Dance magic dance
Shantae has quite the legacy behind her, despite only starring in two games. Originally beginning life all the way back in the Super Nintendo’s 16-bit era, developer WayForward struggled to find a way to release the game. Years passed, until finally, Capcom obliged to publish the Gameboy Color version of Shantae. There was one problem: It was 2002, and the Gameboy Advance had already been out for more than a year. Nobody was going to buy a Gameboy Color game under those circumstances, and nobody did, either – thanks in part to Capcom’s extremely limited production run of the game. Shantae came out only to drop in to the laps of collectors as one of the most rare Gameboy Color games ever made; boxed copies still sell for more than $200 on Ebay. It was hardly enough to give WayForward the street cred it needed to make it a franchise, but nonetheless, Shantae 2 for the Gameboy Advance was announced, and a familiar song and dance began anew: it took 8 years for Shantae 2 to finally get in to players hands, mostly thanks to Nintendo allowing WayForward to self-publish the game on the Nintendo DSi marketplace. For whatever reason, despite the fandom providing a clear outpouring of support for Shantae, the game never really seems to have a break-out hit. But thanks to the magic of the digital marketplace, concepts like rarity are no more, and Nintendo has thankfully obliged to provide 3DS owners with the original Gameboy Color version of Shantae via their Virtual Console service.
So what kind of game is Shantae, exactly? If you wanted to be reductive, it is essentially Castlevania II for the NES. Evoking such a name means a lot of things to a lot of people – Castlevania II isn’t the most beloved game in the world, thanks in part to obtuse puzzles, confusing dialog, and a high skill requirement. Many of CV2’s more frustrating elements were later excised in games like Symphony of the Night for the Playstation, giving birth to the modern “Metroidvania” term as we know it today. Perhaps as a result of its decades-old 16-bit lineage, Shantae pretends that those later games did not exist. Instead, it builds on CV2 directly, trading leather whips for hair whips. And, with a bit of technical wizardry, Castlevania II‘s most notorious feature – its sluggish day/night transition – has been significantly expedited to happen in real time, without interrupting the flow of play.
As it turns out, Shantae is full of technical wizardry. My understanding is that the Gameboy Color hardware shares a lot in common with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and even for the year it was released in, the handheld was considered to be significantly underpowered. That didn’t stop WayForward from flexing their muscles on the system: expect uncommonly vibrant color palettes, impossibly fluid pixel animation, and a lot more stuff that is above and beyond anything you’d expect an 8-bit system to accomplish. All of this is a little less impressive now of course, but in context, Shantae was a tour de force that pushed the limits of the hardware to the absolute brink. But visual excellence is nothing unless it plays well, and it’s here that Shantae stumbles. Certain menus can be confusing to navigate thanks to non-standard button usage, and item management isn’t very intuitive. In a game like Castlevania, you use items by holding up on the d-pad and pressing the attack button – the same basic concept is present in Shantae, but requires you to press up and then the attack button separately in a sequence, rather than both at the same time. Nowhere in the manual or in the game mentions this quirk, and even up to the end of the game, this lead to confusion and frustration as I scrambled and failed to use items in heated situations.
The biggest thing Shantae carries over from Castlevania is its level of difficulty, especially if you’re the kind of person who has a tendency to leap before you look. Shantae rewards planning and preparation; the best way I can describe it is that the game gives you a run button, but you should almost never use it. Running usually means throwing yourself face-first in to every hazard and trap the game has laid for you. Shantae herself is comparatively weak throughout most of the game, requiring you rely on offensive items purchased from shops to dispatch enemies. Once you get in to the habit of gearing up before you leave town things aren’t so bad, but you still have to contend with bottomless pits and instant-kill spike traps, on top of infinitely respawning enemies and more. Thankfully, this is the Virtual Console, which means you’re afforded the ability to turn on save states, and I feel no shame in admitting I began to abuse them to their fullest extent as I neared the end of the game. One gets the impression that Shantae is so difficult because it’s also not a terribly long game. Sure, it took me six hours to beat the first two dungeons, but not because they were big or complex. This is, again, in keeping with the game’s roots in old school, ultra-hardcore games: many older games often masked their lack of content with an increased level of challenge. A skilled player can beat the original Contra in around 15 minutes, but getting to that point takes hours upon hours of practice. With that in mind, this was my first time playing Shantae, and it took me close to 11 hours to work my way through its four dungeons – and that’s counting the moments near the end of the game where I started to rely on a FAQ in order to figure out where to go next.
It would be disingenuous to say I did not enjoy my time spent with Shantae. But it’s not hard to see why the first game did not set the world on fire: though I would classify it as good (yet difficult), it lacks the elegant simplicity you get from the classic games it is so deliberately patterning itself after. It knows the dance, but is just a little too clumsy at the steps to be recognized for its style. Of course, the ultimate question in these is whether or not you should buy the thing or not – in that regard, Shantae is only $5, and just about any videogame is worth $5. The rub is that other Shantae games are also on the 3DS eShop – Shantae‘s sequel (titled “Risky’s Revenge“) is available for $12, and the third Shantae outing (“Pirate’s Curse“) is due literally any day now. While I have not played either of them personally, I do know that some of the annoyances I experienced with the Gameboy Color version of Shantae may be alleviated by having a greater number of available buttons and further gameplay iteration. While that’s not exactly me saying you shouldn’t buy the original Shantae, it is me saying you might be better served with one of those other games.