Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Review
I picked this up having enjoyed the previous two Shantae games and wanting to start 2017’s reviews off on a positive note before the inevitable parade of mediocrity that typically has to be waded through before finding another genuinely good game. Apparently this was the result of a Kickstarter campaign from back in 2013, which means I was three years too late to get in on any of those backer rewards, but it’s kind of nice to be able to experience one of these games around the same time as everyone else instead of years and years after the fact. Now, reviews generally exist to answer the question of whether something is good or not, but the answer to that question is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no in this case. In fact, if my notes are any indication, the answer is “yes, then kind of, then yes again, then no no no no why is this happening, then ehhh, then yes again,” which is a roundabout way of saying that the game is worth it overall despite having some pretty glaring issues.
And nothing sums up that rollercoaster quite like the writing
Back in Risky’s Revenge, Risky wasn’t a very nice person and that was fine. She was presumably equally bad in the original Shantae (which I still haven’t played), and that worked for her character and the story. However, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse saw her team up with the titular hero and receive some fleshing out that made her more of a sympathetic character than the evil-all-the-time figure she had been up to that point. Making a character relatable is one of those things you can’t effectively call backsies on, and yet Half-Genie Hero uses Risky as though the game takes place around the same time as Risky’s Revenge despite that not really making a great deal of sense. Sure, Pirate’s Curse ends with her hinting that they’ll be back on opposite sides before long, but the degree of outright malice she shows toward Shantae in this game is kind of stunning, and it really started to rub me the wrong way after awhile because of how incredibly wrong it all felt.
But then there are the other characters. Sky and Bolo make appearances that are a bit token and Barracuda Joe doesn’t even show up, but Twitch and Vinegar (the girls from the drool waterfall in Pirate’s Curse who the game then forgot to mention the names of) play a fairly significant role in the early to mid-game, as does Rottytops, and there are fights against all the familiar faces you’d expect. Naturally, that includes Squid Baron, who makes what’s probably my favorite appearance in the entire series.
Then there are the random NPCs, who function as half hint dispenser and half random quip factory as was the case in the other games. There are also new characters like half-genie for hire Holly Lingerbean and the Giga Mermaid, though they’re introduced and then quickly swept aside to make room for the tried and true characters. This kind of feels like a cop-out at first, but I think it worked better for the game as a whole given the way it’s structured. Now, if the story had been changed up so that they played more of a central role, that’d be entirely different, but the game is set up so that there are numerous distractions that function like short side stories more than anything building up a central narrative, and tying all of that together is something that would have only come across as contrived and artificial.
Overall, I’d say that the general writing and entertainment value/wittiness was the best in the series to date, while the tone and consistency with previous games was the worst in the series to date. It balances out, though I admittedly found myself enjoying far more about it than I disliked by the end (I can’t tell if it hits its stride halfway through or if I merely got used to the changes, but from then on I adored it). You even finally learn some details about Shantae’s mother, which, while still on the vague side, is a long-overdue glimpse into something that’s been teased for a long time without the smallest bit of payoff. There are also a few typos and superfluous apostrophes as can be expected from the dialogue in a Shantae game since that’s been the case in previous titles as well, but this only adds to its charm and the writing is pretty solid otherwise. Especially given just how much dialogue exists in the game.
Shantae has become a Megaman game
When I first saw footage of Half-Genie Hero, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that level looks really vertical.” That’s not to say that previous Shantae games didn’t have elements of verticality to them, but that was typically only the case in dungeons (though there were a couple very vertical non-dungeon areas in Pirate’s Curse, they were the exception rather than the norm and tended to be a blend between horizontal and vertical sections instead of being entirely one or the other). The early stage that I remember seeing shown off was Mermaid Falls, and it’s indeed a bizarrely tall area focused far more on vertical exploration than horizontal movement. In fairness, however, there are also a decent number of areas that are designed for the type of horizontal exploration expected in a Shantae game, and the game switches between the two fairly frequently. This was a sign of a sudden shift in how the game is structured, though—these vertical areas have made their way into “normal” areas because there are no dungeons. Even normal areas are different than before; the game takes a page from Megaman, with a Pirate’s Curse-esque hub allowing you to select your stage, at which point you go through a stage in small chunks. Once you move to the next chunk of a stage, you get a saving screen and are unable to go back to the previous area without restarting the stage. You’re given a whistle that you can use from the item screen to return you to the select stage screen and you can buy a special dance early on that allows you to skip ahead through parts of stages you’ve already completed, but it’s still a strange break from the more open structure of previous games.
