I say these things with love, I really do.
More than three years ago, right around the time Mighty No. 9 appeared on our collective radar, WayForward launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a proper console Shantae game. It had a cartoony new art style, a return to the animal transformations from the first two games, and was being made with the DuckTales Remastered engine. I plunked down what was, at the time, a sizable amount of gems to back this project—my first Kickstarter. And now Shantae: ½ Genie Hero (HGH) has arrived before the end of the year and I’ve spent a lot of time with it.
One of the nice benefits of being a backer is that I got access to the full game—although not the final build—on Steam Early Access, and you’d better believe I barreled through the game prior to getting my Wii U backer code. I have now beaten HGH four times: twice at just under 100% and twice with 100%, including a respectable speed run. I’ve unlocked all the bonus concept art, so until DLC arrives, I’m effectively done playing HGH, and as a Shantae fanboy, I have opinions about the game.
You should know, first off, that I love the game to pieces. It’s the second-best Shantae game in the series after Pirate’s Curse (a high bar that’s going to be difficult to clear). I was delighted to see that Matt West loved the game as a Shantae newbie. Here’s a list of things I liked and did not like about Shantae: ½ Genie Hero. Just a warning, though: CONTAINS SPOILERS.
LIKE: Good lord, this game is gorgeous.
There aren’t many games that genuinely look like cartoons, but HGH rises to that challenge. Every character is crisp, every animation is lively and colorful, every expression is exaggerated. The environments are beautiful and multi-layered. The whole game is bright, pulsing, and optimistic. While I was initially hesitant about the art style, it works wonders in practice. The cheesecake factor has been dialed back, but with such consistent character designs, it turns out I don’t mind.
DISLIKE: Shantae has no idle animation.
This may seem like a minor quibble, but it was a disappointment in Pirate’s Curse, too, and I’m not sure why WayForward stopped giving her entertaining idle animations. Sure, she has her "rhythmic bip-bopping" animation, but where's the humorous "does something after 30 seconds of standing there" animation? Even the GBC game had one!
LIKE: Everything about the soundtrack.
Jake Kauffman has done it again. This game has some vicious earworms. It skews more towards Mighty Switch Force than Pirate's Curse, but it goes well with the art direction.
DISLIKE: The Item Shop is still too bloated.
Do you want to get 100% item completion like a good Shantae player? Enjoy grinding for gems and buying items you will never use. I used fireballs for one quest (gather some gator steaks). I didn’t use Puff Clouds or its upgrades even once. I never used the backdash. I didn’t need to! I abused Pike Balls and its upgrades, of course, and I used the Invincibility Bubble indefinitely once I earned the Magic Tiara. This was a problem in Risky’s Revenge too, but was mitigated in Pirate’s Curse thanks to how items drop. Going for a 100% speed run is extremely hampered by the Item Shop. “But wait,” I hear you say, “just buy the Gem Jug dance from the snake girl.” The Gem Jug Dance is a lie. You sit there and hammer the Y button so that single gems fly out slowly and they often fly so far you have to go pick them up—Attract be damned.
AND ANOTHER THING: The Snake Girl doesn’t sell you anything useful.
You can buy the Warp Dance from the Item Shop (and you should). But you know what dances are useless? The Gem Jug, Obliteration, and Dryad dances. I never used any of them, but I had to save up the gems to buy them to get 100%.
LIKE: The entire cast is represented.
This may seem like a small thing, but I really enjoyed how HGH pulls the entire cast from previous Shantae games together. All four of the Barons are in this game, and they’re all funny. All of Shantae’s hometown buddies are around—although I wish Bolo and Rottytops had more to do. I was pleasantly surprised to see Twitch & Vinegar reappear as well (but where’s BRAN-SON?!). All of the characters have witty dialogue, too, even the newcomers. I hope the Doctor, especially, appears in future games.
DISLIKE: Some of Shantae’s secondary powers are either useless or unnecessary.
When I say “secondary powers,” I mean “secondary thing that an animal form can do.” Useful examples include the Mermaid Bubble, Elephant Stomp, Monkey Bullet and (to a lesser extent) Harpy Talon (which is not a talon). However, when you get the Mouse Bite—it’s completely useless. You’d think the Mouse Bite would be good for killing the centipedes that block your progress in Mermaid Falls, but you’d be wrong--it can't be used in mazes, which would be the whole point. Why would you ever run around in Mouse form outside a maze, attacking enemies? Similarly, the Spider Venom is weak, slow-moving, and completely eclipsed by every other attack Shantae has. It’s in there to get at 100% but has no use whatsoever (unless I’m missing something).
AND ANOTHER THING: A couple of Shantae’s animal powers are criminally underutilized.
The Spider power is used pretty much one time to find the Data Chip in the factory. Come on, guys. Do something cool with this. Look at what WayForward had planned on doing with the Spider form. That's much cooler.
AND ONE MORE THING! We’re never getting Shantae’s original dance routine back, are we?
Remember back on the GBC? Animal transformations were accomplished by making Shantae use different dance moves in sequence. You’d start dancing, then tap different directions to do different dance moves. This gave Shantae more animation, but it also made each transformation feel different and earned. They eased up on that in Risky’s Revenge—you just hold the button down until Shantae is performing a given dance move. Here, it’s even lazier. Holding the X button activates what you might call the animal transformation version of a weapon wheel that awkwardly has three phases. You pick one with the left stick and BOOM you’re an elephant. Her dance step never changes.
LIKE: Probably the best boss fights in the entire series.
You actually fight Risky at the end! We haven’t seen that since the GBC! And she uses her moves from Pirate’s Curse! But all the boss fights are expertly paced and make you think on your feet. The Mermaid Queen fight in particular was very enjoyable because it’s half platformer. Yeah, the final boss is pretty easy but I’m willing to forgive that since it's such a nice homage to a certain Nintendo franchise.
DISLIKE: The slide sequences can die in a fire.
Guys, why did you add these slide sequences? There’s one at the end of Mermaid Falls and it’s already not great but the one at the very end of the game? Awful. This is the kind of shit that made me hate Donkey Kong Country Returns and pledge to never play Tropical Freeze. I do not want instant-death escape sequences in my platformers. And you had a way to make it better! In Crustacean Cove, if you fall off the magic carpet, YOU POP BACK UP. Why wasn’t that implemented for the slide sequences?
LIKE: Risky’s Hideout is really fun.
It was pretty fun to relive the Mermaid shooter sequence from Risky’s Revenge but in HD and with starfish helpers. Once you get to the hideout itself, there’s a good challenge in utilizing your animal powers to get through the area. It’s not particularly hard, but the constant switching-up was fun and it’s good to be fighting Tinkerbats again.
I don’t want this critical essay to suggest that I don’t like HGH—I really do. It’s probably going to be on my Top Five games of 2016. But it’s instructive to see what can be improved in a sequel, should a sequel occur. I look forward to the additional wrinkles that DLC will add—Risky Boots mode and different costumes/stat changes for Shantae—but what I’d really like to see are new levels that better utilize her animal powers (and an idle animation). Now then, I'm off to buy the game on PS4 or Vita for the Trophies. I have a problem!