Home » A Hair-Whipping Legacy: An Interview with ‘Shantae and the Seven Sirens’ Director Matt Bozon

A Hair-Whipping Legacy: An Interview with ‘Shantae and the Seven Sirens’ Director Matt Bozon

by Campbell Gill

Not many independent games have as much of a history as the Shantae series. Long before the indie boom of the late 2000s, WayForward‘s hair-whipping heroine has been an indie icon since her first appearance on the Game Boy in 2002. Now, eighteen years later, that legacy continues with the release of the fifth entry in the franchise, Shantae and the Seven Sirens.

After first releasing episodically on Apple Arcade, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is seeing its full console release next month. Given the heritage behind the series, it’s only fitting that this latest game would release in time for WayForward’s own 30th anniversary. And according to Seven Sirens’ director, it represents something that he has long wanted to achieve with the series.

“I’ve wanted to do a Shantae sunken city game for a while, probably since we finished the Nintendo DSi game [Shantae: Risky’s Revenge],” says Matt Bozon, co-founder of WayForward and co-creator of the Shantae series. “There are many Shantae ideas hidden deep inside sketchbooks waiting for the right time to resurface, and it felt like the right time to dig into that story.”

“Development on Seven Sirens started right on the heels of the surprise freebie “Jammies Mode” for Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, around summertime in 2018. There was an exploratory phase where we added 4K tile support and worked out core concepts. Then, once we were up and running, it was about a year and a half of game-dev time.”

“Being game #5, we get to shake things up in an exciting way.”  

The Shantae series effectively has two gameplay styles. The first three games were designed with nonlinear structures that focused on exploration and gaining new abilities, whereas the last release, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, took a more linear and level-based approach. Now, Seven Sirens goes back to that traditional metroidvania style–so what inspired this return to form?

Bozon clarifies that “We figured there were two sets of players: there were the ones who knew about Shantae since Game Boy, and had probably played all three pixel games. And then there were the newer players who started the series with Half-Genie Hero around 2016. Half-Genie Hero, the fourth game, works very well as a get-to-know-ya game, allowing players to test the waters a bit. So, with all players knowing the Shantae basics, it felt like a good time to return to the action/adventure formula as a foundation and forge new paths the likes of which haven’t been seen since the third game.”

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

This has given the team at WayForward room to expand the series in new directions. “Now, for the very first time, Shantae is in a new land, with a new cast of characters, fighting enemies unlike what players have seen before. Even her transformations and abilities are themed to the new setting. Being game #5, we get to shake things up in an exciting way.”  

With this approach in mind, Shantae and the Seven Sirens features the same core gameplay that fans of the series have come to know and love. “Shantae games use jumping and hair-whipping as the basics. You power up Shantae by beating up monsters and finding treasure–gems–to spend on shop items. This way players can build out a version of Shantae that fits their play style; ranged, melee, defense, etc. On top of that, past games also add Belly Dance Transformations, which grant Shantae entirely new animal or mythological forms like monkey, elephant, mermaid, or harpy.”

This gameplay might sound familiar, but Bozon insists that it’s been developed to new levels that haven’t been seen yet in other Shantae games, along with a handful of entirely new ideas. “This time we added the Monster Card idea, which connects the monsters and locations to Shantae and her various forms and abilities. Players can skip the Monster Card concept entirely if they like. But by beating enemies, performing sidequests, and searching for hidden secrets, players can find cards that boost their abilities. For example, a player who only cares about speed can defeat a water-based enemy to get a card that grants faster swimming. A player who prefers to use fire-style magic can equip a card that lowers fire magic cost, and another that increases fire magic damage at the same time. It’s a fun system that offers a lot of ways to play, and replay, the game.”