There are even boss fights at the end of each stage. Of course, once you beat these stages, you can run through them again as many times as you want without the stage boss being present at the end, and getting used to the warp dance/whistle and looking for opportunities to use new powers to reach previously inaccessible areas to find secrets makes things start to feel much more like previous games. There’s no escaping Megaman’s influence, though, since every level starts with a giant “ready” and ends with Shantae warping out of the level, and there are even instant-death lasers and spikes. I’m not counting any of this as a negative, mind you, because there are certainly worse games one could take inspiration from. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the seamless world and less artificial structure of Risky’s Revenge, and it’s a shame that the series has abandoned that.
Also gone is the pirate gear from Pirate’s Curse, replaced with Shantae’s signature dancing that allows her to transform into animals. This has been streamlined quite a bit to make it faster than the GBC game and Risky’s Revenge (which is good news since you can eventually end up having 12 available forms to choose from), with a menu coming up when you start to dance that allows you to quickly select your traditional animal forms. Several of these forms are handed to you after stages, though you still have to explore to find the secondary effects like the monkey bullet and some of the other forms. Other forms (including the ever-useful warp dance) can be purchased from a snake saleswoman who can be found in a few stages. If I had a complaint about all of this, it’s that things can become a bit chaotic. Once you have more than 4 forms available, the menu cycles with a certain frequency, and going from one menu to two and eventually three can become confusing in the heat of the moment. I can’t even count the number of times I transformed into a monkey instead of a mouse, or a crab instead of a mermaid. Another complaint would be that the forms still aren’t as easily usable as the pirate gear, but in fairness, how could they be?
The pluses and minuses of gimmickry
The Shantae games have never been shy about including random gimmicks, from the “carry Rottytops” minigame in Pirate’s Curse to the Battle Tower in Risky’s Revenge (and I seem to remember watching some gameplay of the GBC game that had a minigame in it, as well). It should go without saying, then, that a number of elements in Half-Genie Hero are gimmicky, and while it’s not always pulled off as well as in previous games, the times it goes right are surprisingly stunning. Starting with the more groan-worthy gimmicks, we have the round-stage boss fights. Basically, there’s a pseudo-3D effect happening here where Shantae runs left and right, but is actually rotating the entire stage. This is used for Scuttle Town to a lesser degree, which took some getting used to, but the boss fights are the worst examples of it. There are numerous fights centered around running around in circles and doing barely anything, and given the game’s shorter length, this means that around half of the fights in the game end up coming across as same-y and needlessly gimmicky. To the developers’ credit, they tried to spice things up a bit, such as in one part where you have to run continually in one direction to cause a screw on the boss’s face to turn and eventually reveal its weak point, but little cues like this end up being so easily missed that I only know about it because I read about it online after finishing. It’s obviously possible to work out things like this with trial and error, piecing together which types of movement cause the boss to reveal its weaknesses (because that’s how I got through the fight) rather than using the visual cues, but it’s still not very well designed.
A slightly better gimmick would be the sliding sections. These are rare parts where you control Shantae on a slope as she falls and have to avoid pits and falling barrels on the way down, and while the gameplay I saw of it pre-release didn’t look very entertaining, it eventually won me over. Granted, the first example of this has distracting foreground elements blocking your view, but once you get used to that, it becomes a bit like the enjoyable mine cart sections in the original Donkey Kong Country. These are also intriguing sections because they highlight something interesting about the game that I never noticed in earlier games, that being the possibility of emergent gameplay, or to put it more simply, “cheesing it.” More specifically, you can buy special magical attacks from the Scuttle Town shop (and these function like in Risky’s Revenge rather than being expendable items like in Pirate’s Curse), and some of these cause Shantae to float while they’re in effect. If you select one of them, jump into the air, and then use it, then, you can hover for as long as you have magic, bypassing a large chunk of these sliding sections. This type of emergent gameplay is also possible in the last gimmick, that being the awesome magic carpet race; as part of the story, Shantae has to take part in a race, which means jumping from magic carpet to magic carpet (optionally knocking other contestants off of theirs in the process while cackling maniacally) in a desperate bid to keep up with the camera. Of course, if you found the bat form by that point, you can alternatively transform into a bat at the beginning of the race and fly through the entire thing without a problem. In fact, much of the platforming in the more horizontal stages can be bypassed entirely with clever usage of the bat or harpy forms, and I always appreciate these types of emergent possibilities in a game.
