Interview: Shantae Co-Creator Matt Bozon Discusses the Series’ Future & Shantae in Super Smash Bros.
Even if you’ve never played a Shantae game, you’ve probably heard of her by now. Many were introduced to her through the successful Kickstarter for Half-Genie Hero in 2013. Even more got to play their first game in the series when last year’s Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse marked the series’ arrival on home consoles. Her international appeal was demonstrated when the series debuted in Japan last month. She’s set to be a crossover star with the recent announcement that she’ll be a guest character in Indivisible, and although it’s just a small sample from an unofficial poll, the largest Smash Bros. subreddit showed Shantae as the top contender to win the fighter ballot to be a DLC character and fight amongst Nintendo’s biggest names.
It wasn’t always that way, though. The first Shantae game was published by Capcom and came out in 2002 for the Game Boy Color. While it was well-regarded, its profits suffered from being introduced after the Game Boy Advance had already shifted a lot of the player base to the newer handheld. Shantae struggled to find a publisher afterwards, and it wasn’t until 2010 that an independently-developed sequel was made.
Shantae the character was created by Erin Bozon, while her husband Matt creates the virtual worlds for the belly-dancing genie to adventure through. I recently reached out to Matt to talk about the early struggles of the Shantae series and how he feels now that the series has finally gained its footing.
TMS (Chris Isaac): To start off, Shantae interests me a lot, because she’s a modern day mascot in an era where they’re less common. Why do you think there aren’t as many influential mascots nowadays like Sonic and Mario were?
Matt Bozon: When I think of video game mascots, I usually think of characters whose designs are based on their gameplay. Sonic runs and rolls into a pointy destructive ball. Crash Bandicoot spins into a tornado. Mario is a blocky all-purpose shape that stomps or pounds. Shantae is just a whip or a yo-yo headed character. I’d argue that like those other characters, her look in the beginning was less important than her function. But with a lot of mascots, time passes, and the character comes to represent either a certain kind of gameplay, or a promise of a certain quality bar. These days, I don’t think game companies are as likely to rally behind a mascot and declare, “We are this, take it or leave it!” … or at least I don’t see it as often. Lately, I see companies being shaped by the industry around them and how buyers respond to their products. It’s a more reactionary, less visionary approach. I don’t believe that every company needs a video game mascot, but I do think there is a stronger bond between companies and fans when they do have them.
TMS: On that same note, looking at the underutilized mascots from Rare or how Mega Man fans keep waiting for a new title, do you feel the role of game mascots has lost value?
Matt: No, I think the value is still there. But sometimes fans value a property higher than the publisher does, which creates tension between the game company and the most devoted consumers. Some brands lose value as they grow. Or the value is diluted. Mega Man is a good example of this. We all want more Mega Man, but which one? 8 bit? A modern platformer? Legends style? Battle Network? And which sub-brand… will it be Classic, X, Zero, or Legends? If it didn’t matter, we’d all be happy for Mega Man to keep making cameos in other games – but we’re not happy with that. To me, Mega Man games are defined by the theme of the 8 levels. This informs who the bosses are, the powers Mega Man collects, and the hazards that each power negates. In that sense, the interpretation of mascots belongs in the hands of game designers. Taken out of the hands of the designer, they become a “corporate mascot”, kind of like Mickey Mouse in the ’80s until he returned to the screen much later. But saying that a company can’t mold their own mascot to suit their needs is also frustrating. With Contra 4, we sought to clarify what a “Contra” game is. We called it “Contra 4” instead of “Contra 12” because the series needed someone to plant a flag, like a rallying point for the series to tell others what the brand was meant to be. This was a very important to Konami when developing that title, and it took some interpretation, some buy in from past developers, quite a bit of artistic license and a very, very large amount of trust.
TMS: I’m sure the Shantae series struggling to find a publisher in earlier years was aggravating, but with the rise of indie gaming, do you feel it wound up being the best path for the series?
Matt: Yeah, those days were really hard and we were ready to give up at times. But Shantae eventually made her way into the gaming ecosystem against all odds, and fans have embraced her and given her a sort of “last of the 8-bit” classic status. Having that history, coupled with the ability to self-publish really helps her stand out. Today the struggle is different – Indies can make and publish their own games, but getting them to stand out in a crowd is the latest challenge. So, I’d have to say that the struggle was worth it, just to help her have an interesting past and attachment to that classic era.
TMS: You’ve named Castlevania and Aladdin as inspirations for Shantae’s gameplay style and environment, but are there any characters that inspired her specifically?