As much as the gameplay has won players over, it is perhaps Shantae’s cast of characters that has kept fans coming back across the years. From the belly-dancing, purple-haired Shantae herself, to her undead bestie Rottytops, to the pirate captain antagonist Risky Boots–one need only briefly peruse the endless stream of fan art on social media to see how beloved all these characters are. Seven Sirens doesn’t look to be lacking in this department.

“We love the Shantae characters and universe,” Bozon says, “and adding new friends and enemies to the mix is incredibly fun. In this adventure, Shantae meets other Half-Genies like herself, and learns more about her place in the larger world. The other Half-Genies have completely different styles of magic and offer bonds with the island’s creatures. In time, Shantae will learn to fuse her Dance Magic with the magic of her new friends, and also how to transform instantly (no dancing required) into the creatures of the island. In addition to that, we have the new villains, the Seven Sirens, and the many aquatic creatures at their command. So we had a lot of new characters to design!”

While the core art direction remains similar to previous games, Seven Sirens takes a new stylistic approach to its character portrait art shown during dialogue. A wide variety of inspirations went into creating this new look. “To decide on a new illustration style, we did some exploration with artist KOU from Inti Creates, and compared Shantae’s current look against popular anime. Here in the West we were watching shows like My Hero Academia, Kaguya-sama: Love is War, THIGReincarnated as a Slime, Shield Hero, Konosuba, and Dr. Stone, and some of that influence crept in for sure. I think there is some Keeji MizoguchiI (Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai) influence on the eye shapes, if you look closely.”

“Typically I’ll do a first pass at new character designs in rough. Then it goes to either our staff sprite illustrators or over to KOU if it’s a portrait or box-style artwork. They take the rough ideas and make them, you know…look good! Then it’s back for comments, edits, and making sure they fit into the greater Shantae universe. We designed around 100 new characters for Seven Sirens, from enemies to NPCs and bosses!”  

“…every day we spent would be on a fresh new idea, not re-creating the same thing again from scratch.”

Fans following the series might notice a quicker turnaround for the release of Seven Sirens compared to previous games. While Half-Genie Hero was announced on Kickstarter in 2013 before finally releasing in 2016, this fifth game is seeing its full release just over a year after its initial reveal in early 2019. According to Bozon, this is because WayForward was able to build off work they’d done previously this time around.

“We wanted to make a much bigger game this time,” Bozon says. “But we also didn’t want players to have to wait five years between games. So we took a cue from the 2D Castlevanias and Mega Mans of the past, and built on many of the systems and assets we had from before. This way, every day we spent would be on a fresh new idea, not re-creating the same thing again from scratch.”

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

“For example, on the previous game, hand-animating Shantae in 2D (some frame by frame, some using Spine), tuning her mobility and hit boxes, world collision, sound effects and the visual effects took the better part of two years. We still had to re-create her basic mobility and several enemies in 4K, but it took less time overall. As a result, we were able to make a much bigger and more complex game that could ship this year, rather than a likely 2021-2022 timeframe.”

While the gameplay visuals might be reminiscent of Half-Genie Hero, one area of presentation that’s all-new for this entry is the animated cutscenes. For the first time in the series, Seven Sirens boasts anime-styled cutscenes throughout the whole adventure. Most significantly, the game’s intro is created by none other than the legendary creators of Kill la Kill and Promare, Studio TRIGGER.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

“WayForward had just finished 2D cutscenes for River City Girls,” Bozon says regarding the new animations, “and I was excited to try this approach for Shantae! Studio TRIGGER, who had some exposure to Shantae at TGS in the past, had just finished their work on their first feature film, Promare. We were fortunate enough to fill a gap in their incredibly busy schedule. Shantae creator Erin Bozon (Futurama) worked with Naoko Tsutsumi (Little Witch Academia) to create the incredible opening animation. Working with Studio TRIGGER was a dream come true, and I hope we get to do it again!”

