Your wish has been granted.
It wasn’t long after I booted up Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero that I realized I was in for a special treat. My personal history with the series is exclusively recent; I played HGH’s prequels, Risky’s Revenge and Pirate’s Curse, only earlier this year. While I enjoyed my time with both games, I couldn’t help but feel that WayForward had yet to perfect the Shantae formula. I’m happy to announce, then, that the fourth time is the charm. The talented team has delivered to their fans (and Kickstarter backers!) a memorable adventure with loads of charm, beautiful design, and wonderful secrets waiting to be found.
The first thing I noticed upon stepping into Shantae’s world of Sequin Land is how sharp everything looks. The first game in the series to be built from the ground up for HD screens, HGH takes advantage of the bump in power to make Shantae’s world pop with character. The animations, in particular, deserve a special shout out; these characters feel alive in a way that reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon. There are all kinds of things going on in the backgrounds of each level, and enemy variety changes from location to location, matching the themes of each area like desert, castle, and an airship. It all combines to create a complete visual package that is very pleasing to the eyes.
HGH is more than just surface beauty, though. The gameplay, which combines challenging platforming, treasure hunting for cleverly hidden secrets, and Castlevania-style combat, is really where the game shines. While Shantae begins her quest to save Sequin Land from the pirate queen Risky Boots with a simple hair whip attack, collecting gems will allow her to buy upgrades and new magic attacks from the item shop that will give her a mighty arsenal with a lot of variety. While I enjoyed using these upgrades, it’s clear that some of them are much more useful than others. I went the entirety of the game without ever using a couple of magic abilities as they were simply unnecessary. Shantae’s unique abilities don’t stop with buyable items, however. One of the game’s most interesting features is the heroine’s ability to transform into a wide variety of animals through dancing. Each animal has its own unique ability that will allow Shantae to traverse environments in ways she can’t in her human (er, half-genie) form. The monkey transformation, for example, allows her to climb on walls while the mermaid allows her to swim and explore freely underwater. These abilities are absolutely key to finding and unlocking all of the games hidden secrets, which you’ll need to finish the game with 100%.
Speaking of hidden secrets, Half-Genie Hero is full of them. They’re the good kind of secrets--well-hidden that feel rewarding to discover. It’s a rare moment when the player isn’t handsomely rewarded by going off the main path to find a new gadget of some sort. Sometimes it’s a heart container to upgrade your maximum health, other times it’s a brand new transformation, or a key that unlocks new concept art in the gallery. Whatever the reward, it’s always worth it. Which is nice, because finding all the secrets unfortunately requires the player to go back to each level multiple times as your repertoire improves. This didn’t bother me the first time it happened, as the levels are well-designed enough to earn a second play through. It was the third, and sometimes fourth, times that started to wear thin. Near the end of the game, it felt a lot like these extra play throughs were simply padding out an adventure that otherwise would have been a bit shorter otherwise.
Of course, I can’t end this review without lauding about the music. WayForward’s games are usually packed with catchy tunes, but 1/2 Genie Hero’s soundtrack, by Shantae maestro Jake Kauffman, often felt like a tribute to the wonderful 16-bit soundtracks of the SNES and Genesis days. There were several themes that made me reminisce about games like Mega Man 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 3, whose soundtracks I hold to be among the greatest in the yesteryears of gaming. There were a couple of moments in the game where I paused just to listen, which is a rarity for me.
In the six hours I spent on my first play through of Half-Genie Hero, I found myself smiling at the creative level design, laughing at the whimsical characters, and striving to get better whenever I missed a challenging jump. It’s rare that I ever want to play a game to completion twice, but I absolutely intend to throw myself back into Sequin Land to uncover all the secrets I missed in my first run—maybe I’ll even tackle the “Hero Mode,” which is designed for speed runs. Whether you backed the game on Kickstarter or have been on the fence with the series for a while and waiting for a time to jump in, there’s a lot to love about 1/2 Genie Hero.