StarTropics
Platform:  NES
Players:  1
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    In 1990 the Nintendo Entertainment System was riding high and beginning to roll into the final years of its life.  However the Super Famicom was still a research and development work in progress so the NES still had a few years to stretch its legs and show what the eight bit powerhouse was capable of.  While never stating so officially, Nintendo for years had been attempting to develop a game that rivaled The Legend of Zelda in scope, story, and fun.  It's undeniable that one of the reasons The Legend of Zelda sold so well was how grand and ever changing its world was, the game was always throwing something new at the player.  Mix in traditional role playing elements, a few rudimentary puzzles, and you have an instant classic.  Although there were other action games and other straight RPG games, none seemed to blend the two as well as The Legend of Zelda.  It is without a doubt one of the most perfectly designed games ever created.  In an attempt to continue in the same tradition albeit with a few more conventional RPG elements, Nintendo created a little game called StarTropics, a game that would instantly become my favorite of the NES platform.  StarTropics took the action and puzzle elements typical of an adventure game and dropped them into present day.  Instead of some fantasy world, the game took place on a string of islands in the tropics.  Rather than using some magical divine being as the hero, the player takes the role of an teenager on summer vacation.  Everyday conventions may not sound like a lot of fun but they play perfectly into a game that starts very small but quickly unfolds into a very believable and extremely enjoyable adventure beneath the Southern Cross.  If the premise of the game sounds a little different than most other NES adventure titles of the day, it should.  StarTropics was developed by Japanese programmers in the United States with plans to only ever release it in the USA.  It's almost as if Nintendo wanted to make a game solely for the American audience and that's exactly what StarTropics was, it never had a Japanese release and was exclusive to North America.

Description:  Mike Jones is your average American teenager.  One summer on vacation from high school in Seattle, he heads out to visit his uncle Steve in the tropics.  Mike's uncle, Dr. Steve Jones is a gifted archaeologist who wrote for Mike to join him at his research lab on C-Island.  A summer of fishing, sun, and relaxation are what Mike looks forward to as he steps off of the helicopter that flew him to C-Island.  Once entering the village of Coralcola however, Mike realizes that all is not well and that he won't be seeing his uncle Dr. J any time soon.  The village chief informs Mike that Dr. J has disappeared, been abducted and hasn't been seen for quite some time.  On top of his uncle's abduction, the tunnel between Coralcola and Dr. J's laboratory has become filled with swarms of monsters, preventing safe travel by any of the islanders.  The village chief grants Mike access to the tunnel under the condition that he keeps Dr. J's abduction a secret and gets to the bottom of the mystery concerning the disappearance and the surge of monster activity.  The village chief also gives Mike an island yo-yo, more than just a toy, it is a powerful weapon and Mike's best defense for the majority of the game.  Being an ace baseball pitcher back at school in Seattle, Mike wields the yo-yo with a confidence and skill that give him a fighting chance in the tunnel.  Eventually Mike will take command of his uncle's research vessel, Sub-C, along with it's navigational robot Nav-Com and depart on the search for Dr. J.

It is easy to see why StarTropics is unique yet interestingly new.  Mike's primary weapon being a yo-yo is a totally different take on the adventure genre.  No sword, no axe, no gun - a yo-yo.  Contrary to what many who have yet to play the game may think, the yo-yo as a weapon works out wonderfully as it has believable movement and range.  Secondary weapons can be picked up throughout the game, many are chapter specific and can only be used in the area of which they are acquired.  Some of these include flaming torches, baseball bats, spiked shoes, horsehide (baseballs), and bolas.  In addition magical items can be found that offer special powers such as the ability to restore health or reveal ghosts.  As with secondary weapons, magical items can only be used in the area of which they are acquired.  Eventually Mike's island yo-yo will be upgraded twice, each time adding more range and power but maintaining the same usage motions.  Once acquired, the yo-yo power ups can only be used when a specific number of energy hearts are filled - six for the first upgrade and eleven for the second.  As with The Legend of Zelda, additional hearts can be added to the life meter by picking up containers for them, called "big hearts" in StarTropics.  These are hidden throughout the map screens and in underground caverns accessible from the map screens.  While picking up the big hearts as they are found is very important as one always could use more health, regardless of how many have been found the life meter is maxed out at the very end of the game for the final stage.

