Every time the collective gaming audience stumbles across some sort of well-crafted new game that hearkens back to the 8- and 16-bit era and muses in unison, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," you just have to sigh and shake your head.
"They" actually have been making 'em like that all along; you just have to know who they are and where they're making 'em. Case in point: WayForward's Shantae, out today on 3DS Virtual Console after a five-year run as one of the rarest and most expensive Game Boy titles on the aftermarket.
Shantae arrived with almost zero fanfare more than a decade ago, even though it was precisely the kind of game that everyone pining for the vanishing classics would have been head over heels for. Today, dozens of indie developers are tripping over themselves to recombine their favorite elements of the NES and Genesis days into new permutations, and Shantae beat them all to the punch by nearly 10 years. But since it happened on a platform no one cared about in 2002 -- it was the last great title for Game Boy Color, a good year after the Game Boy Advance launched -- people tended to regard it as a laggard instead of a trend-setter.
But no. Shantae managed to be years ahead of its time by looking back to long before its time. Everything that was cool and interesting about platformers of the late '80s and early '90s managed to resurface in this gem of an adventure with the maturity of hindsight. Sure, even Shantae had its flaws, but its workings clearly came from a place of affection as its creators revisited the classic action games that inspired them to become designers in the first place... much like the indie developers of today.
Nintendo and Sega vets will see all sorts of familiar elements as they explore Shantae's world. The primary influences appear to come from Westone's Wonder Boy and Monster World titles, as the titular protagonist -- a cute genie cut in the Barbara Eden mold, albeit with a duskier complexion and more revealing ensemble -- roams freely through an interconnected two-dimensional world. She smacks enemies with her hair (kind of like the dude in Kabuki Quantum Fighter), transforms into different creatures to solve puzzles (as in Monster Boy III and Little Samson), backtracks and visits shops (shades of Battle of Olympus), and plays rhythm minigames (not unlike... I don't know, Dance Dance Revolution?).
All of these elements come together in Shantae to create a game that feels familiar, yet very much like its own creation. It's one of the best-looking 8-bit games ever, with animation that stands toe-to-toe with all-time classics such as Moon Crystal, and it sounds great, too.
Shantae was one of the first -- if not the first -- original title developed by WayForward, and it shows. After years of slamming together licensed material for kids' publishers on tight budgets and tighter deadlines, you can see frustrated artists really stretching themselves here. And yet, because it all had to fit within the constraints of Game Boy Color hardware and cartridges, they couldn't be too self-indulgent. Thus Shantae manages to strike that tricky balance between minimalism and excess: The pinnacle of GBC technology, and a fine swan song for 8-bit gaming.
Sure, it has its shortcomings. The rambling world can be a touch confusing, and the dance elements feel shoehorned in. Enemies can soak up entirely too much damage at times, rendering traversal a little tedious at times. And yet, despite these minor flaws, it's a heck of a game. And until now, it's commanded prices upward of $200 thanks to its genuine rarity and excellence. Given the game's low profile debut, I suppose there's a little irony in the fact that its arrival on Virtual Console has been overshadowed by EarthBound's surprise debut.
Here's the great thing about Virtual Console, though: It's not a zero-sum endeavor. If you don't buy Shantae today, it'll still be there in a few weeks for the same price, unlike its vanishing retail release back in the day. That doesn't mean you should wait that long, though. Shantae deserves not to be ignored this time around. WayForward keeps a torch burning for Shantae in the midst of their other, better-than-they-have-any-right-to-be licensed projects, and it's a pretty safe bet that by supporting this particular release you're helping to guarantee that this developer at least will keep right on making 'em like they used to.