Open up my eager eyes.
Shantae has never been a game-changer. More specifically, Shantae has never tried to transform into something it’s not.With each new entry, WayForward has gone out of their way to evolve, streamline, and adapt more and more each time. With Half-Genie Hero, Shantae looks, sounds, and plays better than ever before, and in our modern gaming environment, it feels like a rarity.
Shantae started out small, an incredibly late game released for the Game Boy Color to financial failure; but ever since its revival in 2010, it’s been met with great success and critical acclaim. If you’ve ever dabbled into previous entries, you’d know the series has always felt akin to a Metroid, or Castlevania-type platformer. You get new forms, you get new abilities, and you use them re-explore past areas to uncover new secrets and paths. Half-Genie Hero doesn’t change any of this, but it makes the whole process feel a lot smoother.
Ditching the inter-connected world of its predecessors, Half-Genie Hero takes on a more Donkey Kong Country approach to its level design. Instead of retreading the same old paths to reach new areas, you select where you want to go from a world map, and you’re able to return to said world map at any time. Moving to this wider setup allows the environments to all feel different in presentation, without sacrificing the fun intrinsic to the series structure. From a jungle-turned-factory, to a Super Mario Bros 3 style airship sequence, each new level is full of bright colors, unique enemies, and interesting mechanics to really set them apart.
Merely saying the environments are diverse feels like an understatement. Since conception, Shantae has always been a series about impressive presentation, with the first entry in the series boasting incredibly detailed and colorful sprite-work that felt almost too good for the GBC. Even the more recent titles have boasted a vibrant pixelated style that immediately set them apart from the competition. With Half-Genie Hero, WayForward has jumped from pixels to a more complete hand drawn animation style that looks fantastic in-motion. Watching objects in the environment float in and out of the foreground adds a depth to the world that really makes the characters stand out, Coupling the improved visuals with a fantastic soundtrack full of classic Shantae songs remixed at a much higher fidelity, the game really feels like the ultimate rendition of Shantae.
The core mechanic of Shantae has always been the titular character’s genie powers, which let her use standard magic like fireballs, or more drastic abilities, like taking on multiple animal forms to suit her needs. By the time I reached the final level, I had access to a whopping 12 different forms, each with their own gimmick and purpose, a huge step-up from the usual four past titles gave access to. While classic forms like elephant, monkey, and harpy return, newer forms like a crab, a bat, and a mouse add new means to get around and, more importantly, solve puzzles. While some forms can end up feeling a little one-note (the bat form is only used twice and gets superseded right away by the harpy), they still add a lot of variety to help mix up the puzzle design in meaningful ways. The only real issue this abundance of new forms causes is a much more complicated transformation dance, but even this can be solved very early with a purchasable metronome to speed up the selection cycle.
That metronome will end up feeling like a necessity, because you’ll be transforming many, many times throughout your stay in Sequin Land. Nearly every puzzle is solved by changing forms, and the ones that aren’t almost feel like a form-change anyway because of their unique set-piece mechanics. Most forms have an ability to attack, but the most effective way to damage enemies hard and fast is with Shantae’s default hair whip attack. You never really have to go too precise or in-depth with your transformation planning, but the quick moment to moment changing and whipping feels really satisfying once you really get the rhythm down. Having every form serve its purpose, even Shantae’s base form, really completes the gameplay loop in a way that makes even the hardest parts feel fun.
While the gameplay feels fresh and evolved, the story of Shantae stays just as simple as it ever was. Shantae wakes up to an attack by pirate queen Risky Boots, and ends up embroiled in a quest to fight various evil barons and help the quirky citizens of Sequin Land. Instead of a strong main story, Shantae focuses on comedic dialogue and characters to be remembered. Though some of the jokes can fall flat, with more than a few feeling a bit childish, there’s plenty of cute fun to be had in Sequin Land. A particular strength of the game is the ability to make fourth-wall breaking jokes without going too far, characters like zombie-girl Rottytops and recurring joke boss Squid Baron make plenty of quips about their history in the series, but it never feels trite.
The only thing that can feel trite in Half-Genie Hero is the uninspired main story, which stays a little too true to the roots of both recent entries in the series. While there are a few notable differences, you still end up following the same general path, with the same characters, for the same ultimate goal. While the character writing can make up for it at most times, seeing Shantae and company fall for Risky Boots’ tricks for the third time feels a little too overdone at this point. While I have no qualms with Risky Boots presiding as the main antagonist, since Mega Man games are famous for that exact trope, it still feels disappointing when everything plays out exactly how you’d expect. Even potential plot threads like an evil Shantae or a rival Half-Genie get thrown out the window almost as soon as they arrive, making the by-the-numbers main plot feel all the more lackluster.
Despite all that, it’s tough to feel too bad about any of this while you’re playing the actual game. The streamlining and removal of nearly all unnecessary features really lets the game feel like a fun roller coaster ride from start to finish. Even going for a 100% playthrough of the game is less of a chore and more a personal choice, one that most players will probably end up doing just to get a shot at playing around some more. If I had to levy one personal complaint against the game it’s that it’s over too soon. I clocked my 100% playthrough in at a little over six hours, and while there’s another campaign coming in the near future, part of me wishes that there was just a little bit more of the game to explore after completion.
With the time I did get to spend with it however, it’s hard for me to do anything but recommend Half-Genie Hero. Despite my minor hang-ups, I nearly played the game through to full completion in two sittings, something I rarely do, but felt drawn to by just how much fun I was having. If you’re looking for an old-school platformer, without the bothersome baggage that terminology implies, you’d be hard-pressed to find much better than this.