Bugs, unforgivable changes, and generally sucky stuff
Before I get into some of the stuff I outright hated, I want to first reiterate that I enjoyed the game overall and played through it a second time to unlock all of the achievements and see how fast I could 100% it. That’s the kind of thing I rarely do, so it’s worth keeping in mind that however bad the things I’m about to mention are, the rest of the game was more than good enough to compensate for them. That having been said: screw the mouse mazes. Seriously. You have a mouse form and its sole use is to get into these tiny little mazes that lead to secret areas, and not only is it an incredibly slow way of moving because of how circuitous it ends up being, but it’s also painfully easy to accidentally pop out of an open end in Mermaid Falls because the moving platforms connect parts of the maze and aren’t always in position.
Then there’s the section in the video to the left where you have to outrun a giant worm thing. Now, this isn’t the first timed section in a Shantae game, and I remember being apprehensive about the Battle Tower in Risky’s Revenge because timed sections are generally terrible, but the Battle Tower’s time limit was generous enough that I got through it without any problem. This worm section isn’t generous, though. It requires an absurd amount of precision, and missing a jump very often means the worm instantly kills you, forcing you to restart from the bottom. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that you pretty much have to use the monkey form because of how much faster it is, but the monkey is far “stickier” when it comes to platforms than in Risky’s Revenge, leading to all kinds of situations where I’d lose time because I couldn’t coax the monkey to let go of the wall so that I could transform back to regular Shantae and knock an obstacle out of the way. That’s not even the worst part. Between soft-deaths that send you back to the beginning, your health remains persistent and you don’t have a great deal of it that early in the game, so getting hit too often and having to restart can leave you with zero margin for error before you get a game over. Since the save is right before this point and you end up spit back out in the same place either way, I can’t help but wonder what the point of not restoring health between attempts could possibly be. All it does is to makes this part miserable.
Then there are the small little changes that make no sense whatsoever. The first is that pits no longer have the skull and crossbones icons that differentiated harmful pits from the types you can explore in previous games. Granted, the horizontal stages don’t really have a great deal of exploration since they’re decidedly flat, but it’s still one of those little touches from earlier games that I missed greatly. Then there are the game’s attempts at depth, which, while effective at conveying it, don’t always make it abundantly clear when something is actually in the foreground and able to be interacted with. Early in the game, this manifested as I struggled to climb up moving handles as they moved from the foreground to the background. Later in the game, there was a section where you platform along airships that move into position as you get close to the edge of the ship you’re currently on, and this became incredibly frustrating when I turned into a bat to move forward quickly, only to drop down onto a ship that looked like it was in place and instead fall through it and get sent to the beginning of the section. There’s also a weird habit of buzzsaws to appear out of nowhere on chains, spawning only when you reach a certain place and despawning when you reach another place. This can cause them to unfairly phase in and out of existence as though they were called into existence solely to sabotage you. Finally, in what’s becoming an awful tradition started in Pirate’s Curse, the end of the game is filled with tricky bits that force you to maneuver around spikes that can easily send you back to the beginning of the awful spiky section to do it all over again.
Worthwhile little touches that added a lot
There are also a number of welcome elements that pay homage to previous games in subtle ways. For example, I read that Scuttle Town’s weird kind-of-3D effect is designed to give it the same layout as the town in the GBC original. Risky’s attacks during a late-game fight with her are straight out of Pirate’s Curse, which is amazing. There are also numerous callbacks to sections I remembered from Risky’s Revenge, such as a shortcut that allows the monkey form to avoid a dangerous area and a side-scrolling mermaid shooter section toward the end. Speaking of the mermaid form, the starfish that damage you in one section will actually fight on your behalf if you’re in the mermaid form, which is one of those little details that speak to the effort put into the game. Another welcome touch is that you can turn your purchased upgrades on and off from the menu, which means if you, like me, keep accidentally performing a backdash, you can disable it entirely until it’s actually needed.
Great graphics and music
As much as I loved the sprite work of the previous games, the new art style complements the game and does such a great job accurately representing the sprites that I barely even noticed the difference after awhile. It’s kind of stunning that such a huge graphical change could feel as natural as this one does, especially for someone as apprehensive about the new graphics as I was. And naturally, the music is as great as ever. Does more even need to be said on that front? I mean, the Shantae games always have great, upbeat music that perfectly matches the rest of the game, and this game is no different in that regard. The only thing about the music that ever stood out as different or unusual was the vocal track that played in an early stage. That definitely took some getting used to, which isn’t to say that it’s a bad track by any means. It’s just a bit jarring when you’re so used to there being no voices and then suddenly there’s a track with vocals playing in the background.