Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero – Beyond the Pixel

When I was growing up with computers and consoles in the early days of gaming, my dream of “what graphics will be like in the future” was not one of photorealism.

Okay, I’ll admit, attempts at photorealism — particularly in games that tackled this challenge early on, such as flight simulators — impressed me a great deal. But what I really, really wanted more than anything was that elusive thing: a game that truly looked like a cartoon; a true interactive animated movie.

Today, I have that. And it’s wonderful.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero was first unveiled in 2013. At this point, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse was yet to be released and developer WayForward was contemplating a Director’s Cut release of Risky’s Revenge for various platforms, so it was clear the team was thinking long-term for the series. While the previous games eventually made their way to a wide variety of platforms (with the exception of the Game Boy Color original, which only saw a rerelease on the 3DS’ Virtual Console service), they had all been originally designed as handheld titles. 1/2 Genie Hero was to be the first Shantae specifically designed for modern, high-definition, TV-connected systems — developed by WayForward, with contributions from 2D gaming maestros Inti Creates on the graphical side of things.

Unlike previous installments in the series, 1/2 Genie Hero raised funds via Kickstarter. This was around the time Kickstarter was just starting to be seen as a viable alternative to the traditional developer-publisher model — and was also before high-profile controversies such as that surrounding Comcept’s Mighty No. 9 came to light, making consumers a little more wary of crowdfunding. As such, the gaming community of 2013 was keen to support the kinds of titles that were perceived as unlikely to be greenlit by the big publishers of the industry. As a 2D platformer, the new Shantae project definitely fell into that category, but it proved that there most certainly was ample demand for this sort of thing by ultimately raising well over double its proposed budget — enough to expand the game well beyond its original scope.

It would be December of 2016 before the game saw a worldwide release, but since both Risky’s Revenge: Director’s Cut and Pirate’s Curse had both come out and spread to numerous platforms in the meantime, fans of the belly-dancing genie hadn’t been short of things to do. Backers in particular had been eagerly awaiting the new game, however, and it didn’t disappoint, receiving a favourable reaction from both press and public alike.

Development didn’t stop there, though. Although a number of the original stretch goals had been incorporated into the main game in the form of new levels and narrative elements, the more ambitious targets would end up being released later as downloadable add-ons. The first of these, allowing the player to experience a new story as recurring antagonist Risky Boots, arrived in August of 2017; the second, featuring Shantae’s friends Sky, Bolo and Rottytops, showed up in December of 2017; and the final offering, bringing three new ways to play themed around swimsuit, ninja and “officer” costumes, finally showed up in April of 2018. Shortly after this final DLC released, everything was bundled together in an “Ultimate Edition” which got a physical release, so those who had held fire on the game until this point could enjoy everything all in one go.

So what of the game itself, then? Well, in keeping with the series’ feeling of gradual evolution, the structure is once again a little different from the interconnected open worlds of the first two games. Here, the game is split into six “worlds”, each of which are subdivided into several distinct areas, concluding with a boss fight.  Shantae also has access to a “hub” area based around her home of Scuttle Town, in which she can purchase new items, heal herself up and advance the story.

This isn’t to say that the exploration aspect of the past games is absent. As you progress through the six worlds, Shantae will unlock a wide variety of transformations — many more than in Risky’s Revenge and the original game — that, in turn, will allow her to access previously unreachable areas. As such, you have the ability to revisit previously cleared worlds in order to explore them further using your new skills. And there’s plenty of incentive to do so in the form of heart containers to increase Shantae’s maximum health as well as upgrades for the various transformation abilities. Like in the previous games, tracking down all these hidden items is strictly optional, but special rewards are given to those who clear the game with 100% of the items and/or speedrun it.

