Hello, long time since I wrote here. Anyways, I managed to finish Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero last night. And for a game that started out great, one I’ve been excited to play (can’t say I’m the hugest Shantae or even Wayforward fan but I always enjoyed their games, and their great sprite work along with usual collaborator Jake Kaufman’s music), the last third of Shantae did just spend all the goodwill it accumulated in the first 2 thirds. It’s a problem that’s endemic of bad “Metroidvania” design, things that I sometimes think developers wrongly believe are what’s “fun” about Metroidvanias as a genre. Just to get the good stuff out of the way, I did really like the look and sound of the game (I’m writing this while listening to the OST). And the writing and story was good silly fun.
So like any Metroidvania, Shantae uses level design where you are hampered from progressing thru a level or a part of a level because of you not having the ability needed to get past an obstacle, whether it’s high ledges or underwater caverns or big blocks of rock. And you get the abilities needed via transformations dances, where Shantae can transform into all sorts of animals with a cute little dance. The problem can be probably summarized as “there are way too many transformations and progress-critical upgrades”. The game has about 8 critical dancing transformations (there are 4 more but they’re mostly optional). So Shantae can transform into 8 creatures. But that’s not it. Each of those transformations has its own ability upgrade. So basically there are 16 progress-critical ability upgrades that Shantae needs to get to complete the adventure.
16 is a number and it doesn’t really on its own determine whether a metroidvania has enough progress-critical upgrades or not, but the way they handled them here does clearly show that they kinda over did it by about 5 to 6 or maybe more upgrades, so much so that some of the abilities have like super specific uses that are only used in literally 1 screen of the whole game. Take for example the crab and mermaid forms.
Shantae in her normal form can only swim on the surface of water. She can’t dive under. So one of the first transformations she gets is the crab form, where she be a crab and crawl around and jump underwater. Sound good. Then underwater you’ll find ledges that are too high for you to jump to. And soon you’ll get the mermaid dance, which lets you turn into a mermaid and swim freely underwater. Two forms that are underwater related? Doesn’t it sound redundant, and if the mermaid form makes you move freely, why ever turn into a crab? Well, the crab is much smaller than the mermaid form, so you can go into small crevices underwater, where you couldn’t, Ok. So you go into one and then you find seaweeds and you can’t progress cause guess what, the crab form needs an ability upgrade so you can use your little claws to snap seaweed. Why is a crab snapping its tiny claws considered such an extraordinary ability that needs to be a distinct upgrade you collect out of a hidden treasure chest? I don’t know. It sounds so rudimentary, like having one of the later abilities in a Castlevania game be “swinging a sword” or “punching” or “whipping”. But anyways, so now you can break any obstructions underwater? No. There are big rocks and you need to get an upgrade for the mermaid form to shoot bubbles, which can break them. Ok, is that all of the water-related abilities? Well no, in the last like 30 min of the game, you can the ability to awkwardly climb waterfalls (tho it is functionally more like you warp up to the top of a waterfall or the bottom. You don’t freely move).
And that’s the problem with having so many upgrades. The game splits-hairs on which specific ability can be used to access a specific place that 2 or 3 other abilities that do things similar don’t. Take the Spider-form. It allows you to shoot a web and cling to ceilings (not walls mind you. Spiders can’t do that you know). Taken on it’s own it seems like a fine ability. But it might be the most redundant ability because you can jump higher and climb walls with the monkey form, or outright fly with the harpy form, or use the bat form to float (not freely fly tho, that’s for the harpy form. Splitting hairs!). If Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero didn’t have all these other more immediate abilities, the spider form might be used more. But there aren’t many instances where it is needed unless it’s a high narrow spike-filled pathway that’s too small for the harpy to fly thru, and is inaccessible to the monkey due to spikes, and that there isn’t a nearby ledge that’s on the same height where the bat form can float thru safely, nor is there a nearby wall where the monkey form can climb and then spring over to the other side with the “monkey bullet” ability. Only then (that is if the ceiling isn’t filled with spikes) is the spider ability “useful”.
It also means a lot of the abilities aren’t useful in the “general action-platformy parts” aside from the obstacles that are put there specifically for you to use those abilities. The only 2 are the monkey form, which makes you move faster, be smaller, and jump higher than the human form, although you lose any attack ability. And the harpy form unlimited flight, always useful in platformers (although you only get it really late in the game because of how obviously useful flying is in a platformer). None of the other abilities are useful for taking out large hordes of enemies, nor get thru a level more quickly, or to do more damage against bosses (you’d think the Elephent charge attack might do a lot of damage vs bosses but from what I tried it doesn’t and it’s unsafe and you’re best staying in human form and spamming scimitar magic while attacking). So for the most part you may as well be just carrying around a set of very specific metaphorical “colored keys” that are only useful when you find the coordinating metaphorical “locked door” for you to use. And more often than not, after the excitement of opening those doors, you’ll more likely find another door behind that needs a different colored key that you most likely don’t have and need to do a bunch of backtracking and forthtracking 3 or 4 times in a stage doing tedious fetch quests of items that you can’t fetch because it requires an ability you get by finishing another fetch quest that you should have been doing first instead of this quest you’re doing.
I think Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero might be the ultimate argument of the banality of Metroidvania design if the only things a new power-up grants you is accessing tiny segments of a stage that only house either more locked doors, or another ability that then itself only grants you another tiny segment in another level with more locked doors and colored keys. And as a fan of metroidvanias, I believe this genre is more fun and worthwhile and meaningful than that.