Retro Review: Shantae (Game Boy Color) – Does It Hold Up?

Released in 2002, Shantae is a metroidvania with side-scrolling platformer elements for the Game Boy Color. It was developed by Wayforward and published by Capcom, and features a story that chronicles the titular half-genie Shantae’s journey to stop the dreaded pirate Risky Boots and her gang The Tinkerbats from collecting 4 elemental stones to fuel a steam powered weapon of mass destruction. Despite the fact that the plot feels like a riff on Avengers: Infinity War, Shantae is an extremely playful and cartoony experience that’s considered by many to be a bit of the swan song for the Game Boy Color. Having come out a year into the lifespan of the Gameboy Advance, it’s since garnered an exorbitantly high price and is currently looked at as a cult classic as well as has received a number of sequels over the years. 

This video actually marks the first time that I’ve played Shantae. While it’s always been relatively easy to get a hold of this game via emulation or something like the Virtual Console for the 3DS, I honestly never found myself interested in giving it a shot. 

In fact, the only other time I’ve played a Shantae game before was last year when one of them was given away on Games with Gold for the Xbox One. And while I enjoyed that game quite a bit, I fell off of it pretty hard. And honestly, I can even begin to tell you why. It just sorta happened, I guess. 

(Okay, it’s because Catherine: Full Body came out on the Switch.)

Anyway, I’ve been feeling really nostalgic for the gameboy line of consoles lately. For the longest time I’d even have gone as far as to say that the Game Boy Advance was even my favorite console of all time, and even then, that’s only just been usurped by the Nintendo Switch. Because of this nostalgia, I was pretty excited when I found out that Wayforward was bringing Shantae over to the Switch, with a physical edition also made available by Limited Run Games. And could you blame me? It was a gem from one of my favorite families of consoles, being brought over to my current console of choice. Plus, ModernVintageGamer was even the lead developer for this port and that’s just awesome!

Because while Shantae is considered a gem that’s achieved cult status and spawned multiple sequels, it’s also still a late era Game Boy Color game and, as such, is running on some fairly limited hardware. And even when playing the Gameboy Advance enhanced version, which is what I did for this review, there’s no denying that parts of this game are held back by the hardware it’s running on.

Gameplay

Shantae takes place in the fictional world of Sequin Land, which infinitely loops like the background of a Hanna Barbera cartoon.

Shantae takes place in the fictional world of sequin land, where you’re tasked with navigating through an overworld to enter four different dungeons and collect the elemental macguffin before Risky Boots can get to it first. Once you’ve completed the fourth dungeon, you’re then tasked with throwing down with Risky Boots in a final confrontation to end the game.

Because of this basic Metroidvania structure, Shantae specifically reminds me of something like Castlevania II for the NES. Like that game, it expects you to memorize the lay of the land and to rely on exchanges had with other characters in towns in order to figure out where you need to go. It also features towns where your character can purchase combat upgrades, as well as disposable items which are even used by holding up on the attack button like in Castlevania. However, unlike Castlevania II, Shantae is a lot more descriptive in it’s instructions which makes it relatively hard to get lost while on your journey. There were a few moments when I needed walkthroughs help in order to figure out where I needed to go for sure, but those were likely due to me not paying attention as opposed to being due to the game being oblique.

While generally regarded as a Metroidvania due to emphasizing exploration during dungeons and offering permanent power ups that help you traverse the world of Sequin Land, Shantae also carries a relatively linear structure that somewhat dulls and simplifies some of the genre’s hallmarks. In other words, the game leans more towards titles such as Metroid Fusion than it does something like Super Metroid.

I genuinely don’t consider that a bad thing though, especially because of this game originally being developed for the Game Boy Color. If anything, this sort of game design makes it perfect for pick up and play sessions and helps prevent players from feeling like they need to draw a map on graph paper to properly navigate the world.

Oh yeah, this game doesn’t include a map. It’s honestly not that bad though, as each of the parts of the world that you visit are all designed pretty uniquely and include everything from a desert area, to a field, a swap, or waterfalls. It also helps that Sequin land is a pretty small place that endlessly loops, which makes it easier to travel through 

Along your journey, you’ll come up against a wide variety of enemies that change from area to area, and in order to defeat them, you’ll need to rely on the items/powerups you’ve bought in shops or a whipping attack that you can perform with your hair. I genuinely don’t care for this attack though, as it’s range just feels pitiful. You have to get pretty close to your opponent to make contact with them and, for whatever reason, the hit detection doesn’t always feel particularly accurate. While you can pick up some additional attacks from the shop in Water Town, I felt like the hitboxes in Shantae were still just a bit far from reliable.

Because of this, navigating from one dungeon to another doesn’t feel particularly fun to me. It’s not terrible, by any stretch of the word, and you can unlock the ability to fast travel between locations by collecting these super adorable warp squids in each dungeon, but it just never quite clicked for me. When travelling from one dungeon to another, I’d usually just try to avoid combat entirely and try to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. But, not that quickly, as the game suffers from some screen crunch that can make running into enemies at full speed pretty easy. It can also just as easily lead to Shantae falling into a bottomless pit or a spike that will instantly kill you and take away a life.

The fact that this game has lives and bottomless pits honestly doesn’t sit well with me, as placing platformer conventions in a metroidvania just doesn’t feel right. If anything, the inclusion of both of these elements feel like they’re there with little other purpose than trying to justify why it’s counterpart is there to begin with. Lives feel like they’re there to justify there being bottomless pits, while bottomless pits feel like they’re there to justify a lives system.

I’m actually kinda conflicted about this too, because I do ultimately like the fact that the game has lives, as it allows your character to respawn in the room you died in (without resetting all of the enemies you’ve defeated/the damage you’ve inflicted on bosses) as opposed to automatically getting a game over and starting from your last save point. 

