What a long, strange trip it's been.
Shantae, our favorite half-genie hero here at Nintendo World Report, has come a long way during her 18-year history. You can play through that entire history now from the comfort of your own Switch, as every Shantae game is on the eShop. This is something of a miracle by itself, as the series spans several disparate systems: Shantae on Game Boy Color, Risky’s Revenge on DSiWare, Pirate’s Curse on 3DS, Half-Genie Hero on Wii U (and other concurrent systems), and finally Seven Sirens on current platforms. Of those five games, it’s still the original that’s the hardest to find. It had a legendarily-low print run on the GBC, published by Capcom, who sat on it and until the Game Boy Advance had been released. Shockingly, it was not a big seller. Consequently, that cart is now one of gaming’s Holy Grails.
Miraculously, Shantae was digitized for the 3DS Virtual Console back in 2013 and I heartily recommended it back then. Limited Run Games is the publisher on this new remaster, and they’re going all-out: in addition to this digital version, they’re publishing a physical Switch cart and, by some black magic alchemy, they’re reproducing functional Game Boy Color carts. As if I needed a better excuse pre-order an Analogue Pocket.
Well, I guess I mean TRY to pre-order an Analogue Pocket. I think we all know how that turned out (spoiler alert: poorly).
With the entire series under my belt, the original Shantae game is nothing if not incredibly interesting. So many aspects of this series have continued onward, virtually unchanged, while other things have been significantly streamlined or dropped entirely. The exploration, in particular, is a little rough—traversing the long, horizontal overworld takes a long time and the large sprites take up a lot of real estate. You can’t see too far ahead or above you, which results in a lot of cheap hits or accidental deaths. Shantae loses a life when she falls into a pit or lands on spikes. This happens more than it should, so feel free to lean hard on the game’s save state feature (quick tip for the first dungeon: by holding down Y, Shantae can run across small gaps).
Transforming (and warping) is accomplished through dancing, but it’s a slower, more deliberate process that I’m glad has since been changed. Here, you press X to start dancing, then press directions and/or the A & B buttons in time with a beat to produce a result. It’s workable, but it’s kind of bothersome, especially if you don’t get the timing right. Thankfully, each animal form gets a workout. The monkey can climb up walls, the elephant can destroy environmental obstacles (and kill most enemies quickly), the spider can climb up many "background" walls, and of course the harpy can fly.
The original game also features a day/night cycle which reminds me a bit of the Light/Dark worlds in Metroid Prime 2: getting around at night is generally harder because enemies deal more damage and take more hits to kill. However, you’ll only find Fireflies (this game’s collectable de jure) at night, and collecting all fifteen Fireflies lets you access a new healing dance that’s actually not all that critical once you’re in the endgame but probably nice to have.
The game’s four dungeons, however, are a joy. They’re tightly designed and, while floor plan maps would’ve been nice, aren’t so large and sprawling that you’ll get hopelessly lost (although I did manage to get turned around too often in the ice dungeon). You’ll also find five Warp Squids per dungeon, and you can deposit four in each of the game’s five towns to learn a warp dance. This becomes critically important later in the game during item cleanup. There’s a dance parlor in Scuttle Town where Shantae can earn gems by essentially playing Dance Dance Revolution, and a dice game in Oasis Town where she can win big bucks by essentially gambling on dice rolls. Unlike the GBC Pokemon Trading Card Game, the outcome is not fixed so you can game the system by leaning on save states and win every match. The dice game is the only practical way you’re going to earn enough money to buy all the items and attacks. I was tickled to notice that your opponents in the dice game are the same characters who eventually return, for more dice-based shenanigans, in Pirate’s Curse.
Oh yes, Shantae is the only game in the series that gives Shantae new offensive melee attacks, including a jump kick, diagonal drill kick, and elbow charge. These attacks simply do more damage than her standard hair whip, and can be situationally useful, but aren’t totally necessary, especially the elbow charge, which takes forever to charge up and can be dangerous depending on where you are. The game also contains a few challenge caves which are traversed with specific items, many of which make their only appearance in this game, including the Vanish Cream, Float Muffin, Twin Mint, and Greedy Jar.
There is a little bit of jank in this port, and I can’t tell if it’s because the GBC game felt this way or it’s been introduced: The dance timing seems a little muddy, but also using items (by pressing up + Y) never feels natural, and only seems to work half the time. I would have preferred a dedicated button for item use. There are some nice new features here, though: you can select the GBC or GBA enhanced versions of Shantae: the enhancement is brighter and includes an optional Tinkerbat transformation that you can and should buy from Bandit Town, as it streamlines exploration. This essentially gives you two different save files to swap between, and both allow up to three save states apiece. There's also a lovely gallery of concept art from the game.
I did encounter a bug during my playthrough: in the ice dungeon, there are “barrel cannons” (for lack of a better term), and sometimes they just didn’t activate, which stops your progress. However, I found out that reloading from the last save point (don’t forget to save often, folks) as opposed to my last save STATE, fixed the issue.
The original Shantae is a lovely little game that too few people were able to experience, so I’m thrilled that it’s available for mass consumption on the eShop. Franchise fans should, of course, jump on this as soon as humanly possible, but folks curious about the series or who just want some GBC nostalgia will enjoy it too.