Developer: Way Forward
Publisher: Way Forward, Limited Run Games
Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Platformer
Platform: Switch (also available on Gameboy and 3DS)
Age Rating: PEGI 7
Release Date: 22/04/2021
A code was provided for review purposes
Classic games are frequently ported to modern systems for players to revisit the games or experience them for the first time on modern hardware. At times, the systems featured in these games are outdated. Other times, games feel just as good as they did when last played. One such game, Shantae, was published in 2002 for the Gameboy Color. This title has recently been ported to the Nintendo Switch. Whip enemies with hair, transform into animal buddies, and save the town from imminent peril in Shantae.
The Mystery of Shantae
The story featured in Shantae is basic. Tasked with saving her town from Risky Boots’ evil schemes, Shantae must collect four elemental stones. Along her way, she meets a loveable cast of characters, but there is little plot significance to many of them. Though the story sets the overall theme, there are several instances where the player will get confused due to a lack of guidance from the game. The characters will explain where the next event is cryptically, requiring the player to spend significant time discovering where to go. Additionally, at times, characters will reference new locations by their name without detailing where it is. Unfortunately, this confusion makes the player feel like the game is working against them and will frustrate them, discouraging them from completing the game. The story was cute but lacked required indicators that detail the player’s next move.
Not only was the story insufficient at explaining where key locations were located, but the lack of a map severely hindered player knowledge of the world. With a map, the cryptic instructions may have been sufficient explanations. However, there was no map, and exploring the game world was burdened with confusion and a continuous cycle of getting lost. The decision to omit a world map makes the game challenging and frustrating to players.
Repeat That Please?
Additionally, the game is not accessible to players who are inexperienced or those who play infrequently. The run mechanic was never explained. There was a pathway that required the player to run despite never explaining that the character had the option to run. This lack of communication further discourages the player from continuing because there were no button prompts or dialogue boxes explaining the options for the run button (though it is shown in the controls section in options). Also, if the player reads their next task to complete, there are some instances when the character disappears, preventing them from re-reading their assignment. This will confuse players who do not play the game frequently, as there is no method to view active quests, and the game does not remind the player of their tasks. Though not game breaking, many players will feel discouraged by the lack of accessibility options.
Dance for me Shantae
Though the story was nothing special and led to confusion, the gameplay was innovative and refreshing. Shantae begins as herself, being able to whip enemies with her hair. However, throughout the game she unlocks dances that allow her to make a few transformations. To perform these dances, the player must correctly time specific inputs to the beat of the music. With some transformations having six inputs, transformations (especially the warping ones) can be extremely time consuming. It is tedious to transform, but there is little risk to performing them incorrectly.
While the act of transforming is mundane, the transformations are unique and game changing. Shantae can transform into a monkey that jumps higher and can cling to walls, an elephant who can smash through objects, and even a spider that can climb webs. Each of these animals also has a drawback, making each decision meaningful. These transformations require the player to choose which form is best for each situation and navigate the consequences carefully. These transformations give Shantae a unique identity that encourages players to continue playing.
While the player is built well, the enemies are designed poorly. Enemies are abundant, and they appear throughout each level. This is good, as there is enough action to keep the player engaged. However, overworld enemies require excessive amounts of damage before dying. Many require as many as five hits. Though the amount of health can artificially raise the difficulty, enemies do not have interesting or unique patterns. Moreover, many enemies can be locked in their hit-stun, meaning they simply waste the player’s time. Not only are enemies tedious to kill, but some enemies do not provide ample time for the player to react. For example, in specific sections of some waterfalls, fish jump out and bite the player. There is no visual indicator for these fish so receiving damage from these enemies will frustrate the player. The enemies will disappoint the player, but do not ruin the experience.
The bosses on the other hand are not as disappointing. While their mechanics are rarely explained or intuitive, the execution of damaging each boss is unique and interesting. One of the best designed bosses replicated the gameplay loop of joust. This subtle nod reminds players of other games without copying them. Unfortunately, many of these bosses were often simple once the patterns were discovered. The most challenging part of each fight was understanding how to damage each boss. Though the bosses were interesting, unintuitive design coupled with low difficulty detract from the overall quality.
Another disappointing aspect of the game is how the developers handled fast travel. The developers of Shantae included fast travel in two ways. There are warp squids. Collecting four of these squids allows the player to learn a dance to teleport to a village of their choice. However, these squids are often hidden in random locations, and are challenging for the average player to collect. This offers the convenience of transportation to talented players and forces inexperienced players to spend time traversing through places they have already visited. Moreover, this makes the game more challenging for those who need support the most. Additionally, there are secret passageways hidden under rocks and tree stumps. Unfortunately, these are never explained to the player, so many players will not realize that they exist. Decreasing the barrier of entry for fast travel would have made the gameplay significantly more enjoyable, especially for unskilled players.
Shantae also features a lives system. It is punishing, and forces players to retrace their steps. Despite this, there are frequent save points where the player permanently saves their progress. Additionally, unless they run out of lives, a death will only send the player back to the beginning of the current screen they are on, and not back to their save point. This style of punishment is challenging, but will not discourage the player from continuing, as the lives granted are sufficient, and most items received before death stay with the player. Regardless, the game would have benefitted from a less difficult mode, even one that eliminated the use of lives. However, the game is accessible, and the lives system will be manageable, even for inexperienced players.
Song and Dance
Shantae features a chip-tune score that is lively and upbeat. However, some of the tracks begin to get repetitive, as they are repeated throughout the game. There are new tracks for each area but due to the constant backtracking, the tracks will be played constantly. Overall, while repetitive, the music design is good.
Retro Art Still Holds Up
The pixel-art visuals were excellent for the most part. Enemies were visually appealing, and the characters each had their own charm. The player can play in a GameBoy Color or GameBoy Advance visual style. These slightly alter the visuals but neither has a large impact on the quality. Regardless, the option is nice to have. Unfortunately, there were a few minor glitches where the sprite work would falter. Despite infrequent visual glitches, the visuals were good.
For fans of the Shantae series, or for players who are willing to overlook some setbacks, Shantae is a solid purchase. However, it is important to note the lack of guidance, disappointing enemy design, and tedium that occurs in this title. Though not perfect, I enjoyed my time with Shantae.
Rapid Reviews Rating
3 out of 5
You can purchase Shantae on the Nintendo eShop here
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.