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Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero
Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Platformer (2D)

Graphics & Sound:
WayForward Technologies is one of those special development houses. While their games are excellent across the board, it's their intentions that make them truly special. As video games evolve and grow as a medium, they become capable of delivering more and more unique experiences. But if you ask anyone who's been around during the 1980s and 1990s, there's often a nostalgic yearning for the simplicity of the past. Look at the runaway success of the NES Classic. There's a market here. WayForward Technologies seeks to deliver retro-flavored experiences, but unlike Nintendo, they refuse to do so at the cost of ignoring three decades of progress in the industry. So theirs is the noble vocation of marrying the old with the new, delivering decidedly old-school thrills with a sprinkling of modern design philosophy. This is part of what makes the Shantae series so wonderful. The mere fact that the series is now on its fourth installment is enough to give me faith in an industry that has started to grow complacent as of late. Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero is a must-play for anyone who loves retro-style action platforming and wants something new.

If you've been with the series since its inception, Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero's visuals will probably either thrill you or disappoint you. I'm somewhere in the middle; while the new three-dimensional HD art style is positively stunning, there was a certain charm to the pixel art that contributed quite a bit to the series' sense of identity. It was as if it was proudly stating that it was a Super Nintendo game that just so happened to be on modern systems. But regardless of your feelings toward this shift, there's no denying that this is a beautiful game. The use of color, expressive animations, and at times saccharine cute sensibilities are almost overwhelming. I'd compare it to a Saturday morning cartoon, but that wouldn't be enough. You just have to see it for yourself. It's absolutely bursting at the seams with personality and attitude. You can see it in every frame of animation -- particularly that of the title character. Shantae is in total control of every square inch of her hourglass figure, and every gyration, every stray jiggle is absolutely intentional on her part. It verges on fanservice at times, but when you take into account that it's essentially a Western take on Japanese anime, it's justified.

1/2 Genie Hero's sound design doesn't quite match its visuals, but it's still excellent. There are some mixing problems beneath the surface; voice tracks are almost completely drowned out by the music, and there's no way to remedy this. It's by no means a dealbreaker (voice work as a whole is incredibly sparse), but it's certainly noticeable. What little voice work is here is passable, much like most of the stuff you'd find in a cartoon from the early 90's. The only thing I don't like about it is something I've always found problematic: Shantae's cringe-worthy catchphrase "Ret-2-Go!" I simply can't hear that phrase without being reminded of Jamie Foxx in drag. Otherwise, there's a bit of campiness and some overacting, but it knows what it's doing. Thankfully, the soundtrack is an unqualified success. A handful of stereotypical Middle Eastern motifs and a driving beat accompanies the on-screen action, and considering that Shantae is a magical genie whose magic is intertwined with her belly dancing skills, it's completely appropriate.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero features an underlying plot thread that drives a central mystery; Shantae hears a voice calling out to her as she sleeps in her Scuttle Town abode. It warns of a great evil that only Shantae will be able to vanquish, then vanishes. But then life kind of gets in the way, as it always does. 1/2 Genie Hero is more of a series of unrelated vignettes than one straight-shot adventure, and it's all the better for it. After all, this universe is populated by some really weird characters, and you can't really incorporate all of them into one big serious epic tale.

Kudos to WayForward for sticking with the formula that can be credited with much of Shantae's success. It wears its inspirations proudly, but it's much more than the sum of its parts. There's some Metroid in there, a bit of Castlevania (pre-Symphony of the Night), a pinch of Mega Man, and a platforming model that would make Mario himself proud.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero features the same classic Scuttle Town hub where you can purchase upgrades, visit townsfolk, and take on quests. Shantae's circle of friends hasn't changed a whit since the beginning, although some nemeses have evolved into tenuous alliances. So if you're a fan of the likes of Bolo, Uncle Mimic, Sky, Wrench, Rottytops, Risky Boots, and the numerous Barons of Sequin Land, rest assured that they haven't split the scene.

Stages are initially conquered in a prescribed order, but once you've finished each one for the first time, you can return at any time. This is where 1/2 Genie Hero's gameplay is at its finest, because it's the primary strength of the series as a whole. Your first time through, you'll notice several blocked routes and lots of special items that Shantae can't reach. On top of that, there are even more that you won't even think to look for. As you progress through the game, acquiring dances and magic spells, you'll be hit with several "eureka!" moments in which you'll realize you can now reach those items. It's a completionist's dream.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero features its share of challenging moments, but unlike many of the games it seeks to emulate, it doesn't seem interested in inflicting any undue pain on the player. It generally does a fine job of balancing its platforming, combat, and light environmental puzzles, but as a rule of thumb, each first attempt at each level is by far the most difficult. This is partly due to the fact that you go in blind on each one, completely unaware of what the game is going to spring on you next. But the rest is contingent on how much you've powered up Shantae herself. Base level attributes such as attack power and speed can be upgraded with incremental purchases that aren't time-sensitive in the least bit. So if you want to, you can simply farm gems in the first level over and over until you're able to afford every relic the Item Shop has to offer.

1/2 Genie Hero's most challenging segments are its boss battles and one-off watercooler moments. Boss fights are exciting and vibrant, and while most of them aren't terribly challenging, it's still a pleasure to puzzle out how to take them down. Most levels feature a high-speed interlude at some point to keep the adventure well-paced. These are generally solid, but if you're an avid Trophy hunter, some of these will infuriate you.

Game Mechanics:
Again, if you're concerned that the change in visual style has in any way affected the core of Shantae's gameplay, don't be. The transition has been completely seamless. You run, you jump, you whip your hair, you cast magic spells, you belly dance, you transform into one of a variety of sickeningly cute animal forms. It's a winning amalgamation of sound mechanics, excellent level design, and pure charm. And none of it lets up at any point over the course of the adventure.

Most of your time will be spent progressing through standard action platforming levels. Enemies abound, but there's rarely any method to their madness, making them rather easy to farm for the gems and other assorted loot they drop. Shantae's offensive capabilities often extend to exploration. Certain areas can only be accessed when in a certain form; you'll know if you have the right dance or not, however.

In between each level is a substantial interlude in Scuttle Town, where Shantae will be set on a series of fetch quests and item hunts before she ends up having to explore and fight through a new area. Some players will find these tedious, but it's always been an integral part of the series, and omitting it would deprive it of some of its character.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero pays serious homage to retro gaming as a whole. That being said, the game will double back and go the extra mile to remind you that it's its own thing. And I love everything about it, except that freaking catchphrase.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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