Retro Game of the Whenever: the $250 Question...?
$250. Just pause for a minute and let that figure sink in. It's the going price for a particular game, complete-in-box. No, not Chrono Trigger. Not Final Fantasy VI. Not…okay, I have been asked to pay that much for SoldierBlade or ShockMan, props if either was your guess, but for this write-up I'm referring to a different obscure little gem, by the American studio WayForward, released in 2002 for, of all platforms, Gameboy Color. The game? Shantae. And I am tempted to say it was worth every penny.
A number of factors contribute to the ludicrous price tag, not the least of which being the recent release of a much-belated sequel on mobile and 3DS/DSiWare. Another strong contributor is sheer scarcity. 2002 was well into the rise of Gameboy Advance, and long after most studios had dropped GBC from their radar. WayForward, however, persisted with development and delivered such a strong project that Capcom agreed to publish and distribute. A small run was made, sales were lackluster, and Capcom ultimately pulled out and declined to publish GBA or other prospective sequels. And at the end of the day, in addition to being hot and scarce, Shantae is simply worth playing.
While a game featuring a purple-haired manga-styled cartoon dominating a cover edged with the kid-friendly "Game Boy COLOR" logo might not jump off shelves packed with shiny new Advance games, once you open the box you begin to get a sense that you aren't in for an ordinary trip. The manual (in luscious full-color) is a robust 30+ pages full of narrative text, character bios, development sketches, final illustrations, and more instructions than many GBA titles require. Any lingering doubt in the caliber of the game dissipates when you drop it in your system (a GBA, if you want some entertaining late-game bonus content), flick the power switch, and hit the title screen and the first of many stellar audio tracks by rising star Jake Kaufman (known on Overclocked Remix and other circles as simply 'virt'). After letting the roughly 6 phases of the nearly 90 second unlooped chiptune play out, you get a pause to pick your jaw up and actually press Start to proceed to the file select, where you are challenged anew to say with a straight face that this is in fact merely a Gameboy Color cartridge.
Throughout its content, Shantae demonstrates the limits of the GBC in much the same way that Kirby's Adventure demonstrates the limits of the NES: by hustling right up to them, grinning like a hooligan, and while everyone's looking, putting a toe across the line just to get a reaction. I've already covered audio. It never really goes downhill. Virt is basically a god, and the entirety of the Tetris ROM could be fit nearly 10 times over in just the audio footprint of Shantae. Art-wise, backgrounds look like they could have been lifted off TurboGrafx or early Genesis titles. The bitwork is detailed, the layer parallax effects are technically mind-boggling, animation is smooth, and palettes are, with very few exceptions, vibrant and seamlessly blended. Shantae herself must use at least 3 sprite palettes, and her every action has sufficient frames to make you forget it's frame animation. Which brings me to the game's single aesthetic weakness: with 3 palettes going to the protagonist at "all" times, only one palette is reserved for enemies. Thus, all enemies on a given screen are generally 2-tone monochrome. Still decently animated but, against such a phenomenal backdrop and player sprite, highly lackluster. But I won't complain if you won't. And I'm pretty sure you won't, at least not if you're over 12 years old.
Have I mentioned this isn't really a kiddie game? The protagonist is a lightly-dressed belly-dancing hair-whipping female half-genie. The antagonist is a well-endowed female pirate in a skull halter-top. A nontrivial subset of enemies are topless female demi-humans (although there are a few big buff shirtless male demi-humans and lean mean werewolves thrown in for good measure). But while the theming, even down to the thinly-veiled innuendo (dialogue with one late-game telescope quite literally goes "If you want to look through me, I must first look through you!" // "I hope you mean, like, through my heart or soul or something…" // "Of course that's what I mean!") is all the sort of stuff that would go right over the head of the under-aged and sustain the 'E' rating, the maturity doesn't by any means end there. This game requires skill. Not, say, "Adventures of Link" skill, but you can neither collect nor grind nor memorize your way to victory, and bull-rushing is right out. If all you do is run right and attack everything, you'll be in a bit of hurt by the end of the first field screen, and reaching the second town will feel Sisyphesian. But if you're mature enough to step back, strategize, pick your battles, and wait for openings, you can jump straight into some mid-level areas and snag one or two early goodies before you've even seen the second save point. Once you have a feel for things, the difficulty is about on par with, say, Link's Awakening. You'll die a few times to environmental hazards and accrual of too many minor hits, but the death system is forgiving. Losing each of your stock 4 lives sets you back to the start of the screen without respawning one-time enemies, and after that, Game Over returns you to the most recent save point, but with your items, cash and dungeon/story progress intact. Some enemies take an obnoxious number of hits to dispatch, particularly during night cycles when enemy HP/defense doubles, but patience and reflexes will usually win out even against bosses.
