When I was in middle school I picked up an issue of Pocket Gamer for its walkthrough of Metal Gear Solid (GBC). Amidst pages that were full of speculation on what the Game Boy Advance would look like and whole paragraphs devoted to how the Neo Geo Pocket would surely be a serious competitor to Nintendo’s handheld (I wish I was joking), there was an article on the development process for a portable game. Said article was actually pretty fascinating and discussed what the developer had to do to get their title approved and picked up by a publisher. The featured game was a platformer for the Game Boy Color that featured a purple-haired half-genie that used belly-dancing to transform into different animals. That game was Shantae.
Fast forward to now. Wayforward Technologies is a much mightier name in the games industry and has a fairly extensive library of highly rated titles both self-published and licensed. The 3DS alone has Mighty Switch Force 1+2 and Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?, but that’s not even mentioning DSi titles like Mighty Flip Champs, Mighty Milky Way, and of course, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. So, why is the 1/2 genie hero so endearing?
With Shantae’s GBC outing being released on the Virtual Console, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse coming out very soon, and the Kickstarter campaign for Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero coming to a close, I felt that it would be a good time to discuss why the Shantae games are, in my opinion, such a delight. Now, I’ll be the first person to admit they aren’t the greatest games ever: the original Shantae is hard to recommend due to its severe initial difficulty and Risky’s Revenge has more than a few design flaws, but I still love this series to death. This list isn’t a professional or academic look at the series, it’s just me discussing why I like a game about a character who whips enemies with her hair and belly dances to turn into animals.
That being said, let’s get started.
Let’s start with some sweet aesthetics, shall we? While Shantae’s original outing might not be all the impressive by today’s standards, it pushed the envelope in terms of what could be done on the Game Boy Color. Not only were the graphics good for the time, but the character and enemy models had far more animation than any other title on the system. When Shantae: Risky’s Revenge came out, the graphics got a delicious update with a colorful palette that made all of the environments lush and vibrant, while the sprite animations got even better.
Of course, it isn’t just the visual aspect of the games that I find appealing. The music, done by the always-excellent Jake Kaufman, is pretty darn good as well. Take a listen to this:
That’s what I’m talking about. The music in both titles is excellent and it really helps capture the atmosphere of Shantae’s fun and enchanting world.
Speaking of Shantae’s world….
Shantae’s world is an interesting little mash-up of cultures. While you have an Arabian nights theme with Shantae, her heritage, and her home of Scuttle Town, she lives in a western-style lighthouse and is attacked by a Carribean-styled pirate (who are after a Grecian steam engine in the first game). She often does battle with scarecrows who pop out of cornfields, deals with mermaids and octopi, and explores coniferous forests that are home to gargoyles and cute-ified Romero zombies. Yet, the writing and aesthetics really help sell this world to players. Instead of all these elements clashing in a way that make the experience seem schizophrenic, they actually blend together to create a fun world where night clubs have DDR-style dance-offs and zombies can curb their hunger for brains by drinking espresso.
Shantae might be the person that the series is named after, but the franchise is populated with a number of colorful figures. For example, you have Shantae’s friend, the bird-carrying Bolo, and her “Uncle” Mimic, who actually has a pretty touching relationship with Shantae as shown in a few scenes of Risky’s Revenge. Then you have boss characters like the giant Octopus who lost its children, or the surprisingly genial Ammo Baron, who might want to wage war but treats anyone who serves under him or lives in his lands with respect. Then of course there’s Risky Boots, who might lose at the end of each game but does a good job in making sure she never loses too many resources or fails to inflict some damage on Shantae. She’s actually a very competent villain and I’m looking forward to her in Shantae and the The Pirate’s Curse, where she’s forced to work alongside her belly-dancing foe.
Then there’s Rotty Tops, who is probably my favorite character, next to Shantae herself. She’s a zombie, but she’s not really evil. Sure, she wants to eat brains, including Shantae’s, but she doesn’t want to kill anybody. She and her brothers are even pretty friendly to Shantae, except for when they (SPOILERS) kidnap Mimic with hopes that Risky Boots would pay them in coffee and brains (END OF SPOILERS) and even then they felt bad about it. Did I mention that they drink coffee to curb their appetite for brains?
That’s the other thing I love about Shantae, especially Risky’s Revenge: the games have a wicked sense of humor. Fourth-wall breaking jokes about bosses surviving fabulous deathsplosions? You bet! Humor due to awkward situations? Sure! Jokes about gameplay expectations? Sure, why not? There’s even adult-oriented humor, like the awkward conversation with a little boy who reveals his mom sometimes dresses up like Risky Boots for his Dad. While the gut-busters are only doled out occasionally, there’s still enough humor to keep a smile on your face the whole way through.