The last half a decade has shown that Metroid-style platformers have increasingly proven to become more popular among developers, with games such as Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition and Axiom Verge being a result of fond memories of their own childhood when these types of games that fuelled their inspiration ruled the roost. Now, WayForward’s belly dancing half-genie becomes the latest game to grant that wish.
WayForward, known for the likes of Boy and his Blob, Mighty Switch Force! and the more recent Ducktales Remastered as well as various other Disney, Marvel and DC licenced games. It’s Shantae that fits the bill as the company’s prime mascot and, in this case, WayForward turned to Kickstarter to keep the half-genie out of the bottle.
Originally released as one of the Game Boy Colour’s swansongs in 2002. The Shantae series has actually been around for quite some time with its Metroidvania style of exploration, and, despite doubling its initial crowdfunding target for this sequel, it’s easily missed by most. Which is especially a shame because it was originally released just before Christmas last year on multiple platforms and with all the noise of holiday AAA releases and sales, it’s easy to overlook this little gem. Which is why now may be a much smarter move for the Nintendo Switch version to surface. With the consoles rising popularity and with Switch game library still in its infancy, as well as a leading female protagonist currently smashing the box office with Wonder Woman, this very well may be the time for this half-genie to shine.
After a brief prologue of the story we find the town’s main street under attack by pirates (aka Tinkerbats) under the orders of the series villain Risky Boots. Although Shantae does what she can to stop the attack and keep Scuttle Town safe it doesn’t stop Mayor Scuttlebutt from sacking the guardian genie for a new one. Among this you’re helping your uncle to create a machine called the Dynamo that not only protects Scuttletown but also keeps the lights on. It may not be the deepest in story telling but it does have charming dialogue and is very self-aware with nods to crowd funding and soft reboots. It even somehow manages to make the kidnap and mutilation of maidens for food produce somewhat light-hearted. The cut scenes are short and snappy and don’t outstay their welcome. You don’t need to have played a previous title to follow this adventure but for those who have you will recognise many of the returning characters.
The graphics are gorgeous, with the crisp, clean and colourful art style that blends well with 3d environments along with smooth animations and frame rate that makes the experience pleasant on the eye. It visually steps in a new direction from the Metal Slug-esque pixel art seen in previous titles of which were also well animated. The anime inspired art style has a SkullGirls look to it, which make sense with Mariel Cartwright as the lead animator who was also one of the main artists who worked on the 2d fighter, as well as shaping the illustration art in Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. The visuals maintain their gloss when the Switch is undocked which in turn makes this game a perfect fit for the console.
The gameplay at first presents itself as a straightforward linear platformer from the get go. I found myself looking for secret walls and pathways Donkey Kong style of which seem inevident at first. That is until you start possessing various abilities that open up the meat that is hidden off-screen from your first pursuit. This is where the Metroidvania gameplay aspects come into play. You’re encouraged to replay levels with your newfound abilities in search for hidden items and add-ons to your newfound forms thus expanding the environment of each level as you progress.
These abilities are in the form of transformations known as dances. Be it a wall-climbing monkey or a horizontally flying bat. There are several of these to acquire and they seem perfectly well balanced to the point where one doesn’t overpower the rest. The levels are varied from straight platforming to more fast-paced moments among other gameplay aspects that keep the momentum fluid without feeling too samey. The bosses fill the screen with most having a light puzzle element on how to approach them. There are levels that can prove pretty tricky at times and death does not go unpunished. You’re made to restart from your last save in failure which brings back times of old as opposed to restarting you just before your demise which I’m actually in favour for. The game feels like it can get progressively easier the more skills you acquire which the game does try to stuff out a bit by making later enemies stronger or cleverly handicapping abilities discreetly at some points. There’s also a hardcore mode that fits the taste buds of the more challenge hungry gamer that increases damage taken and changes enemy patterns which encourages a second play though. This mode is also thankfully unlocked straight off the bat.
The game map is split up into worlds that you fly to. Each world is split into segments before a boss fight similar to something like Sonic the Hedgehog. These lands lead off from your hub world of Scuttle Town where you solve the problems of the locals akin to The Legend of Zelda series of sorts. The game will probably take roughly under 10 hours to 100 percent complete on its standard difficulty which may seem a little on the short side for some but there’s more than enough content to warrant its price. There is recent news of a Risky Boots DLC campaign due to release in the summer to extend the experience, but word on pricing has not been announced at this time although it free to those who funded it. The Metroid aspect isn’t quite as robust as Nintendo’s own, or as what I’m lead to believe the Shantae games before it. It may also seem slightly repetitive to some replaying the levels to keep the town happy. Although it does, however, offer you the ability to buy a warp dance from the town store to help pinpoint the level that you want to uncover secrets in.
The controls are precise and responsive with the mistakes that you make usually being your own. I did, however, find it slightly frustrating that the monkey didn’t have an action to drop off a wall as I found getting to lower areas a little fidgety. Shantae’s main method of attack is her signature hair whip to snap the life out of her enemies. She can also acquire additional magic attacks which can also be purchased in the town’s shop.
The sound design fits nicely with the gameplay with Shantae bopping to every beat when stood still. There is a small amount of speech that is timed well within the text of the cut scenes which I personally prefer over a fully-fledged voice cast for this sort of game, as I feel it gives it a bit of a unique style and flair.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is an enjoyable experience and although Shantae doesn’t necessarily bring anything brand new to the table you can see the respect, love and polish the developers have for the genre that led them to create a game like this in the first place. With strong platformers already on the Switch such as Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, Blaster Master Zero and Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero stands strong and proudly amongst them.