And really, patience and reflexes are all you have to rely on—even the "power ups" you can find and buy do little beyond giving you more life and more ways to convert skill into damage. Each of Shantae's iconic animal transform dances increases your mobility in some way, but only one starts with its own attack (and not a very practical attack at that). Each transform also introduces limitations. Monkey is fast and jumps high, but can be "floaty" to control and easily falls into small holes that human form can run straight over. Elephant can break rocks, stumps, walls, and certain enemies, but is very slow and only jumps one block high. Spider can walk on most background walls and tree trunks, but has limited jumping, sluggish movement, and leaves you glued to any wall you climb until you hit an edge. Even Harpy, the end-game ultimate transformation can fly anywhere but handles as if she's on oiled ice both in the air and on the ground. Each animal form has one attack power-up, but while Harpy's can one-hit-kill any standard enemy, all other animal attacks are about on par with a single human-form hair-whip, meaning human form is often the best for combat due to its own attack upgrades. Or should I perhaps put "upgrades" in quotes…? The fact is, there is no L2 sword in Shantae. Your regular attack does just as much to the final boss as it does to the first poor impy things outside the first town. All you can do is buy (yes buy, in the second town no less) up to 4 pieces of "fighter gear" to enable new attacks with increasing setup complexity to offset their increased damage. Fighter's Boot allows a 2x damage flip-kick… which launches straight up and has a hitbox only on the forward-facing edge. Fighter's Sash allows you to transition from the flip-kick into a diagonally downward drill-kick for 3x damage which, if it doesn't kill your target, leaves you standing directly inside its attack hitbox (and if it does kill your target, or if your target doesn't otherwise break your attack, you may also be left on an unstoppable trajectory to any death-pit or lethal spike trap behind your target). Fighter's Cuff enables a ~5x damage attack which can only be triggered by standing still with the B button held for a solid 3 seconds, at which point you become immobilized with mighty power until, assuming you haven't yet been hit, you unleash an elbow-dash which carries you roughly a full screen and into anything that may be waiting (the level designers really were quite fond of their death-pits and lethal spikes, I can assure you) before you regain control. And Fighter's Tiara allows yet another attack to be chained onto the Cuff dash, assuming you survive that long.
What have I missed? Right—plot! Er… Okay. It's simplistic. Collect the items, save the world. But the dialogue is good, and the premise works. If you could make a steam engine with magical powers of infinite heat, infinite water, infinite condensation, and infinite durability, you'd be able to do a lot of mischief. Maybe even take over the world. So stopping a gratuitous evil pirate from collecting infinite powers after stealing the world's only steam engine? Probably a good thing. It's a gofer quest. But really, so is Zelda. And like the best early Zeldas, Shantae tells you kinda mostly what to do, but is always tight-lipped on the specifics of where and how. Exploration! There are also a few minigames thrown in for good measure, and die-hard completionists can put in extra hours scrounging up all 20 warp squids, 16 buyable items, 12 fireflies, 7 hearts, 4 talismans, and 1 big GBA-Enhanced secret.
Shantae really is in a world of its own. I don't think I've had this much good clean fun with an action-RPG in quite some time. I don't even really have any titles to justly compare it to, as its charm and complexity aren't cloned from anywhere in particular (a statement which should give modern mobile developers pause). Mechanically, it's been likened to a CastleRoid, and while the simile isn't too far off, it's not spot-on either. Digging deeper into my bag, I could liken it similarly to Monster World 4 (shoutout to Vlcice!), but once again, some aspects line up but some of MW4 falls short of Shantae. I got the same sort of technological-emotional buzz exploring Shantae as I remember having when I stumbled across Sylvan Tale, GameGear's own transforming-hero action-RPG packing SNES Illusion-of-Gaia-esque punch into considerably less hardware. Matt Bozon and WayForward definitely outdid themselves on this one, or at least they would have if it wasn't, to all immediate appearances, their first title. I've seen quotes that Shantae should be playable in 4 hours to a new player. I'd say 4 hours is more of a speedrun target, and guess more like 10-15 if you're exploring everywhere and going for 100% on your first play. I personally stretched it out over a very enjoyable week of travel, and then re-beat it in about 6 hours for this write-up. If nothing else, that's not too shabby for GameBoy. If you ever see it in the wild (it is after all quite rare), don't hesitate to pay premium. And if not, well, I hope to be able to report in not too long whether Risky's Revenge is a viable alternative.