Pulling a little from many genres, the game takes place in three modes.  The map mode is used for overland exploration, traveling within villages and buildings, and for navigating in Sub-C.  The map mode is comparable to most role playing games of the era in which it is displayed from a bird's eye perspective with small character sprites.  There are no enemy encounters while in this mode, it's used for traveling and exploration.  Next is dialogue mode, where the perspective changes to that of Mike's as he converses with important characters such as village chiefs.  These dialogues are primarily used to move the story along and to gain information of what the objective of each chapter is.  Finally, action mode is where the bulk of the game takes place.  The perspective changes and Mike and his surroundings become much more detailed.  This is where enemy encounters and puzzles become the name of the game.  Displayed as a two thirds overhead perspective, a good amount of depth and detail comes out of this mode.  It is also the mode where all the boss battles take place at the end of certain areas.  Puzzles usually involve finding specific ways to get around areas or into special rooms.  While some of these are challenging, they're not so difficult as to create massive frustration.  In this way you learn to be better at StarTropics rather than blazing through the game quickly or getting so frustrated you give up.  If you happen to expire on your journey, the shaman of Coralcola will revive you so you may continue on your adventure.  Island mysticism is simply par for the course in this unique adventure.

Graphics:  A game set in tropical islands better have some beautiful graphics and StarTropics doesn't disappoint.  Tropical areas are lush and colorful with plenty of detail that makes them stand out from other games of the era.  Where as most RPG's have very undetailed areas that the player slowly crawls through, StarTropics offers nice detail throughout.  The map mode scrolls a little faster and smoother than other games that use the same perspective.  Villages are uniquely detailed and populated with may different character sprites.  Although the same handful of character sprites are used in each village, there are enough of them to keep some variety present and no two villages look alike inside.  The text bubble that is used is always at the top of the screen, it is large and easy to read and never gets in the way of the onscreen action.  From walking around villages to exploring ancient ruins or navigating the high seas at the helm of Sub-C, the map mode never feels like a different part of the game, a problem with most games of this era that use one.  When entering covered buildings the terrain around disappears as the building's ceiling is peeled back, revealing what is inside.  Dialogue mode offers some very nicely detailed renditions of important characters and helps to make the map mode feel more integrated into the rest of the game.  For instance when you step aboard Sub-C you are greeted by Nav-Com and the interior of the submergible.  It lends itself to more of a feeling that you have entered Sub-C and now will be navigating a ship rather than your sprite has changed from Mike on the map to Sub-C and now you can move on water.  These extra little touches that bring a sense of realism and completeness to the over all game experience.

Down in the tunnels during action sequences things get even more detailed.  As stated before, these areas are presented in a two thirds perspective which does a wonderful job of presenting scale and substance.  Mike is no longer a little square on a map, he's a person with some real physical depth.  Every enemy is drawn like this as well, giving even more detail of perspective.  Small enemies appear to be small, large enemies feel gargantuan, flying enemies seem to sail through the air.  This goes a step further with boss enemies, who seem massive and truly threatening.  Nothing is more disappointing than getting to a boss and then having him look and feel weak.  This doesn't happen with StarTropics and each enemy from the very easy to the incredibly difficult have detail, depth, and true presence.  Even though there's all this massive detail and scope, the game never loses sight of who the hero is, a high school student from Seattle on his summer vacation.  No matter how grand and detailed things become, it still always looks and feels possible.  There's also a really cool photo snapshot sequence at the very end of the game after the title sequence that displays some of the most detailed imagery that the NES has ever produced.

Sound:  Island music plays a big part of the over all feel of StarTropics from title screen to ending credits.  The tropical title theme gets things off to a great start, with the overland theme following soon after.  Amazingly, this music doesn't repetitive even though it's used in nearly every map screen and in every village.  It's just a light, mellow, tropical sounding tune that gently plays in the background.  Personally my favorite piece of music in the game is the theme that plays during the action mode when you're adventuring down in the tunnels.  It's a slight rework and expansion of the title screen music but it has tones I have yet to hear in any other NES game.  Boss battles have their own music which conjures up intense feelings of struggle and add greatly to the frantic pace of many of the boss encounters - you really do feel as if you're battling on the edge, just barely able to win and continue on.  Even bonus rooms have their own music that lets you know that you're in a safe place.  Sound effects are very unique, in fact nearly ever sound effect used in StarTropics was invented for the game and has not been used since.  The sounds doors make when they open, walls when passages blast out, enemies are destroyed, the squeaks bosses make as they take damage - all of it is excellent.  I'd go as far to say that in the sound effects department, StarTropics is the best you'll find on the NES.  It's all so fresh and new and blends in perfectly with the rest of the game.  Music and sound for this game work together to provide the perfect audio atmosphere.

