Shantae Is the little platformer that could. The franchise began its life during the dying days of the Game Boy Color. The original was one of the rarest and most sought-after titles, both due to its late release and that it was perhaps the best-looking game on the handheld. Since then, the franchise has popped in and out, with new games coming out every so often. It's easy to understand why the obscure franchise has fans. It's a combination of cute presentation, strong graphics, and enjoyable gameplay. The latest title in the franchise, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, is another testament to the franchise's strengths.
Shantae games follow the titular half-genie, Shantae, who serves as the guardian spirit of Scuttle Town, which is under a near-constant threat from pirates, monsters, evil barons and countless other dangers. Half-Genie Hero doesn't follow a specific plot so much that it's a greatest hits. After a strange dream lanced with foreshadowing, Shantae finds Scuttle Town under attack by ne'er-do-wells ranging from a vengeful spirit to her longtime enemy, Risky Boots. Shantae has to find out what is causing this sudden influx of attacks before it's too late.
If you've never played a Shantae game before, it's an SNES-era style platformer. Shantae jumps, crawls and fights her way through swarms of adorable, evil monsters. By default, Shantae can only attack by whipping enemies with her long ponytail. As you progress, you can unlock magical spells that offer more flexibility, including fireballs, lightning clouds and rotating defensive scimitars. They drain magic, so you can't use them willy-nilly, but the magic cost of most spells is low enough that you're not limited to only using them regularly. Think of them like sub-weapons in Castlevania rather than something you have to save for special occasions.
Shantae is a simple platforming game by most standards. It had some nasty jumps here and there, but it's generally quite forgiving. Checkpoints are frequent, and the game is good about making sure that you don't repeat too much. Occasionally, it can trend toward too easy, as it absolutely throws healing items at you. Once you find a few health-increasing items scattered throughout the levels, you'll probably never be at significant risk of dying, short of choosing to tank a boss's attacks. As such, it's a good game for players of all skill levels since it's challenging enough to be fun.
Shantae's biggest advantage in exploring levels is her transformations. She gains the ability to take on different animal forms, each of which has its own distinct abilities. The monkey form can climb walls and jump extra high, the elephant form can smash through big stone walls and is too heavy to be pushed by winds, and the harpy form can fly. You gain these abilities by defeating a boss or exploring levels to find hidden treasure chests, which either contain new forms or upgrade existing forms. There are also several helpful transformations, including a healing dance and a seemingly joke form called blobfish, which is actually one of the strongest combat options!
One thing I'm not fond of is a legacy Shantae mechanic that feels even more frustrating here. Her transformation takes time. Rather than choosing a form and going, you must rotate through three different sets of four transformations that automatically scroll. You can get an item that reduces the time it takes to scroll, but there's no good reason for it. A simple radial menu might be less thematic, but it would improve the pacing. Considering how often you need to transform, it would be better if it wasted less time.
The other flaw is that some transformations are redundant. For example, you have a bat and a harpy transformation as well as a crab and a mermaid transformation. They're not identical, but they fill redundant niches. This is most noticeable with the crab and mermaid, who both have different ways of destroying obstacles. If you pick the wrong one before hopping beneath the water, you have to swim back up and change to get the correct one. It's not the end of the world, but rather than every transformation feeling distinct, there are a handful you'll only use to solve a puzzle and nowhere else.
Unlike recent Shantae games, Half-Genie Hero isn't a Metroidvania title in the traditional sense. Instead, you visit linear levels and can revisit them once you're done hunting down bonuses. Think more Mega Man X instead. This is largely in Half-Genie Hero's favor because it gives them more strict control over the obstacles and dangers in a level. As a result, I think Half-Genie Hero has some of the strongest level design in the franchise's history. They're almost all fun to play and filled with nooks and crannies that reward eagle-eyed players.
I largely like the level-based structure of Half-Genie Hero, but it has its share of flaws. One flaw is that it's not fun when you're forced to return to previous levels. You can get a warp song that lets you skip to specific parts of the level, but you're usually trying to find an item you missed, so unless you remember where it was on your first run, you need to redo the entire level anyway. The second issue is that a lot of the upgrades can feel a bit worthless. Gaining the ability to attack in several of Shantae's transformed forms would be a nice bonus if there were ever a reason to do so. There's little reason to bother getting the venom spit for the spider or the bite for the mouse when swapping back to Shantae probably fills that niche.
I also have mixed feelings about the boss battles. When I played them, I found them to be exciting, fun and a highlight. Each one was creative and interesting, and only a couple overstayed their welcome. However, that was because I was able to quickly figure out the pattern and used several optional abilities. If you end up in a boss fight without certain items, they can feel frustrating with relatively small attack windows or entirely too much HP. Overall, I'd say they're a positive as long as you can remember to use every option at your disposal rather than trying to hair-whip them to death.
Half-Genie Hero isn't the longest game in the world and only has a handful of stages; two of them only exist because they're backer rewards for Kickstarter supporters. You can probably finish it in one or two afternoons of play, and a good chunk of that is forced backtracking to find a McGuffin to give to a townsperson so you can unlock the next level. There's still a good amount of gameplay and content, but it's worth noting that extra content — including additional playable characters, like Shantae's rival Risky Boots — is still coming down the pipeline, so there should be a fair amount of additional gameplay in a year or so. At the moment, it's good but perhaps too bare-bones.
Half-Genie Hero is a beautiful-looking game. It is bright, colorful and cheerful with amazingly well-animated character sprites and gorgeous backgrounds. Wayforward put its best foot forward here, and it shows. The cartoonish atmosphere is kid-friendly, and it's a delightful-looking game — though sometimes, the game may trend too much toward barely dressed women for some parents' tastes. The fantastic soundtrack by Jake Kauffman, AKA Virt, is a charming mix of fast-paced and atmospheric music that makes almost every stage a delight to play. There is no real voice acting besides a few minor voice clips, but that doesn't drag down the experience at all.
All in all, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a solid and polished, if not overly risky, addition to the franchise. In some ways, it feels like a soft reboot that goes back to the franchise's core mechanics and refines them. That makes it a strong introduction to the series for newcomers and a great game for existing fans . The only really flaws include some unnecessary padding and backtracking and its short length, neither of which is enough to be more than a minor blemish. If you're a fan of old-school platformers, Half-Genie Hero is a game for you.
More articles about Shantae: Half-Genie Hero