It's been a long time in the making, but Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is finally here. It's bright, it's funny, and it has more magical transformations than you can shake your hips at.
Wayforward's Shantae games have a history of offering rich platforming fun for whomever wants to come on board. That said, the series is content to percolate in the background of the 2D action game genre rather than compete head-to-head with the likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. In fact, Shantae was nearly doomed to oblivion: Her first game hit the Game Boy Color just as the plucky handheld was giving off the last of its death-rattles (which sounded like sad, watery beeps, by the way). Shantae scrambled back to relevance in 2011 thanks to a strong sequel on the Nintendo DSi, then another great follow-up for the Nintendo 3DS in 2014.
Thanks to Wayforward's perseverance and the dedication of a small but passionate fanbase, Shantae is alive and thriving. It's appropriate that Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Wayforward wanted the chance to make the game, and fans wanted the chance to play it. In the end, we have a happy adventure that's hard to put down even when you're occasionally called on to perform tedious collect-a-thons.
Long-time Shantae fans (cough cough me) might be a bit disappointed to learn Half-Genie Hero is more of a soft reboot than a sequel to Pirate's Curse. It means some of the previous game's more interesting plot points and character development are dropped in favor of a more generic narrative about Ultimate Evils. On the plus side, tons of familiar faces still make appearances, including Techno Baron, Ammo Baron, Squid Baron, Sky, Bolo, Uncle Mimic, and the perpetually irate pirate Risky Boots (who has her own campaign). In any case, Shantae's main mission is familiar: Sequin Land is in trouble, and as the region's guardian genie, she needs to get off her tush and defend it.
Like other games in the Shantae series, the levels that make up Half-Genie Hero emphasize depth over spread. There are only a handful of levels, but each one contains a variety of segments, gimmicks, and piles of collectable items, spells, and relics.
Said relics, when combined with a transformation, give Shantae the power she needs to explore every corner of her world. Yes, Shantae's transformations are back after a notable absence in Pirate's Curse. With a flip of her hips, the genie can turn into a monkey (for easy climbing and jumping), an elephant (for barrier-destroying strength), a mermaid (for swimming), a harpy (for free-flying), and many more creatures large and small. Shantae's transformations open up well-travelled levels in clever ways. For example, decorative wall-etchings become actual mazes when Shantae enters them as a wee mouse.
Though relics let Shantae execute different kinds of attacks while she's transformed, her main methods of attack include her magic and her signature pony tail whip. Both can be upgraded in Scuttle Town's shop, as can Shantae's defense.
As you might expect from an adventure about a pretty lady who executes foes with her hair, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has a surreal sense of humor. This is a game where an elderly blobfish wearing a "FOXY GRANDMA" hat eventually winds up living in Scuttle Town. The game's weird characters and amusing dialogue serve it well when you're tasked with collecting piles of items for your friends, your Uncle, and Scuttle Town's denizens. On one hand, the scavenger hunts feel like a thinly-veiled way to pad out the title. On the other hand, it is fun to go back and try out your new transformations in previously-cleared settings – and the item tally that marks the entrance of each stage certainly appeals to the monkey-lizard part of your brain that drives you to finish stuff.
It's nice to have Shantae back, and its doubly nice to have her transformations back, too. Don't go into Half-Genie Hero expecting wild innovation, but do expect solid platforming fun, incredible graphics, a great soundtrack, and a few laughs.
Veteran Shantae composer Jake Kaufman is back, and we're all richer for it. As in previous Shantae games, Half-Genie Hero sounds like Kaufman took the music from Disney's "Aladdin," put it in a jar with some techno beats, and shook it all up. It's wild, and it works.
I should go ahead and tell you that Shantae: Half-Genie Hero looks amazing. Maybe you noticed those lush backgrounds and butter-smooth animations on your own, though. Our girl has come a long way since her humble and heavily-pixelated start on the Game Boy Color.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero spent a lot of time cooking, but the end product is well-built. There are occasional tedious moments, and the story's disjointed at times (which can be chalked up to the fact some characters and chapters were added as Kickstarter campaign stretch goals), but it's still a must-play for Shantae fans. And if you're not a Shantae fan … what's wrong with you?