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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Tiermaker Funtimes: The Shantae series

Shantae is a beloved modern classic series, and having recently completed all the ones I hadn't yet finished, I figured it was time for a bit of a retrospective on the series. So, let's look at all five Shantae games and give them a ranking. 

Shantae (Game Boy Color, 2002)

Shantae's original outing was on the Game Boy Color, and as it came out well after the Game Boy Advance's launch, it didn't do very well in terms of sales.  However, it built up enough interest among gamers in subsequent years to get several sequels made and eventually to get a re-release itself on several formats, including having a new run of GBC cartridges made through Limited Run Games.  It ended up being one of the last in the series I played, and to be honest... I wasn't really that impressed by it.  Sure, it had large, well-animated characters and some pretty solid music for the platform, but the gameplay on the whole feels pretty lacking, with some very awkward collision detection, tons of annoying blind jumps, and enemy fights that are drawn out and tedious rather than fun; seriously, even mundane enemies you run into take several hits apiece, and their health DOUBLES at night, so I just ended up avoiding combat entirely whenever I could.  Even getting from place to place on the over world is a chore, with screens that seem to go on forever and dying at any point setting you all the way back at the start (unless you lost your last life, of course, at which point you're reloading your last save).  Even powerups don't help much with this, as they're all grotesquely overpriced and single use only. The dungeons managed to salvage the experience for me, though - they still capture the classic hook of the genre, with some clever gimmicks that take advantage of Shantae's morphs and puzzles that feel well designed and fun to solve.  Well, until you get to the final gauntlet on Risky's Island, which is another extremely drawn out gauntlet full of hitsponge enemies and cheap instant kill traps, and Risky herself is a pain too, with an absolutely stupid amount of health that takes forever to drain owing to her getting gobs of invincibility frames during all of her attacks (and during her laugh animation, which she does basically any time she isn't attacking).  Honestly, were it not for the savestate feature built into the Switch version, I probably wouldn't have bothered completing this one at all; it's a chore to play and really just not very fun outside of the inspired dungeons.  But for those, and the strong presentation for a GBC game, I have to give it some props. I don't think it's worthy of a C, but it's  not quite lackluster enough for a D either, so... We'll  call it a C-. That seems fair.

Shantae: Risky's Revenge (2010)

The original Shantae wasn't exactly a strong seller, as mentioned, but continuous fan interest led WayForward to attempt to reboot the franchise, with the most well-known attempt being a canceled GBA sequel called "Shantae II: Risky Revolution". The series eventually saw the light of day again in 2010 after several attempts with the launch of Nintendo's DSiWare platform, and it was a substantial improvement over the original in virtually every respect.  Combat and exploration were far less arduous, it does away with the arbitrary day/night cycle and lives system, and features a much more convenient fast travel system (particularly in 'Director's Cut', which let's you jump between any warp squids you've activated instead of only between pairs).  Shop items are more modestly priced and useful in general, as most are permanent upgrades that run off a replenishable magic meter instead of being single-use.  It wasn't perfect, however - the world map was annoying to navigate with its multi-layered screens you had to hop between via arrow panels, and it was overall a pretty short experience, with just three short dungeons to explore (one of which is just a monster gauntlet with no puzzles at all). Still, I had way more fun with Risky's Revenge than I did with the original game, as it took nearly everything I disliked about the original and did away with it or at least made it more tolerable. Risky's Revenge gets a B. 

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (2014)

Risky's Revenge was a well-received sequel by both fans of the original and critics, though it drew some criticism for its short length and annoying navigation (which was mitigated to a degree in the Director's Cut rereleases).  To many, though, Pirate's Curse was where the series really started to shine. I'd have to agree with that assessment, too - while it hasn't improved a great deal graphically (and in fact reuses many sprites from Risky's Revenge), it does have some high quality character renders and even bits of voice acting that lend it a lot of personality.  The gameplay is reworked in a pretty clever way, too - robbed of her genie magic after the events of the second game, Shantae now utilizes Risky's magic items to her advantage - a pistol to attack at range or activate distant switches, a hat that works as a parachute (letting you glide over long distances or gain altitude in updraft) or boots that works like Metroid's speed boost, letting you plow through enemies and smash weak walls after a big enough running start, among others.  It's a lot of fun to go exploring around hunting for all the game's various secrets (in fact, this was the first Shantae game I bothered getting 100% in) and it even has some surprisingly challenging, yet fun boss fights and obstacle courses to get through. Just a fun, charming little game with plenty of content, so yes, it gets an A from me. 

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (2016)

Pirate's Curse was a tough act to follow, but Half-Genie Hero somehow managed to be just as good, if not better, in almost every way.  Visually the series received a drastic overhaul, with redone sprites and some downright gorgeous animation (probably the best I've seen in any 2D game to date).  Gameplay-wise it goes back to the style of the first two for the most part, with Shantae utilizing various morphs to get around the levels and unlock secrets.  However, they did make the controversial decision to go from open-world exploration to more of a stage-based structure, with the player having to replay stages later once they get new powerups to find everything, somewhat akin to games like Mega Man X. I didn't mind it, though, as I was having too much fun to care.  It even had some pretty fun DLC in the form of levels that let you play as Shantae friends Bolo, Sky and Rottytops for the first time, which adds some nice variety.  Half Genie Hero is my favorite in the series to date, so of course, it gets an A. 

Shantae and the Seven Sirens (2019)

The series' latest entry, which goes back to basics in some ways and is a leap forward in others.  For the former, the game goes back to an open world style of design, with the player gradually gaining access to new areas as they unlock abilities.  The music is bizarrely retro too, sporting an 8-bit chiptune style for the most part rather than the upbeat modern-sounding tracks in most games; it sounds good, though, so I won't complain.  On the new side, the game now has animated cutscenes for key moments, including a very flashy animated intro by Trigger, which are quite fun to see.  Shantae has a whole new set of morphs this time around; ironically, despite it being seen in the intro and even mentioned in dialog, her monkey morph is never seen in game.  Instead, this game's morphs are more smoothly integrated into the gameplay; pressing one button while attempting to climb a wall (Newt form) or tunnel through the earth (Shellfish form) will cause Shantae to change into that form and carry out the action immediately.  She unlocks a few "fusion dances" too, which are used for things like revealing hidden platforms or reviving dead plants in the scenery (as well as restoring a small amount of health to herself).  Pretty fun stuff, and as ever, it retains the series' high standards for graphical and level design.  Another A from me.

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Shantae's also made cameos in a number of other games, including a microgame in WarioWare DIY called "Shantae NAB!", a playable character in the Apple Watch exclusive game "Watch Quest" and even as a spirit and Mii Fighter costume in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.  She also appears in Blaster Master Zero as DLC (with mechanics remarkably similar to her native games) and, somewhat more infamously, was planned as a guest character for Indivisible before Lab Zero games was dissolved under inauspicious circumstances.