StarTropics
  • Genre:
    • Action Adventure
  • System:
    • NES
  • Developer:
    • Nintendo
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    • US 12/01/1990
    • UK 08/20/1992
Score: 80%

This review was published on 02/11/2017.

StarTropics is an overhead action adventure video game developed and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was originally released in North America on December 1, 1990, and Europe on August 20, 1992. Oddly enough, the game never came out in Japan, despite being developed there. The game was produced, written, and directed by Genyo Takeda of Nintendo, who also worked on the Punch-Out series. Released in the late 1980s, one of the most popular games on the NES was The Legend of Zelda, as it shook up the gaming world by being one of the first games to focus on exploration and adventure. As is usually the case with popular things, many imitators came along in an attempt to recreate that success. Strangely, one of those imitators came from Nintendo itself in the form of StarTropics, which is basically a Zelda clone with a tropical theme. Even the file select screen is nearly identical to the one in Zelda. There are some minute differences between this and Zelda, however, so it's not a complete rip off. Besides, you can't exactly rip yourself off, can you? Regardless, StarTropics is easily one of the best NES games out there.

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Instead of playing as a heroic elf-like lad named Link, StarTropics has you take on the role of an average teenage boy named Michael Jones, but his friends just call him Mike. Mike is a fifteen year old pitcher from Seattle, Washington, and his uncle is a famous archeologist named Dr. Steven Jones, though Mike calls him Uncle Steve. Even though they're family, Mike has never actually met his uncle before, but they keep in touch via the mail. One day, Mike receives a letter from his uncle inviting him to stay over at his laboratory on a C shaped island known as C-Island, where he's in search of some lost ruins in the Coral Sea. After a short helicopter ride, Mike lands on C-Island, but quickly discovers that his uncle is missing. Now it's up to Mike to begin a perilous quest in order to rescue his uncle and figure out the mysterious plot behind his disappearance.

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The game is divided into chapters, and each chapter has two distinct forms of game play, the first of which is referred to as the "Travel Stage" by the manual. These sections resemble the non-battle parts of role-playing games like Dragon Warrior, in that the graphics are really primitive, the sprites are tiny, and there's absolutely no action. For the most part, all you can do during these segments is use the d-pad to walk around, the A button to converse with non-playable characters, and the select button to see what chapter you're currently in. Like classic RPGs, these portions of the game consist of over world maps and villages to explore. Unlike RPGs, however, there are no random encounters or enemies to fight on the over world. The over world stuff is also fairly linear, usually just leading you straight to a village or building. Once in a village or village-like area, you talk to villagers to get clues on what to do next, and then you do it. Usually, it's a matter of talking to the right villager to unlock the path forward or advance the plot. It's at this point that you'll typically transition into the game's other, more appealing phase.

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After you make it to the end of a Travel Stage, you'll then arrive at what the manual calls the "Battle Stage." It's during the transition between these two phases that the game will automatically save your progress, which is convenient. Anyway, all the action happens during this portion of the game, and the graphics get a nice boost, with bigger sprites and better animations. If the file select screen didn't already tip you off, then it's here where you'll be convinced that this game is heavily inspired by Zelda. Almost all these sections take place in dungeons, where you control Mike in an overhead view as he kills enemies and solves puzzles in typical Zelda fashion. You still use the d-pad to control Mike here, but now the B button makes him attack stuff with his unlikely weapon of a yo-yo. However, unlike most Zelda games, but like Zelda II, you have limited lives and dying enough times to expend them all nets you a Game Over. A Game Over sends you all the way back to the beginning of the current action segment, making the game rather hard, especially later on.

