WayForwards Genie of the Lamp – The History of Shantae

Indie studios work hard on producing original franchises but none produced the amount of games like WayForward has. The developer worked on a lot of licensed projects in the 90’s but they came across a promising concept; a half-genie who can attack with her hair and morph into animals by dancing. While they continued making other projects, work on an original franchise was born in the form of Shantae.

Today we will take a little history tour about this half-genie hero and discuss the long history behind the franchises numerous releases.

The Origins of the Genie – Release & Origins of a GBC Swan Song

WayForward has been making games for years, but they started out producing projects for hire. Starting out in 1990 by Voldi Way, the studio continued making games for different publishers with modest success. But one day Matt Bozon’s wife Erin Bell created the first design for Shantae.

Erin got a flash of inspiration while coming back from her camp counsellor days, and created the character, naming her “Shantae” after one of the campers, as well as developed her dancing abilities. Matt later asked her what she would come up with if she was to create a video game character, and she introduced him to Shantae. Matt liked the idea and fleshed out the mythology and cast of the game. Erin also imagined that the character could summon or charm animals by belly-dancing. This would later become the basis for the transformation dances.

With this inspiration, work started on the project. It was designed for the Game Boy Color considering it’s large install-base. Getting a partnership with Capcom for a retail run, they released the original Shantae in 2002. It impressed those that played with strong level design, some of the best visuals/animation ever seen on the GBC and the cast was well written & sharp. People enjoyed the character of Shanate too, being a new positive female icon in video games. But, the game did not sell very well. Why was that the case?

Three words; Game Boy Advance. With it releasing before Shantae’s launch, the market-share towards Game Boy Color games was very limited, even if the GBA supported the game through backwards compatibility. Interestingly enough, WayForward planed for this, as they had a special mode where if you placed the game inside a GBA, you unlocked some bonuses. These included a new color pallet across the entire game and a special Tinkerbat transformation where Shantae has the abilities of multiple forms at once (Spider, Monkey and Elephant).

This wasn’t enough to combat low sales and it cemented the series as a cult title that many enjoyed but few played. The impact of Shantae’s poor sales will eco into the series future in trying to get out of the bottle for a few years sadly.


Efforts to Re-Open a Sealed Lamp – Series Canceled Productions 

WayForward continued getting work from third party publishers but they wanted to continue the Shantae series. They tried to pitch a game called ‘Shantae Advance’ which was going to be grand sequel to the original.

Shantae Advance was planned to consist of eight chapters of gameplay split over seven towns, six islands, and six labyrinths; this was estimated to take about twenty hours to play through. In addition to the regular gameplay, six minigames and a multiplayer battle mode were planned. Four of the labyrinths were supposed to be based on the four seasons; the first labyrinth, which was featured in the demo, was based on autumn, and its hub room was filled with falling autumn leaves.

The story of Shantae Advance involved Risky having her Tinkerbats dig under Sequin Land, and putting a pillar in the middle, allowing the land to be rotated. This could be used in the gameplay to rotate the world, lining up the foreground with objects in the background, thus giving the player access to new areas. New gameplay elements for Shantae Advance included the ability to move between the foreground and background, swimming, flying in 3D on the back of Sky’s bird Wrench, and some new forms for Shantae to transform into; these included a new version of the spider, a crab, and a mermaid.

Sadly, it was never picked up by a publisher due to the low sales of the original Shantae. Thankfully we did see this in action in 2013, with WayForward releasing extensive footage of the pitch demo presented to publishers during the Kickstarter campaign of Half Genie Hero. 

This was a great to finally see in action and many elements seen in this pitch will carry over to Shantae’s adventures on DSi Ware. Another game was considered for the Nintendo DS in the series as well.

Inspired by the DS announcement, the team assembled a 13-page treatment for a “Shantae: Risky Waters” DS game. The game had players rafting in 3-D on the DS’ top screen while simultaneously controlling a bird on the bottom screen that was flying over a 2-D version of the river. Another phase of the game had the player digging caves in the bottom screen, while characters battled on the upper screen. They pitched it around, but no publisher took them up on the offer.

