Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.
The Game Boy Advance was an absolute beast when it came to reviving beloved 16-bit genres and franchises. Metroid gained a new lease on life, as did F-Zero and even Castlevania. Beyond just paying homage to the past, the SNES-esque hardware also gave life to a lot of new IPs as well. One that stood out critically, but not commercially, was Lady Sia. In many ways, Lady Sia would be right at home with the indie game movement that’s been going on for the past few years. In that sense, the GBA’s library feels like a precursor to it since that, like the current indie scenes, took well-worn genres and tried some new things with them that were beloved – but still fell under the radar sales-wise.
Sia isn’t your usual protagonist – she’s unikable at points and a bit of a bully. That makes her a bit more amusing to play as, however, helping her stand out from most females in gaming. The story is told via cutscenes, which were one of the things the GBA could do fairly well that the SNES rarely used. Sia is thrown into jail to start the adventure and you escape thanks to an unknown ally. Throughout the game, dialogue exchanges and more action explain who’s here and why they’re involved. It’s a functional plot, but pales in comparison to how the game plays. Sia generally controls fairly well, and attacks with both a blaster and a sword. There’s a bit of Metal Slug’s rescuing system in place too, only with it now adding to your level-ending total instead of giving you an in-game boost.
Your primary attack is the sword and it has a reasonable range. Unlike the first Shantae, where your basic attack had a super-small range, the sword gives you a fighting chance against most enemies. Jumping adds a bit of range as well and brings about its own challenge. Sia’s shoes must have grease or maybe some leftover ice on them because she is quite the slippery ass-kicker. It has some rough edges when compared to super-smooth games like the Mega Man X and Super Mario Bros. games, but does feel rewarding with each screen you pass. In that sense, it’s a bit like Mega Man — since that had a more deliberate pace to it, but with a bit more style and finesse.
Beyond regular action-platforming, you’ve also got button-mashing sections. Some take the form of air races, while others are timing-based boss battles. You can also move around environments using gusts of air, buckets to drop to new areas, or ziplines to quickly get around from place to place. When things work well, these sections can be an absolute blast. The game’s biggest problem is that while the action works perfectly, the platforming never quite gels like you want it to. You’ll go from an action-heavy portion and kick ass before going to a platform-heavy area and fall to your doom.
Lady Sia’s levels are fairly diverse. You’ve got underground areas to explore, a sky stage, flame-filled locales, villages and beautiful waterfront locations to kill baddies in. Enemy selection is surprisingly varied, and you’ll destroy enemies as small as a mouse to as large (and ridiculous) as a giant trident-wielding shark/man hybrid. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of – or dreams depending on what floats your boat. Every animation is silky-smooth and they really went all out with the color gradients on display.
One of the GBA’s best features was taking 16-bit genres and making them look more beautiful than they could on that hardware thanks to having far more color. Here, you’ll see a lot of depth in the backgrounds and tons of shading. It’s something you rarely saw in the 16-bit era beyond arcade games, and it has helped this game age quite well from an artistic perspective. Sadly, the music is truly god-awful. There isn’t much of it and the already-tinny GBA sound chip just blares out short loops of music that rarely fit the on-screen action.
Lady Sia is far from a perfect game, but it’s greater than the sum of its parts. In theory, a platform-heavy platformer with slippery controls wouldn’t be a hidden treasure of any kind. The resulting product, however, is well-worth the time of anyone who enjoys action-platformers. With Lady Sia being an underrated gem in its time, it would be perfect for a Wii U Virtual Console release. Better yet, a remake would allow the rough edges to be fixed up. With Shantae gaining such a long lifespan after the demise of her initial platform, it’s surprising to see that nothing has been done with Lady Sia since there’s a solid foundation here to build upon. Maybe someone can snatch up the IP and do it justice. Until then, get a Retron5 and get the game – it’s one of the relatively few quality GBA games out there going for under ten dollars.