Welcome to the newest installment of Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss esteemed series in gaming history. Previous entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be looking at Shantae, a series of platformers that has only seen four releases over the past two decades!
WayForward Technologies, founded in 1990, was in a transitional period during the middle of its first decade. It had entered into a business partnership with American Education Publishing in 1994 to develop visual assets and edutainment games after four years of working on other companies’ licensed games, but the core staff wanted to move back towards more engaging action game development. With the Sony PlayStation dominating the market in the late 1990s, development began on a new intellectual property.
WayForward’s creative director, Matt Bozon, turned to his wife, Erin Bell, for ideas. Bell successfully pitched a heroine she had been thinking about for some time: Shantae, a genie who danced to alter her form or summon animal companions. The universe continued to be worked up by Bell and Bozon, as Shantae gained the ability to weaponize her long hair and was joined by other characters. Much of this made it into an early PSX/PC prototype for a Shantae game (pictured above), but the game was unfortunately never published.
By 2002, WayForward was on surer footing and got its first Shantae game published by Capcom on the GameBoy Color platform. This alteration of console necessitated a significant overhaul in visuals, and Shantae went from being a polygonal PlayStation prototype to a pixel platformer much more in line with the games WayForward had developed for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Its mechanics were heavily influenced by Castlevania and Mega Man, while the visuals took inspiration from Aladdin, The Legend of Zelda and Ranma 1/2, among others.
The plot is set in Sequin Land, and revolves around the adventures of half-genie Shantae, guardian of a small fishing village called Scuttle Town. In her first adventure, Shantae is tasked with saving her hometown from the machinations of her antagonist, Risky Boots, as Risky seeks to assemble a powerful weapon. Shantae gains the ability to transform into various animals via dancing and gains life-restoring items and new combat skills; these character progression elements would go on to be significant features of future games in the series. Unlike later titles, though, level design in Shantae was strictly linear.
Sadly, the game performed very poorly upon release in 2002. This is generally attributed to the release of the GameBoy Advance and the dwindling user base of the GameBoy Color. The game’s critical reception was quite positive, on the other hand, and it went on to experience success as a cult-favorite platformer in an era dominated by more large-scale adventure games.
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (2010)
In 2009, WayForward announced that it would be publishing a sequel to Shantae on the Nintendo DSi eShop service. It was the result of a prototype developed but not published on GameBoy Advance, and hewed very closely in style to the original Shantae game. Titled Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, the game was intended to be comprised of three episodes but was eventually released as a single, standalone game.
Risky’s Revenge marks the series turn towards a less linear level design, with powerups available to backtracking players, but the map system is of limited use. Gameplay mechanics are quite similar to its predecessor, but the plot is a direct sequel to the events of Shantae. After failing to defend Scuttle Town, Shantae is fired from her role as the town’s guardian and takes it upon herself to defeat Risky Boots without institutional backing. At the conclusion of the adventure, Shantae loses her genie abilities and is reduced to being a normal human, but is happily reinstated as Scuttle Town’s guardian regardless.
This title was significantly more commercially successful than the GameBoy Color entry had been, but still suffered from limited exposure due to its presence on an inherently ephemeral online platform. This was rectified with later re-releases on iOS, PC, Wii U and PlayStation 4 featuring new elements and higher-resolution visuals.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (2014)
By the early 2010s, the Shantae series had become a major cult classic among retro platformer fans, and sprite-based platformers had come back in style. Consequently, the 2012 announcement of a new Shantae game was met with rapturous anticipation. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse was published on 3DS and Wii U in 2014, then experienced a wider release on all major game platforms (plus Amazon TV!) in 2015-2016. A Nintendo Switch version was published just prior to this article being written.
This title significantly shook up the series in plot and gameplay. While Shantae is again working to save her native Scuttle Town, she is joined by her nemesis Risky Boots in an unlikely alliance against the nefarious Ammo Baron. The humorous writing takes an even more central focus and Shantae’s friends are more prominently presented in the storyline. Unlike the previous games, which featured a linear interconnected world (Shantae) and a non-linear interconnected world (Risky’s Revenge), Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse separated its large-scale 2D world into islands that the player could explore and return to with a wider range of moves. This permitted an expansion of the Metroidvania exploration elements without forcing the player to backtrack through entirely unrelated areas, though it was criticized for making the game feel less internally connected.
Most importantly, Shantae no longer has access to her magical dancing abilities from previous games. The series emphasizes continuity, and WayForward was committed to faithfully continuing from the ending of the preceding game. With her powers stripped, Shantae instead relies on Risky’s pirate ship for transport between islands and progressively-obtained pirate tools to offer new combat and exploration abilities.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse was the most popular entry in the series to date, and represented the series’ first step towards becoming a mainstream commercial property. It stood at the intersection of two of the most lauded retro-oriented game studios, as Inti Creates contributed sprites to the already-lush, tightly crafted WayForward release. In some ways, it also closed the book on the series’ role as a retro pixel-based game, since the next entry would feature significantly overhauled visual design.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (2016)
At the conclusion of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Shantae received her magical powers back and parted ways with Risky Boots. The following game combines the gameplay mechanics of the earlier Shantae games with a world more informed by Shantae and the Pirate Curse. As a testament to the series’ increasing popularity, Half-Genie Hero was released simultaneously at the end of 2016 on Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, and PC; a later port appeared on the Nintendo Switch.
All of the fan-favorite characters return, and Shantae is pitted against Risky Boots across multiple islands once again. Risky has joined forces with the antagonist of the preceding game, Ammo Baron, and the game opens with her assault on Scuttle Town. The universe of the series is expanded with a greater emphasis on the cosmological significance of the Genie Realm and its connection to Shantae.
Interestingly, this is the first game in the series to be crowdfunded. A KickStarter campaign for the series’ next installment was overwhelmingly successful, raising over $900,000 dollars. This came with the stretch goals of multiple alternate characters and expansions to the base game, which were released throughout 2017. These alternative quests feature major alterations to the gameplay, including an expansion in which the player takes the role of Risky Boots with tools more similar to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse than Half-Genie Hero.
The visuals are also dramatically different from earlier games in the series. Rather than being represented by blocky pixel models, Shantae and other characters are now high-definition 2D vector sprites. The gameplay remains two-dimensional, but backgrounds have been expanded to feature three-dimensional polygonal space rather than pixels. Art for the game was designed by the esteemed Inti Creates, which had previously collaborated with WayForward on Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse and is known for the Mega Man Zero and Azure Striker Gunvolt franchises.
While there have been several cancelled Shantae games, including the aforementioned ones on PSX/PC and GBA, as well as a short-lived experimental prototype on Nintendo DS, the series has not yet included any major spin-off games. All have hewed closely to the 2D platformer style, even as art and gameplay elements have evolved with time.
That said, the characters of Shantae have appeared rather extensively in other franchises throughout the 2010s as the series’ popularity has grown. A microgame featuring Shantae called Shantae:NAB! appeared in Warioware D.I.Y. (this microgame is now also accessible in the Nintendo Switch release of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse). Risky Boots appeared in a sidequest of the critically acclaimed top-down action indie game Hyper Light Drifter. Shantae was also featured as a playable character in Runbow and Blaster Master Zero, pictured above.
What are your favorite Shantae games, and where would you like to see the series go in the future?