“Ragazza del mostro Paradiso”
Admittedly, I had never played a Shantae game before. I had heard vague, hot whispers of WayForward’s purple-haired woman and her veneration among a larger cult following; but in earlier years the series seemed to exist in obscurity, and it wasn’t until Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse that I began to hear more about the games and their critical acclaim. Thus, the genie and I had never formally met. Delayed by a couple of years, we fast forward to Shantae: ½ Genie Hero, a game of many firsts. First in the series to be funded via Kickstarter, the first to implement 3D environments, and the first entry I’d be introduced to. It’s certainly a strong opener.
½ Genie Hero is a nice game. It’s nice like a cherry-topped sundae or pajama pants, a casual joy without much complication. It’s just ducky, and everything about it is a pleasure to look at and listen to. The spectrum of color on display pops like a candied cornucopia, and there are few games with such a liberal and vibrant use of the palette outside of your typical Nintendo standouts. From sparkling waterfalls to sun smeared ruins, the game is a living rainbow across the board. The creamy, silky smooth animations of Shantae and her wide cast of 2D vectors only add to the visual feast. A lot of effort was put into bringing these characters to life with clean movements and exaggerated idle stances, forever jiving to “Theme of Big Dumb Arabian Dance Party.” The heart pounding oriental-techno-pop brings it all together, and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the Scuttle Town boogie fever.
As the local village guardian, Shantae is tasked with unveiling and putting an end to the absurd, yet shockingly clever schemes of her token arch-villains; malevolent, if not also lovable, antagonists that remind me of some of the less competent bad guys from the Aladdin animated series.
There are a handful of stages throughout the game, comprising of two or more sections, each section usually showing off altered environments. The stages are unique and offer up fresh gimmicks that switch up the minute-by-minute hair slapping game play until you reach the inevitable big bad. One stage might accost you with powerful sandstorms, while another has you bounding across the sky, heroically committing grand theft magic carpet; and while each stage is fun in its own right, they’re also comprised of open zones that harbor secret items (like heart containers) and abilities (like more dancing).
Shantae has access to quite the array of spells, upgrades, and most fabulously, dance moves. Spells can be bought at the shop in exchange for nondenominational jewels, and are activatable powers that can protect, heal, or do damage while draining your magic bar. Also at the shop are flat upgrades to your shampoo, your hair strength and attack speed, as well as items that augment damage taken or magic used. None of these are as exciting as your dances.
As a half-genie Shantae is able to use transformation dances to shape shift into a variety of brutally adorable jungle critters. These transformations are the crux of the game’s progression, as each animal provides a new way to circumvent hazards or crawl into previously untenable crevices. A lot of the game is an effort to discover hidden areas or characters, some of which are vital to completing the story. Flittering around as a cute beast-woman is (usually) as fun as you might imagine it to be, and the environment is prudently designed to leave you curious and challenge your spatial awareness. Equally as you would imagine, being a crab is utterly, onerous and terrible. I hate being a crab.
This ability to transform, however, is also a double-edged pulwar, and has a silty hand in digging one of the game’s biggest pitfalls; which is the ludicrous amount of back-tracking you’ll need to do in order to progress the story. There are six stages in the game and you’ll probably shimmy through each of them at least two or three times. The first few levels being the most egregious offenders, having to run those same areas four or five times each. The more dances you acquire throughout the story or otherwise, the more you’ll want to return to prior stages in order to complete some mundane fetch quest. Often, you’ll run through a stage perplexed at all of the inaccessible vaults of treasure, only to be rewarded with the very dance you needed at the end of the same level. This in mind, your initial sense of adventure might eventually turn cantankerous in the last couple of hours, as you ferry key items between stages you’ve already explored several times already.
It doesn’t ruin the game, but it can rub your hips the wrong way after a while, and the amount of fun you’re having may deviate throughout Shantae’s heavily redundant journey. Sure, there’s usually an extra monster girl waiting for you the second time you prance around a stage, but back-tracking, in any game, is not particularly compelling, unless the areas you’re returning to have changed significantly from when you last saw them, or allow you to access brand new areas via your garnered abilities. Not really the case here in Sequin Land.
Dance transformations don’t open up new areas at all, like what you might expect from other “Metroidvania” games. The dances are mostly just used to squeeze into small closets that confide chests or money. It doesn’t help that Shantae has no maps for the areas either, despite actually, physically acquiring maps to unlock new stages; so, you mostly spend your time jumping, swimming, and clambering around blindly until you find a suspicious nook, trying to recall which drain pipes you’ve already checked. It’s an unfortunate design choice in an otherwise delightful game.
I’m being a tad harsh, I clearly wasn’t as efficient as I could have been during my first completion, and I was only annoyed as much as I just wanted to stop needing to retrace my steps, and move on to tango with more quirky characters and waltz around in different, lovingly rendered locales. I wanted off-beat, corny dialogue that knows exactly when its being too coy with its influences. Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero doesn’t do much that you haven’t seen before, but it’s more satisfying than any platformer should be and twice as beautiful. At the end of the day, this off the wall contemporary fantasy world is something I want to keep experiencing. I yearn for more adventure, the wind streaming through my purple hair, always grooving to the flow of the desert.
Written by R.C. Simcoe