colors, and a lot of little things going on mechanically. Some of the tunes are catchy. The metroidvania style is also something I just generally enjoy. Just some of the touches with the lighting changes and color choices are great to see. It also has a bit of humorous dialogue in it. The dancing mechanic is a cute touch to the setting and speaking of cute… oh my do I just love the character Shantae. It’s a pretty basic formula of playing through the game with a decent mix of puzzles in the dungeons, exploration outside, and action all around. It’s also not afraid to be a little longer than most handheld platformers of the time. I think I had the most fun in the dungeons just trying to fight off minibosses, solving puzzles, getting new transformations that would change the rest of the game for me, and fighting off some big bad boss at the end. The more the game opened up to me, the more fun it became. It gave me an appreciation of where this series began.
The thing is, I have a lot of gripes with it. Some of these things might be explained by the game’s age, but not excused by it. Early on the game is brutal. You have very little health, no knowledge of the areas, and you are still learning not only how to just fight enemies in general but how the timing, distance, and hitboxes work. Sometimes you will lose your rhythm because animations take priority. Sometimes you’ll misjudge a hitbox. And sometimes you’ll just get blindsided. Not to mention that dancing does not stop time nor make you invulnerable so if you’re looking to transform in a pinch you might get interrupted or take damage after the brief frame of invulnerability DURING the transformation because the enemy will plop themselves directly on top of you. With only three hearts it pretty much means that you’d better take it painfully slow or grind early and stock up on healing items. Then again, you might want to stock up on some float muffins too because otherwise the bottomless pits and spikes that kill you instantly will be sending you back to the last save guy in a flash. I really wish those would only take away a heart like in the later games, but that might negate the life system a little bit I guess. The day and night cycle is also tedious because you can’t really control it. You’ll often be sitting around waiting for it to be one or the other depending on what you want to accomplish. The one way you can influence it is if you have the warp dance for the zombie caravan, which you better get the first time around because otherwise who knows when and where you’ll ever see it again. Because it only appears at night you can warp there to instantly change the game to night. Speaking of warping, travel is another big pain in the ass. It’s mostly a long looping line left and right but remembering where everything is can be another story. You’re given no map and sometimes the places you need to go to are through underground passageways. So you’d better get real familiar with the lay of the land or you’ll be backtracking a lot more than you intended just trying to find that one place you KNOW you found once before. Near the end of the game the difficulty actually goes down because you have so many abilities, consumables, and hearts. It’s almost the opposite of how difficulty should work. Oh, and at the one part where you’re told to go Mount Pointy by Mimic… go the opposite of the way he says. It’s a funny, albeit infuriating, goof in the dialogue.
Shantae is fun. It’s pretty good for Game Boy Color standards for sure. Fans of the later games might want to check this out to see where the series began, and fans of Game Boy Color games might just like another solid title in their collection. I hear the physical version is pretty pricey these days but you can get it for a few bucks on the Nintendo 3DS eshop and it’s worth that much. The thing is, I can’t really recommend it to a general metroidvania fan. The game has some good groundwork, but it feels limited and primitive in a lot of ways, even for its time. You’d be better off with one of the other Shantae games to start with. I’d say Risky’s Revenge is the ideal starting point, but we’ll get more into that later. I’m just glad that not only do I get to know what this game was like, but also it feels good knowing Shantae has always been a total babe.