Even if the road to release has seemed relatively quicker than previous games, that doesn’t mean that it’s been entirely without event. Shantae and the Seven Sirens was promised to release at the launch of Apple Arcade last year, but it wasn’t quite finished in time; this is what spurred the initial episodic release of Seven Sirens on that platform. “We had previously committed to be part of the Apple Arcade launch lineup. But when launch day came around, the back half of the adventure was still months away from completion. So we released the game in two parts rather than delay it.”

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

At the same time, this allowed Bozon and the WayForward team to make refinements to the game that might not have been possible otherwise. “While Part 1 was live, we were able to hear from fans and make many improvements to the game. As of right now, the Apple Arcade version has been updated to the full version, and the Part 1 and Part 2 distinction is no longer a thing. So, our apologies if that got confusing for a while! You can play the game today using the free Apple Arcade trial, or if you’re waiting for the console version, May 28th is coming up fast!”

Beyond that, development has been relatively smooth. This is the widest assortment of platforms that a Shantae game has released on at once, so optimizing the game to work equally well across a plethora of different formats and devices was a challenge. “It was pretty smooth. But I will say that getting a 16:9, 4K console game to fit into the various screen ratios of iOS was a challenge. Our engine team added the ability to adjust the screen ratio in real time, and the designers added or trimmed based on whichever simulated screen and level of horsepower the game was running on. The end result is beautiful, with full resolutions on iPad Pro (with Xbox or DualShock controller support), 16:9 on PS4 Pro running at 4K, and HD on Nintendo Switch–all at silky-smooth framerates!”

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

“After 30 years, we need a nap!”

In 2020, WayForward is celebrating its 30th anniversary. It might be easy to see Seven Sirens as a grand celebration in honor of this event, but for Bozon, it’s only the latest release in a hectic anniversary year. “I guess it shows how busy we are!” Bozon says. “2019 was insane with original titles that are still releasing from WayForward. We had River City Girls, Mighty Switch Force! Collection, Vitamin Connection, Spidersaurs, Cat Girl Without Salad: Amuse-Bouche, and now Shantae and the Seven Sirens – all original games in development at the same time.” As packed as this lineup is, Bozon nonetheless teases that “we haven’t even revealed everything yet! After 30 years, we need a nap!”

With such a legacy behind it, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is ready to make its big debut at last and continue WayForward’s push towards creating innovative games. From lovable characters to rock-solid gameplay, Shantae has already won fans over from around the world, and Seven Sirens looks to incorporate all the charm and polish that has made the series great over the years while adding ambitious ideas of its own.

“I hope all of you will enjoy Shantae and the Seven Sirens on console (May 28th) or Apple Arcade (right now)! And thank you for your patience and understanding while we put the final touches on the game. You can be sure everyone over here will be watching Twitch and YouTube, reading your comments, and waiting eagerly to hear from you! Stay safe and healthy!”

4 comments

Tim April 20, 2020 - 11:22 am

So why the heck wasn’t he asked about this game’s lack of full voice acting and amiibo support for the Switch version? Seriously this is about as standard and preconceived of an interview as you can possibly get. Creativity 0 across the board. What a joke. One that’s not even funny either.

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Tim April 20, 2020 - 2:30 pm

So why the heck wasn’t he asked about this game’s lack of full voice acting and amiibo support for the Switch version? I was hoping that the questions asked in this “interview” would be a little more creative cause right now it feels more like a giant ad then a real interview.

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Campbell Gill April 20, 2020 - 3:53 pm

Thanks for reading! I’m sorry I didn’t ask the exact questions you wanted, but when I interview game developers, my approach is to provide insight into the process that goes behind making their games. So that’s why my questions focused on the game’s mechanics, art, development, and release structure.

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Jack April 20, 2020 - 8:36 pm

Dude chill. NINTENDO doesn’t do amiibo support on most games anymore. And voice acting costs MONEY. Wayforward is a small indie developer, those funds will be better spent on other more important areas of development like art, level design, programming etc. Typical entitled moron on the internet who knows nothing about game development.

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