Anyway, back to traversing the world. Like I said, it isn’t terrible, combat aside and it does reward you with things like health bonuses if you’re willing to stray off the beaten path and do some old fashioned exploring. Similar to other metroidvanias, you can use the powerups you’ve attained in dungeons in order to access previously unavailable areas, either by destroying an obstacle or by gaining a skill that allows you to climb or straight up fly past a barrier. In the case of Shantae, your powerups come in the form of dances that can be performed in order to transform into one of several different animals. While I personally found the dances a bit harder to do than I thought they’d be, I really enjoyed this mechanic and would have loved to see more of it in the game. I honestly don’t feel like there were enough moments in Shantae that had me trying to balance using more than one form at a time, and it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I would’ve much preferred to have unlocked all of Shantae’s skills early in the game and then have each of the dungeons emphasize a particular skill, while also encouraging you to use all of them to progress, sorta like how Breath of the Wild handles Link’s abilities. I mean, yeah, the final dungeon of the game makes you do this a bit, but that’s really about it. More often than not, you use one of your transformations for a little while, unlock a new one in a dungeon, and promptly forget that the previous transformations in your arsenal even existed. 

The real brunt of Shantae’s fun for me comes in the form of it’s four dungeons. Each of them have distinct gimmicks and color palettes that make them feel unique. On top of that, they have the aforementioned transformations that shake up the gameplay in each location further, and also have boss battles that are never that difficult, but are pretty fun nonetheless. They’re actually a really good take on the formula of a Zelda dungeon and, if I’m being frank, playing through the game really makes me wish that Nintendo would give making a side-scrolling Zelda game another shot, because Shantae proves that there’s a lot of fun to be had here!

All in all, Shantae plays really well. The combination of platforming segments and the relatively small screen real estate provided on a Game Boy Color screen are a bit frustrating for sure, but are made up for with what I consider to be some pretty fun dungeons. The combat also isn’t particularly great either, but I found it pretty easy to avoid getting into fights when travelling throughout the overworld. While some may find the linear nature of this game a bit of a turnoff, I thought that it suited this games intended platform just fine and honestly found myself enjoying the adventure for what it was.

Visuals/Presentation

Shantae pushes the Game Boy Color to it’s limits, and features visuals that are more becoming of a title on much stronger hardware.

And now, onto the visuals. Shantae is frickin’ gorgeous, and represents everything there is to love about 8-bit graphics. While many games such as Shovel Knight or the more recent Yacht Club Games release Cyber Shadow have tried to replicate the charm of an 8-bit adventure to admittedly awesome results, I genuinely think that Shantae still manages to blow them out of the water. This is especially impressive due to the game actually belonging to an 8-bit console and, as such, actually needing to be able to run on that hardware.

While I played through the GBA enhanced version of the game, which expands the game’s color palette, the base game honestly doesn’t even look that different from its enhanced counterpart. Regardless of which version of Shantae you end up playing though, you’re in for an amazing looking game.

Seriously though, the game has a really bright and vibrant color palette and is extremely well animated for the Game Boy Color. Everything just feels alive and detailed here, from the overworld segments, to the menu and game over screens, as well as to the towns you can visit which look like something that should belong on the freaking Super Nintendo and not an 8-bit handheld. And some of the details in this game are actually really subtle; for example, in one of the earlier dungeons Shantae’s color palette actually adjusts and changes to be a bit darker when you walk closer to a circular passageway that’s further away from the area’s key light.

I really can’t sing my praises about this game’s visuals enough. Like I said earlier, I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic for the Game Boy lately and was not disappointed by what was on display here, especially when playing the game on handheld mode on my Nintendo Switch. I also played this game on a 1440p monitor with an mClassic plugged into it and it really holds up and is extremely easy on the eyes, especially when you consider the fact that it was never intended to be looked at from such a high fidelity and large screen.

Music


Shantae has the sort of boppy chiptune soundtrack that’s becoming of a late era Game Boy game. While the Game Boy didn’t have the best sound capabilities for its time, something that the Game Boy Advance also fell somewhat victim to, I’ve always been fond of what the hardware was capable of. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something really nostalgic to a good Game Boy composition and that, thankfully, Shantae is chock full of them. The OST hits it’s beats of sounding adventurous, playful, and outright eerie at the right times, and makes sure to also include some catchy melodies that are sure to get stuck in your head. I’m especially fond of the song that plays whenever you enter a shop or building in a town. It’s just so happy and totally fits the vibe of each of the game’s towns.

While not the best soundtrack on the Game Boy, or even the Game Boy Color specifically, Shantae has a ton of great tunes on it and makes for a great listening experience. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the word and can even sound a bit generic at times, but it does its job well and provides an accompaniment to the gameplay that always feels appropriate.

Closing

So does Shantae hold up? Thanks to it’s got great dungeon design, impressive 8-bit visuals, and a fairly strong soundtrack, I’ve gotta go with a resounding yes!

While I brought up the fact that the game has what I consider to be a flawed combat system and suffers from some pretty bad screen crunch at points, I still found myself having a lot of fun here and can see myself doing a second, much slower and more comprehensive playthrough of the game in the future. You know, a playthrough where I’d spend more time looking for additional health powerups or trying to upgrade my character with optional power ups and attacks. 

But based off this first playthrough with the game, I totally consider Shantae as being worth picking up, especially since the game is now readily available on the Nintendo Switch, and is still available on the likes of the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Simply put, at $10, and with the ability to play both the original Gameboy Color and the GBA enhanced version, the Nintendo Switch release of Shantae is a great package.


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