Developer: WayForward Technologies
Based on: The very best bits culled from 20 years of 8-bit gaming.
Article by Jeremy Parish | August 7, 2009
The Zelda Oracles may have been the last major releases for the Game Boy, but they weren't the system's last great release. No, that final, closing chapter arrived a month later in the form of Shantae.
Shantae was a real stealth title. It was developed by the then-unheard-of WayForward Technologies, a studio who until that point had only ever created kiddie-licensed Game Boy Color releases. Capcom took on publishing duties as part of the company's strange but not unwelcome decision to really push GBC support until the 11th hour with new franchises. And the whole adventure hearkened back to the classic free-roaming action RPGs of the NES era, the Battle of Olympuses and Faxanadus of yore, while offering the finest animation ever seen on any 8-bit Game Boy. Great gameplay, slick visuals, dying hardware, no-name title: in short, the perfect recipe for a cult favorite.
It was also awfully sexy for a Game Boy title. Not in a sleazy, slutty sort of way, but rather in a cute, harmless Disney style, with a she-genie heroine whose powers were built around dancing: as Shantae learned new powers, pressing Select would cause her to enter a dance mode that required specific button presses to activate her skills. She'd shimmy cutely before transforming into a new form or employing some other power.
Dancing wasn't just an excuse for the artists to draw a chick in a bikini top shaking her rump, though; in the time-tested tenets of the Metroidvania style, dancing was Shantae's innate, progressive power that let gamers bypass environmental objects and advance to new areas. Shantae's first dance turned her into a monkey that's capable of climbing walls to reach inaccessible ledges; later she could become an elephant to break down obstructions, or a spider that could climb waterspouts. Backtracking abounded!
The nonlinearity of the game was, at times, a little too much for the Game Boy Color to properly handle, simply because the tiny screen proportions could make it difficult for players to keep their bearings as they explored large, multi-scrolling outdoor areas and repetitive-looking dungeons. In the grand scheme of noble efforts compromised by Game Boy's 160x144 resolution, though, it's a pretty minor complaint; enemies never attack cheaply from off-screen, and Shantae herself (despite being detailed and well-animated) wasn't so big that she felt crowded by the edges. Of all the possible flaws for a game to suffer from, rewarding a well-developed sense of orienteering is a pretty modest one.
Shantae's appeal is evenly split between the generally solid NES-inspired gameplay and the general charm of the cast of characters. A heroine is only as good as her villain, and Shantae's nemesis -- a cute pirate named Risky Boots -- ranks up there. She's not especially nefarious, but she's a cute pirate at odds with a sexy zombie and adorable genie. Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, Shantae was a little too effective at hitting that cult-favorite sweet spot. While it still commands a small, affectionate fanbase, WayForward has been shopping around a sequel for years, yet no publisher seems willing to bite. A pity, because the comps for Shantae Advance looked awfully promising. The developer keeps dangling the prospect of a Shantae revival in front of fans, though (DSiWare being the latest potential magic bullet), and maybe someday they'll actually be in a position to deliver. For now, however, Shantae stands as the ultimate chapter of 8-bit gaming, a gorgeous and entertaining tribute to all that had come before -- and that's hardly a legacy to be ashamed of.