Although WayForward’s hair-whipping heroine is more well known by gamers thanks to current-gen revivals, Shantae was a bit of an oddity when the original game was released in 2002. It was released at the end of the Gameboy Color’s life cycle and, as a result, didn’t get much attention. Ebay prices for the game are astronomical at this point- one can expect to pay triple digit numbers for an authentic copy. Fortunately, the game has been rereleased digitally for the Nintendo 3DS family of handhelds. As someone who adores the modern trilogy of Shantae games (Pirate’s Curse especially), I felt it was necessary to go back to the series’ beginning.
The plot revolves around Shantae, a half-genie who serves as a guardian for Scuttle Town. She’s tasked with fending off a pirate invasion at the beginning of the game and is eventually tasked with retrieving a steam engine stolen off by Risky Boots, the self proclaimed queen of the seven seas as well as beating her to all of the parts necessary to utilize the engine for evil.
The presentation is spectacular for Gameboy Color standards. Animation is quite fluid and the environments are all relatively colorful. There’s even a night and day transition system, which I found quite impressive. On top of this, there’s a section in the beginning of the game where the town you’re traveling through is set ablaze by a pirate attack, causing the lighting and colors to change consequently. It’s an awesome effect and showcases the graphical capabilities of the Gameboy Color nicely.
While the beginning of the game might lead one to believe this is a traditional action platformer, it becomes apparent after the first boss battle that this is more of a Metroidvania. While there is plenty of platforming involved after this point, players can expect to revisit areas multiple times- be it to progress the story or to pick up items that couldn’t have been reached the first time around.
Shantae’s primary means of attack is her long, purple hair. It functions similarly to Simon Belmont’s whip in the Castlevania games. Additionally, there are powerups ranging from a cream that makes Shantae invisible to enemies (and impervious to damage) to fireballs. One shop in particular has permanent upgrades to Shantae’s moveset, and given that the hair-whip is quite weak here in comparison to the later games, purchasing them is highly recommended for a first playthrough.
Then of course, there are the transformations. These are unlocked by freeing capturing genies in the several dungeons found in the game and are triggered by a button combination. These range from a monkey who can scale walls to a harpy that can soar to the skies and make backtracking a cinch. While these leave Shantae defenseless after being freshly acquired, the transformations too can be upgraded with their own unique attacks.
It should be noted that this original title’s difficulty is considerably higher than that of the later Shantae games. You can’t cheese through most of the enemies and boss battles in this game the same way you could with any of the later games in the series. Attacks are weaker and power ups are far more expensive (although one shop has a gambling game that can be used to grind for gems). This is a welcome change of pace for the most part. I found the later games are a little too easy, making for an ocassionally disengaging experience. That said, I can’t help but question the inclusion of a lives system. More often than not, I found myself hitting a save point with only one or two lives left and decided it was best to commit suicide, get a game over and return freshly stocked whenever it was time to enter a dungeon.
On the subject of dungeons, they’re arguably the strongest points in the adventure. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, rooms lined with enemies to clear out, and hidden vases that have a ton of gems to find. The bosses waiting at the end of each are also fairly clever, often involving the use of the transformation acquired prior to the showdown in some way or another.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for many of the other areas. Level design in between these dungeons is rather uninventive, being a Point A to Point B affair with the same kind of platforming challenges repeated often. There are a few spots where you’ll need to use a transformation or power up to get an item that increases your health or a firefly (which there are twelve of, and again, not essential for beating the game) in these sections, but they’re bland otherwise. Fortunately, the harpy transformation unlocked later on makes late-game backtracking relatively painless should the player wish to do the firefly collecting sidequest before tackling the final area.
Despite some blandly designed areas and the strange inclusion of lives (which the later games would omit), Shantae is still well worth playing thanks to its stellar presentation, witty dialogue (which the series would later become known for) and strong dungeons.