WayForward has been around a very long time, and while it has dabbled in the 3D space before, its expertise and renown has come from crafting 2D experiences that are thoroughly enjoyable. Of its many creations, one of the more prolific has been the Shantae series, which has spanned several console platforms and generations over the last 18 years. While the remastering jobs have meant that the older titles in the series could be enjoyed on the platform of your choice, the options are far limited for the very first game. If you’re lucky, you still have the original Game Boy Color game that was released super late in the system’s life cycle and had a low number of printings to boot. Otherwise, you need to rely on the Nintendo 3DS eShop for a Virtual Console copy of the game. If you’re on the Switch, you finally have another avenue to play the game, as it has now made an appearance there.
You play the role of Shantae, a half-genie who’s been hired as the guardian genie of Scuttle Town. One morning, she wakes up after a cannonball hits her house and quickly runs into town to warn the inhabitants. She finds that the pirate crew is led by the notorious pirate Risky Boots, and while Shantae manages to drive them away, the pirates end up stealing an experimental steam engine that can be used to help them rule the seas. Vowing to get it back, she goes on a mission to recover the four elemental stones needed to power the engine.
If you’re familiar with the later games in the series, you may be taken aback by the story because of the delivery. The later games in the series are full of humorous situations and have characters who are fully fleshed out. Here, the only characters with any sort of personality are Shantae, with Risky Boots coming in at a very distant second. The usual humor is also missing, so the story is more by the book when compared to later iterations of the game.
The opening level gives a nice rundown of the gameplay basics. Shantae can walk or get into a sprint in a side-scrolling atmosphere while using her hair to whip enemies. She has a health system to let her take a few attacks before losing a life, and she collects coins from enemies who drop them. The game features no timer to make you hurry through a level, but there is a persistent day and night cycle that occurs, and nighttime makes the enemies tougher. Reach the end of the level, and you get a boss fight that occurs over two stages.
Beating the boss allows the game to open up into Metroidvania territory, where the journey through the different environments has you going back and forth between them. The town visits become the more important part of these journeys, as that’s where the game gives you almost all of your abilities. Health power-ups give you an increase to the number of hearts, and you can buy limited-use weapons. New moves, like a drill kick and elbow smash, can also be learned, but the most important techniques that have also become a signature for the series are the dance transformations. You play a minigame to learn the techniques and execute them, but they’re all necessary to open up the game beyond basic platforming. For example, transforming into an elephant lets you smash previously unbreakable obstacles, while turning into a monkey lets you climb up walls that you can’t jump over.
The marriage of transformations, basic platforming and combat provide the gameplay variety you’d expect from the genre. The fact that this was originally developed for a portable platform doesn’t handicap the game’s length, as it’ll take roughly eight hours to get through the campaign without going for 100% completion; that’s considered the average gameplay length nowadays. The title does have save points, but those who want more flexibility can take advantage of the emulator-like save system to create your own save spots; you’re limited to three such save states before you’ll have to overwrite them.
With all of that said, there are some design decisions that hold back the game. For a title that styles itself as a Metroidvania, there’s no in-game map to consult. The argument could be made that it takes more inspiration from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, especially with the day and night cycle, but that isn’t too positive when you consider how clunky that game is. Falling into pits causes you to lose a full life instead of taking a health hit like it does in later games. The zoomed-in camera means that you’ll see more of Shantae, but that results in limited visibility for your environment. Also, while the default control scheme feels comfortable, it would have been nice to see some customization options for those who really want the original Game Boy Color layout, so the A button is jump and the B button is attack instead of vice versa.
This is a port of one of the later Game Boy Color games out there, but with that in mind, it is good to see how well the presentation holds up. The zoomed-in camera may be bothersome from a gameplay perspective, but it shows off a surprising amount of detail for what is essentially an 8-bit game. The animations for all of the characters are fluid, especially the transitions from day to night and back again as well as seeing Shantae move into buildings during the town exploration phases. The sound effects are classic 8-bit material, while the soundtrack pushes the technology of the time to produce some very rich themes in every area.
Keen-eyed players will notice that there are actually two iterations of the game included here: the original Game Boy Color release and one that is enhanced for the Game Boy Advance. Graphically, the GBA version has brighter colors, but everything else remains the same, so don’t expect drastic changes. Gameplay-wise, you can buy a spell that transforms you into a Tinkerbat, which makes the game easier because it gives you the ability to fly. Thanks to this major difference, both the GBC and GBA iterations are treated as two separate games with their own natural save and quick save files, so you have to be conscious of what you want if you plan on beating the game.
As a port, Shantae delivers. Minor issues like button remapping aside, once you get over a few things like the lack of a map and a more brutal life system, you’ll find this to be a classic platformer that shows off just how good WayForward and this series was from the beginning. Fans of both the series and of old-school gaming would do well to add this title to their Switch libraries.