The six worlds have a ton of variety to them. The first consists of the series’ obligatory opening, with Scuttle Town’s Main Street once again burning to the ground. The second begins as a stage based around aquatic ruins before proceeding into a factory with lots of precarious platforming. The third begins as a “desert” level, proceeds up a vertically scrolling tower as Shantae attempts to outrun a gigantic and hungry worm, then sees her picking her way across collapsing platforms to reach her final destination. The fourth starts with a magic carpet race that takes the form of a forced-scrolling segment, then follows this up with a distinctly Mega Man-inspired sequence involving challenging enemies and tricky traps. The fifth is a distinctly Castlevania-esque level featuring deliberately confusing exploration, cute but deadly slimegirls and series composer Jake Kaufman in full-on Michiru Yamane mode. And finally, Shantae’s assault on Risky’s hideout demands complete mastery of all the mechanics the game has systematically taught you through the previous levels.

While the story is lightweight and breezy as in Shantae’s previous adventures, we have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the company of the series’ delightful cast, and each of these larger-than-life personalities is explored in more detail throughout the various alternative game modes. In grand terms, the game sees Shantae having recovered her magical abilities at the conclusion of Pirate’s Curse and attempting to deal with a crime wave that appears to be sweeping Sequin Land — the collective work of the villainous but incompetent Barons introduced in Risky’s Revenge. Ultimately, Risky Boots is, of course, to blame for the main conflict in the narrative; this time around she’s attempting to rip open the otherworldly Genie Realm and corrupt its power for her own evil ends. I guess that truce in Pirate’s Curse was temporary, after all.

This is a gameplay-centric game first and foremost, it has to be said, so although the narrative is enjoyable (and frequently hilarious), it is, in the grand scheme of things, little more than an excuse to send Shantae to a variety of different locales and confront some seriously impressive, beautifully animated, screen-filling bosses in the process. Of particular note in this regard is the “Giga Mermaid” that concludes the second stage; the quality of the animation here is nothing short of spectacular, and proof if proof were needed that the series’ switch from gorgeous pixel art to more traditional animation was most certainly a good call.

It’s an immensely satisfying experience on the whole; a true spectacle to watch as well as play, with Jake Kaufman’s wonderful compositions — this time completely unconstrained by any sort of attempt to mimic gaming hardware of the past — complementing the action perfectly. While longstanding series veterans may miss the feeling of coherence that the interconnected worlds of the first game and Risky’s Revenge in particular brought to the table, many of the series’ core appeal elements are still firmly in place. It’s highly enjoyable to return to a level armed with a new ability and be able to reach that out-of-reach treasure that has been taunting you for the rest of the game, and with the game being relatively short, 100% completion is within reach of even the most time-constrained modern gamer.

Is it the best Shantae game? That’s a tricky one, and probably a matter of opinion, so I won’t give a definitive answer. I will say, however, that for me personally Pirate’s Curse probably just pips 1/2 Genie Hero’s base game in terms of overall enjoyment, but it’s a very close thing indeed… and the beauty of the latter’s graphics and animation should not be underestimated!

But then, of course, 1/2 Genie Hero has all those other ways to play, too. So let’s take a look at those.

Narratively speaking, both Pirate Queen’s Quest (where you play Risky Boots) and Friends to the End (in which you switch between controlling Bolo, Sky and Rottytops to progress) unfold towards the conclusion of Shantae’s story in the main game, allowing us to see what went on during a period of time where our favourite half-genie was… somewhat incapacitated.

Risky’s adventure is narrated by the pirate queen herself, and concerns her efforts to find a series of components she needs to complete her Genie Realm-corrupting machinery. Rather inconveniently for her, these parts are all in the possession of the various Barons, and as such Risky finds herself having to retrace Shantae’s steps to go a second round with all of the villains and the bosses.

Mechanically, Pirate Queen’s Quest essentially sees you playing through 1/2 Genie Hero’s main quest again, only this time as Risky Boots, who has a rather different lineup of abilities to Shantae, and whose progression works somewhat differently. Risky, having retrieved all her equipment from Shantae at the conclusion of Pirate’s Curse, gradually unlocks the ability to make use of various items such as her pistol (for ranged attacks), hat (to float across gaps) and cannon (to jump multiple times in mid-air as well as destroy objects beneath her) as she completes each stage for the first time. As such, much like Shantae, she has the ability to repeat stages as many times as you wish in order to recover hidden items and upgrades.

