Like a genie’s lamp, Shantae rubs me up the right way.
Consider a Venn diagram that intersects platform games and genies. The resulting list wouldn’t be very long, but maybe you’d be surprised by the appearance of Shantae: a little-known series of such games that’s now on its fourth iteration. Also of trivial interest; the only other genie-platformer I could think of – Disney’s Aladdin on the Megadrive – shares something else with Shantae. In its day, it set the bar for exquisitely drawn and animated visuals.
This latest in the Shantae series is the first to be developed with high definition platforms in mind. Moving on from a handheld focus, developers WayForward have solidified Shantae as something almost peerless as far as 2D graphics are concerned. Shantae herself, an anime half-genie, constantly moves with exaggerated swagger, belly-dancing and leaping with infectious enthusiasm. A cast of similarly vibrant associates and nemeses alike join her adventure, in which she must save the Genie Realm from a malign influence.
In plot, Half-Genie Hero is by the numbers. In design, too, there’s nothing especially surprising. Shantae’s journey travels temples, deserts and mechanised factories, typically enough for the settings of a 90s-style platformer. Even its core gameplay systems will be familiar from one source or another. Yet there is a unique attraction to Shantae, and it’s not down to the preponderance of cartoon bikinis.
My fixation with Japanese developer Treasure might explain the appeal. Shantae bears the mark of the GBA classic Astro Boy: Omega Factor in tone and structure. It has a similarly simple 2D levels, upgradeable stats for the player character, and a Metroidvania style system of unlockable attributes that open up new areas in previously visited locations. What’s different is that Shantae depends on a smaller number of areas that must be repeated, lending a feeling of artificial length to the adventure.
While the reliance on backtracking is disappointing, the core gameplay is enjoyable enough to sustain itself. Control of Shantae is easy, involving a hair-whipping attack and limited spells for ranged or area effect. By belly dancing, Shantae also boasts an array of transformations; she can turn into all manner of creatures, from mouse to mermaid. These forms underpin the gated access mechanisms typical of the genre. For example, turning into a mermaid allows Shantae to swim up waterfalls.
Shantae’s alternative forms are not simply abstract keys to environment locks. They also offer new ways to combat enemies (which are just as beautifully animated as the game’s heroes). The occasional inaccuracy of Shantae’s hair attacks makes the option welcome, and there is enough variety between them that no single one becomes dominant. There is a time and place for each, injecting variety where the limited number of levels might otherwise test patience.
Boss encounters at the end of each stage (only encountered once despite the required replays) can look spectacular, though WayForward’s inventiveness doesn’t reach the heights of Treasure’s best. To expect as much is ludicrous, of course, though it’s perhaps a little too easy to defeat them with brute force over strategy – especially when Shantae’s health and attack damage have been upgraded.
Accompanying the action is a superb soundtrack, the kind of which would make for worthy listening in its own right (assuming you have a taste for tunes of a distinctly videogame flavour). Eastern flourishes ride solid electronic rhythms, really setting off the enthusiastic abandon with which Shantae throws herself through the adventure. In terms of presentation, Shantae is all you could wish for.
If you did have to rub the genie’s lamp and make any wish, it would be for a wider variety of levels to spread Shantae’s objectives across. Fetch quests and trade quests prop up much of the story, which is fine in itself. However, if I’m right in viewing Astro Boy as an influence here, WayForward would have been wise to learn from that game’s sparing use of assets.
Only at its end-game did Astro Boy invite backtracking, making it feel like you’d been given a generous serving of free content. Likewise with Castevania SOTN; its second castle felt like extension rather than repetition. Shantae perhaps suffers from being a Kickstarter project within limited resources, and while I’m grateful for its existence I’d love to see a more comprehensive package next time around. Here’s wishing.
Shantae: ½ Genie Hero was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.