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Unlike most of the standard Zelda games, but again like Zelda II, Mike can actually jump during the action segments by pressing the A button. Jumping is a little awkward, though. This is a tile based game, which means all the floor in the whole game is made up of tiles. Due to that, you can't walk or jump diagonally in this game, plus you can only jump over one tile at a time. Also, jumping over a tile is only possible if it's a pit, otherwise you'll simply jump in place. Further, some tiles are slightly elevated from the ground, and you can only get to and from them via jumping. This can be annoying when there's an entire room full of them, as you'll have to slowly jump around, one tile at a time. General movement is also weird, because quickly tapping a direction on the d-pad will make Mike face there without walking anywhere, so you have to hold the direction down long enough to actually make him move. This stubborn grid-like system takes some serious getting used to, as it restricts your freedom of movement considerably.

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Similar to Zelda, dungeons are the meat and potatoes of the game. You'll often be thrown into the typical Zelda-like scenario of getting locked in a room filled with enemies, and the only way out is to kill them all. Dungeons in StarTropics are a bit more focused on the action than the puzzle solving, but there are still occasional puzzles to solve. Most puzzles consist of jumping onto special elevated tiles until you trigger something, usually a switch, and then you have to step on that switch. If you step on an elevated tile that triggers something, the pressed tile will be marked with a comically large footprint for reference. The first dungeon of the game commits the cardinal design sin of tricking you into an instant death room, twice. There are absolutely no warnings, so it's unfair and quite uncharacteristic of Nintendo. While that may seem like a bad sign of things to come, this manner of trickery is quickly abandoned, and the dungeons are mostly fun when they aren't wretchedly difficult.

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Various helpful items are sometimes found inside dungeons. Some of the items are actually different weapons, and you switch between them by pressing the select button. Alternate weapons include stuff like baseballs, baseball bats, bolas, torches, slingshots, and even a powerful laser gun. Most of these weapons have more range and do more damage than your main one, so they're always good to have. There are also magic items that are accessible when you pause the game and press up or down on the d-pad, like a snowman that freezes all nearby enemies, life restoring potions, lanterns to light up dark areas, and a mystical rod that reveals ghosts. All these special weapons and magical items either have limited ammo or durability, so they can only be used a limited amount of times. However, all special weapons and magic items are automatically discarded as soon as you exit a dungeon. This is fairly annoying, but on the upside, it discourages hoarding.

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Basically, the game has you cycle between the two phases. You search the over world for a village, talk to the people in the village, do a dungeon, then rinse and repeat until you beat the game. Sometimes the game will throw some curveballs at you, though. For instance, you get a submarine later on that allows you to move across water on the over world map, and it eventually gets the ability to submerge into whirlpools when you press the B button. There are also a couple of puzzles to solve outside of dungeons, like one where you need to input musical notes on a giant piano that a parrot tells you. The most infamous puzzle in the game involves a real life letter that was packaged in the game's box with the instruction manual. Dipping this letter into water revealed a secret code that's needed to complete the game. While innovative, hardly anyone can complete this puzzle legitimately nowadays, as the letter is hard to come by. Luckily, you can just look up the code online.

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As with Zelda, Mike can get some upgrades throughout his journey. In addition to his maximum life capacity automatically increasing between chapters, Mike can also get big hearts to increase it even further. He'll also sometimes get an upgraded main weapon to replace his old one, like a wicked morning star, so he won't be using the same smelly yo-yo forever. Kind of like the sword beams in Zelda, you can only use Mike's better weapons if he has enough current health to do so. If his health goes too low, his weapon will temporarily downgrade until he can restore his life again. All upgrades are found during the over world and village sections of the game, and most of them are automatically given to you. Some are slightly hidden, though, such as the big hearts. This would normally be okay, but it sucks in this game, because you can't backtrack to previous chapters to get what you missed. If you miss a big heart, then it's gone forever.

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Outside its crippling difficulty and awkward controls, StarTropics is a fantastic action adventure game. Despite a heavy marketing push that got it featured on the cover of issue #21 of Nintendo Power, StarTropics wasn't too popular back when it came out. Perhaps that was due to how late this game was released into the NES' life, as more advanced hardware like the Sega Genesis was already available by this point. Either way, it's a shame this game didn't catch on back then, because it's good. Thankfully, most Nintendo fans and retro gamers are now aware of the game's existence.

Word Count: 1,735

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