Being unwelcome in polite society, Risky is obviously unable to purchase upgrades and items in the same way as Shantae, so instead she recovers “dark magic” from hidden treasure chests around the world. Each piece of dark magic allows Risky to upgrade one of her abilities up to a maximum of three times, ultimately increasing her health, allowing her to jump higher, float further, fire her pistol more rapidly, carry more ammunition for her special shots and various other benefits. As you might expect, in order to access many of the pieces of dark magic, certain upgrades are a prerequisite, though the game appears to be designed in such a way that it’s impossible to get yourself into a situation where it’s literally impossible to reach at least one upgrade.

The levels follow the same basic layout as in Shantae’s adventure, but have had minor changes here and there to better accommodate Risky’s lineup of abilities and somewhat slower speed. It’s surprising quite how different the whole game feels from Risky’s perspective; obstacles that would have been easy to traverse using Shantae’s abilities have to be tackled completely differently as Risky, sometimes making use of creative combinations of skills. Much like in Pirate’s Curse, Risky’s pirate abilities are all mapped to different buttons rather than acting as discrete “forms” like Shantae’s transformations; this makes it possible to do things like quadruple-jump using an upgraded cannon, grapple onto the ceiling then float down to reach a far-off and difficult to reach platform. Be prepared to practice!

Risky’s quest does sort of fizzle out a bit towards the end with a somewhat weak finale, but in terms of the story this can be attributed to Risky herself acting as an unreliable narrator. Since, canonically, Shantae defeated her and foiled her plan, it’s understandable she’d want to gloss over that part of the tale somewhat. It doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the rest of the adventure by any means; it’s just a bit of a limp finish, is all. As previously noted, though, if you’re playing this game, you’re almost certainly primarily in it for the gameplay, and Risky’s quest certainly extends the fun of the overall package considerably.

The remaining modes abandon the ability to go back and replay levels in favour of a more linear structure, somewhat reminiscent of a traditional old-school platform game. The first of these, Friends to the End, shakes up the overall game into something of a puzzle-platformer, requiring you to make use of Sky, Bolo and Rottytops’ unique abilities to traverse the stages and beat the bosses. It’s a stiff challenge — okay, it’s really fucking hard — but it’s a rewarding experience, for sure.

All three of the characters in Friends to the End have the ability to move around, jump and attack in various ways. Rottytops has the shortest range melee attack but deals the most damage; Bolo has a somewhat Castlevania-esque ball and chain that acts like a Belmont whip, giving him longer range but marginally less damage; and Sky does the least damage but has the ability to attack from a considerable distance by throwing birds.

From thereon, the characters distinguish themselves with completely different skills. Bolo is able to use his chain as a grappling hook to cling on to pegs and rings, then swing off them to make much larger jumps than normal. Rottytops is able to throw her head and “teleport” to wherever it lands, allowing her to pass obstacles that are fatal to the touch such as laser beams. And Sky has the ability to throw eggs that can “hatch” into temporary platforms as well as float for a short period of time using her favourite pet bird and series mainstay, Wrench.

Bolo, Sky and Rottytops also each have a “magic” ability. Sky can summon birds that orbit her similar to Shantae’s Pike Ball spell; Bolo can throw bouncing bombs; and Rottytops has arguably the most crucial: a self-heal. Since the three characters all share a single bank of health, it’s especially important to ensure Rottytops keeps her magic topped up in case of emergency; the other two have their uses, but are by no means essential.

Friends to the End and the three “costume pack” modes make use of a Cave Story-style levelling system in which you collect gems to power yourself up, but lose gems any time you take damage. Increasing in level allows a character to attack more quickly and do more damage, but like in its apparent inspiration, it only takes one hit at the maximum level of 4 to drop you back down a tier. This can be frustrating at times, but gems are abundantly scattered around the levels — and given that you can’t upgrade your maximum health in any of these modes, you’ll want to avoid getting hit as much as possible anyway!