Matt: Definitely. Castlevania, Mega Man, and Zelda inspired her gameplay. But Erin, who designed the character in the early ’90s, was inspired by I Dream of Jeanie. The poses, dance sequences, and hair flip when performing magic had something to do with it. We were at CalArts at the time, and a lot of us were also discovering shows from Japan like Nadia, Ranma ½, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki which were not well known in the US back then. Many of these shows featured female lead characters, and it seemed natural that gaming could stand to have another female mascot in addition to Alisia Dragoon, the Guardian Legend, and Athena! So, there was a lot happening in the world of entertainment, and Shantae was a product of many inspirations!
TMS: Let’s get to some fun questions!
I think it’s cool and unique you made Shantae a belly dancer (I myself tried a belly-dancing lesson once, but I doubt my moves were anywhere near as smooth as Shantae’s). At the same time, I’m sure people wonder why you decided to make dancing such a big part of her character?
Matt: Erin’s idea was to have two main moves. One was whipping with her hair, and the other was dancing to either charm creatures, or transform into them. Music and dance were not big parts of gaming in the early ’90s, so we thought we could introduce something new. Everything was sprite art back then, and it looked very cute – that was our intent anyway. We wanted to make something delightfully different that would surprise and challenge player’s ideas of what could be a “super power”.
TMS: Following up on that: there’s going to be another genie in Half-Genie Hero…any chance of us seeing a dance off?
Matt: Well… I don’t think the rival genie will be a dancer, per se. But there is a Backer Enemy that has something to do with dancing. We’ll be putting the finishing touches on that character soon… it should be a lot of fun and we can’t wait to show it off!
TMS: Where did the phrase “Ret-2-Go” come from?
Matt: Ha ha, that’s a weird one. It started with the animation clean up team on The Iron Giant. During production of that movie, a good friend of ours used it as an obnoxious way to break for lunch. We’d hang out on the weekends, and it spread over to the Shantae team and into the script. No one ever thought this was even slightly cool. I keep using it because it’s just so bad. I like the idea that Shantae thinks it’s really awesome to say, but everyone else knows it’s the worst catch-phrase ever. I imagine her friends can’t stand it.
TMS: Is it canon that Wobble Bell the dog is dead since he’s in the Village of Lost Souls in Pirate’s Curse’s end credits?
Matt: Ha ha, oh no… poor WobbleBell! Well, let’s just say he’s lost, not dead. There’s got to be a way out of the Village of Lost Souls, right? The real question is whatever happened to that monkey, Chewbonky Kong?
TMS: The girls Shantae meets at Saliva Island in Pirates Curse are never named in-game. However, they’ve since become known as Twitch and Vinegar outside of the game. Are those now their official names, and if so, were those always their planned names?
Matt: Yes, those are the official names. There is a line I accidentally omitted when editing dialogue, where the Ammo Baron introduces them by name. I was going for a very G1 Transformers character intro, ha ha. But I must have broken the text somehow just before the game went live. The planned name was always “Twitch”. It’s a long story, but Twitch is actually the original “Sky” design from back in the ’90s. For the first game I changed her design a bit, and later changed the name Twitch into Sky. Many years later for Pirate’s Curse I decided to bring Twitch back. But I split her into two characters – Twitch and Vinegar. So in some alternate reality, Shantae’s best friend is actually Twitch. Weird huh?
TMS: I think Shantae as a female lead brings some unique positivity to the protagonist role, so I had a few questions concerning her from that standpoint:
While female leads are less prominent than male ones, what’s even less prominent are female leads like Shantae who are openly very feminine. She’s not some tough as nails badass. She’s this compassionate young woman who enjoys dancing, wears her emotions on her sleeve (err…if she had sleeves), and kicks ass just because she’s so passionate about helping her friends. In an era where so many people seem to want gritty and dark characters, what made you go with this light-hearted, unapologetically girly character?
Matt: Shantae was created by my wife, and it began when I asked her what she would make given the opportunity to design a video game character. We were just making conversation. She disappeared, and I found her later working on drawings of Shantae in dance poses and hair whip poses. I asked her a bunch of questions about the character, what was going on in the drawings, what the game might play like. I suppose it matters that I didn’t create Shantae, I was introduced to her, and that makes her feel very real. I developed the cast and world around the character to create a contrast… as though Erin’s character is trapped in a world of my weird humor and imagination. Shantae’s personality has developed a lot since then, but she’s still the same in many ways… sweet, innocent, willful, and also fallible.
TMS: In Pirate’s Curse there’s a joke about how Shantae wouldn’t make a good role model because of her temper and outfit. Some unfamiliar with Shantae might look at her and just dismiss her saying, “oh, a sexy belly dancer”, but I think she brings a lot of positivity to the table for female characters. She passes the Bechdel Test with ease. She’s brave and capable with or without her powers. Her being a genie never makes her subservient to anyone. And though her outfit is outlandish, her “sexiness” at least serves an in-game purpose by empowering her through the abilities belly dancing and her different outfits grant her.