From MTV.com

So with two pitches for the series not picked up, the genie went back into the bottle for a few years.


The Return of Shantae! – Risky’s Revenge Releases on Nintendo DSi Ware

Nintendo launched the Nintendo DSi in March 2006 and WayFoward took a close eye on the console. They were making various DS projects already, so they tried a few experiments whenever they had free time in-between work. One such experiment was Mighty Flip Champs.

Initially, the developers were contemplating the inclusion of enemies and items. The developers chose to leave enemies out of the game, feeling that if they had enemies, it would make the game too complicated. However, Matt commented that if players responded well to the game, they may implement enemies in a clever way next time.

While the difficulty level was not designed to cater to younger or inexperienced players, the developers designed earlier levels to be more forgiving. They had younger players play it, and were surprised as to how far they could make it through. One of the developers, Mark Bozon, commented that it was as difficult to create the levels as it was for players to beat them, adding that they have to build the concept, account for player movements, and then ensure that players cannot exploit any mistakes in the level design

This project was a fun challenge, as they wanted to make a smaller game all the while tacking issues like small file size. It was a project to gauge interest in future productions on the platform, and after getting success, they finally opened up the genie in the lamp.

One year after Mighty Flip Champs released, WayForward announced that Shantae was coming back! Risky’s Revenge was announced for DSi Ware and WiiWare, releasing that year. It was a project that took concepts and elements from Shantae Advance to revive the series for modern gamers. The game returned to the Metroidvana style that the original had, fixed various issues from the original (more buttons made dancing easier, a map was on the lower screen, etc) and critics loved the game. It was a great success for WayForward and allowed them to continue work on the Shantae series.

Sadly a major issue happened with Risky’s Revenge; it felt incomplete. WayForward stated that the game was going to be episodic during it’s development and said that they changed plans mid-development to make it a complete game. Most likely a mixture between the very small file size limits of DSi Ware and focus on other projects, Risky’s Revenge felt incomplete to some. Despite that, it is regarded as a quality title in the series.


Adventure Awaits – Pirates Curse Development

Announced boldly in a 2012 Nintendo Power issue, Shantae was off on a new adventure in 2011 with the announcement of Shantae & the Pirates Curse. This game was going to shift the formula a bit and have Shantae not her genie powers and instead use pirate equipment. The reason? In Risky’s Revenge she loses her powers at the games end, resulting her becoming fully human.

It was a mix up that promised a larger game experience with more content, tighter level design and more. WayForward worked hard on this project for many years, with it releasing in 2014 on Nintendo platforms with release on other systems across 2015. The final result? One of the series strongest games.

I covered my thoughts on this game in detail with my review but I greatly enjoyed this game for everything it does. My introduction to the series started here, with my enjoyment of this title pushing me to try the series other games. I wasn’t alone in loving this game, many others did as well. Critics and gamers alike greatly enjoyed the game for being packed with content, having beautiful sprite visuals and overall being a strong experience.

WayForward wasn’t just working on this project through, as they had another game in the series in production.


Kickstared Half-Genie Hero – Shantae’s Debut on HD Consoles

In 2013, WayForward launched the Kickstarter for a game called Shantae: Half Genie Hero. This was the first Kickstarter the developer ever held but despite that, WayForward did a great job managing the campaign. Being clear to backers with various updates on a consistent basis, detailing platforms supported day-one, not having platforms locked behind stretch goals, and having gameplay shown in the announcement trailer; it was a confident game pitch.

Many were willing to support WayForward right away, as the past work in not only the Shantae series but with works like WayForward’s Adventure Time games and Ducktails Remastered ensured that they produce quality software. The game hit full funding with many of it’s stretch goals hit. Not all of them were hit sadly, like voice acting and two extra chapters, but the game was in development starting 2014 once they closed backer donations from PayPal.

WayForward was able to get a publisher for the game in 2015 through XSEED Games and the game released December 2016 for various platforms. Like Pirates Curse, I greatly enjoyed this game when I reviewed it. With more content on the way this year for Half Genie Hero, Shanate will continue dancing and going on new adventures in the future!


Sources

Kickstater, MTV, Wikipedia


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