Once again, Friends to the End provides an interesting twist on the existing content rather than something completely unique, and as in Pirate Queen’s Quest, the new techniques you have in your arsenal give the game a very different feel. Because switching between the three characters isn’t something you can do as quickly and snappily as Risky is able to combine her pirate abilities, you’ll have to plan ahead and decide how best to make use of each skill to advance. And there is, more often than not, more than one way to solve the challenges you’ll encounter along the way.

The remaining three modes each see Shantae donning a different costume, and the game introducing new mechanics accordingly. Like Friends to the End, the exploration angle is mostly abandoned in favour of linear progression (though each stage of each world does have three hidden items to find) and a test of your skills — no health upgrades for you here, so you’d best get good as soon as possible!

Putting Shantae in her rather fetching bikini provides her with two important new skills: throwing beachballs, which acts as a bouncing ranged attack, and summoning a bubble, which allows her to fly through the air so long as she doesn’t bump into anything. However, you have a rather significant additional challenge in this mode: sunburn.

As you play, a sun-shaped meter fills up in the corner of the screen, and when this reaches capacity, Shantae starts to lose health before eventually catching fire and exploding. You can prevent this from occurring by collecting sunscreen pickups that are scattered throughout the levels. This gives something of a “puzzle” feel to each level as if you want to locate the hidden items, you’ll need to plan your route carefully to collect sufficient sunscreen along the way — though as in the other modes, you can’t get yourself into an “unwinnable” situation, since the bottles respawn after a few seconds. It gives the game an extremely tense feel, however, and is a solid test of what should, by this point, be some formidable platforming skills!

Ninja mode, meanwhile, appears to be what happens when WayForward goes “what if, instead of making a Castlevania game, we made a Shinobi game instead?” Here, Shantae is much faster and more agile, having gained the ability to cling to and leap off walls as well as teleport short distances, slash with a sword and throw shuriken. The increased speed makes for a very different experience, and once you master how the teleport move works, getting around the stages is an absolute joy.

Ninja mode is probably the most straightforward of the additional ways to play, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. It’s worth noting that each of the new modes also comes with its own story and dialogue, with the hilarious writing in Ninja mode being a particular highlight. Shantae fully embracing her self-professed bad temper — even if that is not a very “ninja” thing to do — when dealing with the Techno Baron at the end of the second stage was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Yes, I lol’d.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting of the three “costume” modes is Officer mode, which essentially turns the whole game into Mighty Switch Force, one of WayForward’s previous games. Here, you’re armed with a blaster gun and the ability to “switch” special blocks between blending into the background (meaning you can pass through them) and being pulled forward (allowing you to stand on them — and smashing anything in front of them, including you, “out of the screen” when they move).

Mighty Switch Force is a solid game in its own right, and the levels in 1/2 Genie Hero lend themselves well to the addition of the switch blocks. If you’ve never played Mighty Switch Force, it takes a little while to adjust to the techniques you’ll need to succeed — most notably “switching” the blocks while you’re in mid-jump — but after a while you’ll be getting around smoothly in no time. There’s a really nice rhythm to this mode, and the gameplay and overall atmosphere fits Shantae’s personality perfectly, making it a great addition to the complete package.

Reception to the various extra modes was somewhat mixed when they were released as DLC — primarily due to the fact that they recycled and remixed the existing levels rather than providing anything completely new, making some question their value for money at their original price points — but in the context of the Ultimate Edition, 1/2 Genie Hero as a whole feels like a very complete, comprehensive and diverse package, offering multiple ways to play and enjoy what is, at its core, a well-designed and mechanically solid game.

As I’ve already noted, your mileage may vary on whether or not you consider it to be the “best” Shantae game, whatever that means. But it’s certainly the most beautifully presented installment in the series — and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this loveable cast of endearingly flawed characters.

Now, about getting Shantae in that new Super Smash Bros…


More about Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero

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