SHANTAE / Capcom / Gameboy Color
If you've heard of Shantae at all, it's likely by way of the newer Wii / Wii U releases. This very first game in the series suffered from extreme obscurity for many years, due mostly to getting caught in one of the worst cases of "development hell" ever. Ground originally broke on it as a SNES / PC title in 1997, later compromising to a Game Boy Color release since that's all that original publisher WayForward was interested in doing. Then Capcom got involved and slowed things up massively for whatever reason, with the game not releasing until 2002 -- a year after the Gameboy Advance had already come out!

One benefit to all this time in the crock pot -- Shantae does absolutely push the humble GBC to its limits technologically. It wasn't actually the very last game released for the system (I believe that honor goes to Harry and the Chamber Pot of Secrets), but it's a fitting swan song that shows complete mastery of the technical aspects of the system. Sadly, that mastery doesn't extend to level design and all of the gameplay decisions.

So our titular Shantae is a half-genie, in a world where that means that she doesn't really have much in the way of powers other than some sort of oddball belly-dancing magic. Nevertheless, she's contracted out to the little hamlet of Scuttle Town as their genie protector, seemingly a relatively quiet post until the day the pirate Risky Bewbs comes to town. Risky is searching for four elemental stones that will activate a giant steam engine that she can apparently do some sort of world-conquering things with, and Shantae takes it upon herself to stop her, even though that really seems like it's way out of her jurisdiction.

The game proper is something of a paean to the NES exploration-based platformers; a little Metroid, of course, but even more so Castlevania II, Zelda II, Rygar and Goonies II. It's most akin to Castlevania II's structure in that there's an overworld you can roam about freely populated by a few towns here and there, there's a day-night cycle (though the change is instantaneous here and doesn't require a screen wipe), and you'll have to suss out dungeons and plumb their depths.

Unfortunately, it copies some of the elements that made Castlevania II tiresome -- namely insta-death pits everywhere, groups of enemies that can be overbearing sometimes and a lotta tedious trudging through the same environs over and over. Oh, and the occasional bout of general confusion over what the hell you're supposed to be doing. Though there's no experience system or leveling, what the game doesn't initially make clear is that you're expected to grind periodically to pile up money so you can carry around healing items; otherwise you absolutely won't make it through some of these sequences. There's a few good enemy-grinding areas that you'll stumble across that can be put to use during the daylight hours, like the nest of nagas immediately to the left of the starting town gates, but the real dough is in dancing your little genie butt off at the starting town's dance hall at night in a mini-rhythm-game that strongly resembles the dancing dates from GTA: San Andreas.

Shantae's great visuals, booming chiptunes soundtrack and general charm is captivating for the first hour or so, but then it begins to grate. It's partially that the game's save points are so few and far between, forcing you to trudge long distances just to end your play session (though this particular issue is remedied with either emulation or playing on the Virtual Console). It's partially that it's old-school NES style with no automap whatsoever, making finding all the little bits and bobs you need in the dungeon a bit of a chore.

But as mentioned earlier, it's mostly world layout and structure that is often kind of poor. Shantae's enemies tend to jump or spawn in literally right on top of her, and enemies that fire range projectiles get to target you from WAY off screen with deadly accuracy, leading to a lot of cheap hits. There's also an awful lot of blind plunges you're expected to make that can easily land you in a pit or on top of an enemy through no real fault of your own -- potentially killing you and making you trudge through a bunch of terrain again.

Shantae is undeniably a quality and polished production, but only gets the 3/5 as it just doesn't wind up being the smooth, enjoyable wall-to-wall Metroidvania experience that it could have been with a little better level design.
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