Shantae: A Retrospective

In an industry packed with big names like Mario, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, it’s becoming easier to miss the many unsung heroes out there – especially ones you’ll never find on the shelf at your local gaming store. The only place to find these hidden gems is on the online market; on Steam, Xbox Live, the iTunes App Store and Nintendo eShop. As a gamer who became an adult in an increasingly digitised age, I prowl these places often looking for an independent hit to tide me over in-between the big releases. This article will follow one such hit; a gem which had its small beginnings thirteen years ago, but has since become one of the online market’s most acclaimed success stories.

Ladies and gentlemen… I give you: Shantae!

The brainchild of WayForward Technologies’ Matt and Erin Bozon, Shantae was created when the pair became engaged in 1994. Erin – a former camp counsellor – had a vision of a cute half-genie girl who summoned animals by belly dancing. She named her after one of the campers she worked with and Matt gave her a long, whip-like ponytail based on his fiancée’s incredibly long hair (and her tendency to hit him in the face with it whenever she turned around!). However, the game’s development didn’t begin until 1997, when the pair joined forces with the motley crew at California-based WayForward to achieve their vision. It was a long journey – the concept went through many changes and the studio had trouble finding a willing publisher – but five years later, they did just that.

So what is Shantae all about? Well, the simplest way to put it would be Metroid meets Arabian Nights; it’s a series of 2D platform-adventure games (or “Metroidvanias”) set in a vast Arabian world called Sequin Land. Shantae is the half-genie guardian of Scuttle Town, a fishing port in Sequin Land, and her job throughout the series is to protect it from the forces of evil – namely the self-styled “Queen of the Seven Seas” Risky Boots. To save the day, you must take Shantae across the land for weapons, relics and new dances to add to her magical repertoire. But unlike the original concept, Shantae doesn’t use her moves to summon animals, but to transform into them, allowing her to reach new areas and goodies she couldn’t reach before. Along the way you’ll get help from denizens of Sequin Land including Shantae’s adoptive Uncle Mimic (an inventor), her sister figure Sky (a falconer), sparring partner Bolo (a knucklehead with eyes for Risky) and flirtatious zombie girl Rottytops (a rascal and occasional antagonist). All this unfolds through vibrant pixel art, rich animation and writing so witty and upbeat, even the antagonists are likeable. Add to that cute sex appeal, fourth-wall jokes galore and a smashing chip-tune soundtrack composed by Jake Kaufman, and you have the standard recipe for a Shantae game. And what a recipe.

The series has been running for thirteen years now, and although the games were all developed by an independent studio, they all show levels of quality, refinement and production values worthy of the major players in today’s gaming industry. But enough praise – time to move on to the games themselves! Ret-2-Go?

The original Shantae debuted on June 2nd 2002 for the Game Boy Color, but never saw release outside America. Although critically acclaimed, the game was expensive to manufacture, leading reluctant publisher Capcom to produce a limited number of copies and delay the game until the console’s twilight years. Despite this, Shantae is now considered a cult classic – the occasional unsealed copy fetches over $300 (£192.80) on eBay!
Thankfully, with the series’ popularity today, WayForward saw fit to re-release the game to a larger audience at a smaller price. Shantae is now available worldwide on 3DS via Nintendo eShop for £4.49!

Years later, the pressure was on WayForward to release a sequel for repentant gamers who overlooked Shantae the first time around. Series director Matt spent eight years planning the next game, considering versions for the Game Boy Advance and Wii before settling on the DSiWare online service in 2009. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge released the next year to critical and commercial success. The first self-published entry in the series (and the first released in Europe), Risky’s Revenge saw – yes, you guessed it – Risky Boots return to Scuttle Town to steal a magic lamp in a plan to get revenge on Shantae. The DSi’s increased processing power allowed for better visuals, improved animation and layered world mechanics – in other words, you could jump between the foreground and background in certain areas! However, this mechanic only featured in two levels and hasn’t made a comeback since.

Risky’s Revenge sparked worldwide interest in the series and won many awards from print and online publications including IGN (Best Game of the Year, Best Visuals), MetaCritic (Highest Rated Portable Game of the Year) and Nintendo Power (Game of the Year, Best Graphics). Originally a DSi exclusive, the game is now available on iOS and PC (via Steam), with Wii U and 3DS enhanced editions due this year! Meanwhile, 3DS owners can still download the DSi original on Nintendo eShop.

In 2012 WayForward announced the series’s third entry Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Originally planned exclusively for 3DS, the game was released two years later on Wii U as well. The Pirate’s Curse brought a new twist to the story, and with it, new gameplay – after the events of Risky’s Revenge, Shantae loses her powers and is forced to call a truce with Risky to face a greater threat. Taking a leaf from Metroid’s book, Shantae has to collect new pirate weapons across seven islands to bring this new enemy down. All of them can be upgraded, which not only affects the places you can reach, but how the story ends. Rush to the finale and you may leave disappointed; take the time to find everything and… well, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Since debuting in America last Christmas and arriving on our shores in February, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has been a critical and commercial success, becoming one of the eShop’s bestselling games. As well as 3DS and Wii U, the game is now available on Steam in HD.
The Pirate’s Curse was touted as the last game in Shantae’s “original” trilogy (the games released on Nintendo handhelds)… but does it mean the end of her adventures?

Absolutely not! As we speak, Matt Bozon and his crew are hard at work on their next hit: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero! Unlike previous games, it was announced in September 2013 with a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The project had a goal of $400,000, but has raised a total of $947,937 worldwide! Half-Genie Hero will be the first game in the series to feature hand-drawn characters in 3D-rendered worlds, and although story details are scarce for now, we know the game will span five chapters (over the initially planned three), have additional costumes and abilities as DLC, and for the first time ever, new story modes for Shantae’s friends Sky, Bolo and Rottytops… and the series’ leading baddie Risky! All thanks to the extra $547,947 raised two years ago.
Although originally planned for release last year, the success of WayForward’s Kickstarter campaign has led them to delay the game to allow time to work these features in to the best of their ability. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero will be released on Steam, Wii U, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in the near-future. In the meantime, have a look at what’s in store below:

In today’s gaming climate, it’s rare to find an independent series as enchanting as the big boys – much less one created with as much effort and care as you’d expect from major studios. But WayForward’s team do that and more with all the games they make, whether it’s a licensed property like Thor or DuckTales or a series of its own. If you’re going to fall for at least one independent game after today, then fall under the spell of Shantae. She’s as brilliant as they come.

Are you an old hand at the series, a curious newbie or among the vast majority who’ve yet to take their first steps into Shantae’s world? Make your voice heard in the comments section below, or on our Twitter or Facebook pages - tell us your thoughts!

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2020 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.