Matt: The game has a predominantly female cast of heroes and monsters, and yes, many of them would lead a lad to fits of drooling. But while the costume designs do get attention, they don’t define any of these characters (except maybe Risky Boots, who is extremely vain). The girls are having the fun here. They’re also taking the risks, advancing the plot, beating the bad guy (well, and are the bad guy) and save the day. So the role model thing was kind of a self-inflicted jab, just for a humorous fourth wall break. I actually think Shantae would make an excellent role model. Even so, if we ever adapted Shantae specifically for kids, we’d want to make some changes.
TMS: With all that in mind: Characters like Miss Piggy have been shown speaking in support of feminism, and praising proud, powerful women who struggle against preconceived ideas. So Shantae’s got a lot of positivity going for her, and Sequin Land has a lot of strong, take charge women. Would you say there are feminist values on display in the series and with Shantae as a character?
Matt: Ha ha, well… In the Shantae universe, the women are typically running the show, and the guys are generally either very stupid, confused, wrong, or are monsters. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had excellent male role models in my life, but I really like depicting the Shantae world in this way for some reason. If anything, I need to write some strong male characters!
TMS: Lastly for the topic of Shantae as a woman: you told Girl Gamer you had “many, many battles early on and lost” with publishers wanting a male lead instead. What reasons did publishers give for wanting that change? And why was it so important to WayForward to stand by your girl Shantae?
Matt: The most common reaction to Shantae back in the ’90s was “Hey, great looking game. But who do the guys play as?” Like, we must have messed up and put the “Player 2” character in the “Player 1” spot. It felt like our work was being dismissed for no good reason, and it made no sense to me. But eventually I came to understand that these people genuinely knew their markets, and that the game would probably not sell, and that was even more irritating. So, I feel like Shantae had to exist, even if it was just to reach out and see if there was an audience reaching back.
TMS: Finally, with the Shantae series picking up so much steam lately, I had a few questions about the belly dancer’s future:
I’m sure you want to keep Half-Genie Hero pretty hush-hush for major announcements, but can you say anything about what players could expect story-wise? There’s been the mystery about Shantae’s parents for a while now. Are we going to learn any more about her history or childhood?
Matt: The storyline of Half-Genie Hero touches on this a little bit. But I want to keep some questions unanswered, because they are important motivators for Shantae’s character. I think her mother would be developed as a character before her father would be.
TMS: The Kickstarter campaign for Half-Genie Hero did pretty well. But people are also curious about that content that didn’t get funded. If the game does well, is it possible those unfunded chapters could become DLC?
Matt: If we sold a lot of copies, and there was a lot of clamor for more DLC, that’s a possibility. The game lends itself to a lot of expansion if that’s what fans want! There will already be a ton of content with all of the stretch goal that were reached… costumes, extra characters, and Risky Boots Mode! There’s a ton of game there, but there’s always room for more!
TMS: Speaking of DLC, I’m sure you were happy seeing so many people who want Shantae as DLC for Super Smash Bros. If #ShantaeForSmash wins the Smash ballot, or you’re approached about her being included regardless, could she really be in the game? If so, how do you picture her Final Smash attack?
Matt: I’m really excited about Shantae being a possibility for Smash! How cool would that be? Amazing, right? I think stylistically she’d be a good fit, being something that exists somewhere between Mega Man and Peach. I’d hope she could recover in Harpy form, or maybe pull off some incredible dance and transformation for her Final Smash! I would love to see this happen, and if not now, then some time in the future!
TMS: Lastly, I asked you about mascots earlier. I think it’d be fair to say Shantae has become WayForward’s mascot, and I feel like she’s becoming a mascot for indie games in general. What does it mean to you to see your character attaining this status?
Matt: It’s really cool. I like that Shantae is a symbol for never giving up. When making a game that deviates from the norm, you won’t find any data points to help prove that your game is going to sell, or to reduce the risk for you. But you make the game anyway because you believe in it! That is the indie spirit in a nutshell. So yes, I think she makes a great Indie mascot!
TMS: Oh, and feel free to plug any new or upcoming projects to close things out! I’m sure fans are excited for anything WayForward’s got going on. And if you wanted to throw in a solid release date for Half-Genie Hero, well I’m sure no one would complain about that either…
Matt: We just released our latest original game, Mighty Switch Force! Academy on Steam, and it’s a blast to play alone or in 4 player mode. So please check that out while waiting for more Shantae! Speaking of which, we should have some information soon about Risky’s Revenge on PS4 in Europe, and Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for PS4 and XB1 to get people worked up for the release of Half-Genie Hero!
Chris Isaac is a pop culture and fiction writer from Philadelphia whose work has appeared in such places as the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA TODAY College. If staying up to date on his missteps in video games, stories about pirates, and pictures of a chubby albino ferret interests you, you should follow him on Twitter.
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