Just over 11 years since its original release in 2002, Shantae has finally made it onto the 3DS Virtual Console – and it's the first time that it's been available in Europe too. Despite the long wait, WayForward's tricky 2D platformer is sprinkled with enough genie-magic to keep it fresh and interesting for a modern audience.
Shantae is leading a quiet life as guardian of tiny fishing hotspot Scuttle Town, when one day a boatload of pirates rampages through her homestead. Their leader, the fearsome Risky Boots, pinches a precious steam engine and hatches a nefarious plan to take over the world with it. Desperate to stop her and prove her guardian credentials, the half-genie quickly sets off after Risky to retrieve the steam engine and prevent the world from falling into calamity.
Though she's not a full-fledged genie, Shantae's not entirely powerless. She can jump with the best of them and throws a mean ponytail at anybody in her way; she attacks by whipping her purple hair at enemies. By snatching up enough gems from vases or deceased enemies, you can also buy new special moves or items that give some much-needed help for a limited time, such as projectile attacks or storm clouds that send lightning crashing down on your foes.
The whole world is one big stage, with no level distinctions to separate any of it – you simply stroll and jump through all sorts of environments and explore. Certain parts of the map are inaccessible until you've gained the relevant skills, however, so you can't wander right up to the final area from the outset – the world gradually unlocks, giving a solid sense of progression. Collectable fireflies provide more incentive to explore slightly off the beaten path. There's a simplistic day and night cycle as well – some locations are only available at night, so you might have to jump around a little while before you can do or get something that you need. It changes seamlessly between light and dark, which is quite impressive for a Game Boy Color title.
There are several towns dotted about, which afford you a break from all the leaping around. These are presented in an interesting circular view, with the camera placed behind Shantae and spinning around to look at the different shops when you tap left and right on the D-Pad. Here you can recover energy hearts by taking a relaxing bath, stock up on items and play mini-games to earn gems, such as a dancing aside which takes a page out of the book of Dance Dance Revolution; you have to hit buttons in time to the music.
The most challenging sections are the dungeons, each of which contains a powerful stone that must be recovered before Risky puts the boot in. Whereas platforming through the overworld is fairly open, with lots of sky above, dungeons are exactly as they sound – dense series of rooms filled with puzzles, locked doors, secret passageways and enemies. They're labyrinthine, occasionally tough to navigate and all the better for it. Each is capped by a boss, though these are generally a doddle compared to actually working your way around the caverns.
Luckily, Shantae knows a few moves to get out of any situation. A master of the twist and shake, the purple haired one can enter dance mode at any time with a press of Select. By hitting any direction on the D-Pad, A or B in time to the beat, you can have her perform all sorts of moves. Initially this is an amusing quirky little aside, but after a short while you begin to unlock associated powers. Shantae can use her jigs to teleport back to previously visited towns.
Even more crucially, some wiggles let her transform into different animals that open up new routes. Becoming a monkey allows you to scale walls quickly and easy; the elephant isn't great at jumping, but delivers a mean shoulder barge. As the game goes on, using combinations of these animals becomes ever more important – and as a bonus, it provides Shantae with much more variety, with each beast controlling differently.
Shantae is not an easy game; enemies get tough quickly, and though their attacks often only take a small amount of health, you're assaulted a lot. The level design is smart, forcing you to think and work out ways forward, but some less experienced players could get frustrated at being thrown back to the start of an area upon losing a life, particularly in the sprawling overworld segments. The 3DS Virtual Console's save states definitely come in handy here; those looking for a challenge can play through the normal way, but if you're having difficulty you can still enjoy the game by alleviating the pressure with the “save anywhere” functionality.
The colourful visuals might help ease people in, too; the sprites are big and clear, and in particular it's hard not to notice how well animated they are even to this day. The music doesn't quite match up, but there are still several hummable tunes in there.
Full of character and challenge, Shantae holds up well on the whole. There's a touch of the old-school in there, mixed with a few fairly unique ideas that make it a must play for platforming fans. With a 3DS sequel coming in the not-so-distant future, there's never been a better time to get acquainted with Scuttle Town's purple-haired guardian.