Play Control:  Now here's the part of StarTropics that everyone loves to bash.  StarTropics was designed so that the player could make Mike turn different directions without walking.  Basically you have to get Mike facing the direction you want him to walk and then continue pressing that way on the directional pad to get him to move.  This allows Mike to make strafing attacks when jumping between platforms and to defeat multiple enemies that are charging him from multiple directions without having to move.  I will admit that it does take a moment to get used to when you first start to play the game.  However it quickly becomes second nature.  Additionally Mike's movement method plays perfectly into the tile puzzles that are a staple of the game.  In almost every room there are tiles.  Usually one or more of these tiles will reveal a footprint by jumping on it.  The footprint tile reveals a switch tile which when jumped on will either open a passage or unlock a chest.  Additionally specific tiles are used to illuminate darkened rooms.  There are also tiles which submerge themselves in a pattern and some that sink once Mike steps on them.  While Mike can jump over water, he can only clear the space of one tile unless equipped with a special power up towards the end of the game, which doubles this capacity on the screen of which it is obtained.  There are many, many, many parts of the game where this one tile jumping mechanic and the look before moving mechanic are used to solve puzzles of sequence.  I honestly love this dynamic of the game and feel it is one of the reasons that StarTropics stands out among the hundreds of NES titles and thousands of other games before or since.  It also allows control to be razor sharp and precise.

Aside from the movement dynamic, play control is straight forward and functions as one would expect.  Movement in the map mode for both Mike and Sub-C is controlled with the directional pad.  Once the code to submerge Sub-C is inputted in chapter two the B button activates the submergence system.  Pressing the A button near a villager will allow Mike to talk to them, the A button is also used to advance longer dialogue chains.  The A button is also used to advance conversations in dialogue mode as well as to answer questions.  In action mode the directional pad moves Mike, again pressing in the direction he is facing will cause him to walk that direction and pressing another direction will cause him to face that way before moving.  The A button causes Mike to jump, pressing the A button in conjunction with a direction on the directional pad on or near a tile will cause him to jump one tile's distance in that direction.  If Mike is near water, pressing the A button in conjunction with a direction on the directional pad will cause him to be able to jump over one tile's distance of water in that direction.  Jumping ability over water is increased temporarily in the last few stages of the game via a special powerup.  The B button uses the currently selected weapon.  Pressing the Select button cycles through currently available weapons which are displayed at the bottom of the screen.  The Start button pauses the action.  While the game is paused, pressing up or down on the directional pad will bring up the magic items inventory.  Pressing either the B or A button will cause the currently selected magic item to be used.

Replay:  It'll take the average player ten to twelve hours to run through the game on the first try.  This is taking into consideration having initial trouble with certain bosses and getting turned around with false exits to stages and other such traps - that actually begin with the first chapter.  Experienced players can run through the game from beginning to end in six to eight hours.  After each chapter is completed it can be replayed via "review mode" in the save file screen.  This is a cool feature that allows one to play a specific chapter that has already been completed, without losing their save data or having to start a new game completely.  Outside of replaying the game simply for the enjoyment of doing so, there are no special features or hidden areas to unlock by making another play through.

Final Verdict:  Years ago when StarTropics was first released I was intrigued by the commercials on television as well as the large two issue feature in Nintendo Power.  That summer I was at the county fair and there was a used game vendor that had a copy of StarTropics that I ended up leaving with.  I played the game non-stop until I got stuck at the end of chapter four.  At the end of this chapter the player is instructed to put water on Dr. J's letter.  Dr. J's letter was a special piece of parchment originally packaged with the game, once dipped in water a special message appears along with Dr. J's homing frequency for Sub-C.  (it's 747 MHz by the way)  Since all I had was a photocopied manual, I couldn't get passed this point, you cannot continue on until you input that frequency.  This didn't detract from me from enjoying the game however, as I played those first four chapters over and over again until the frequency input point.  No one else I knew had the game and the massive community of online game historians that exist today wasn't around quite yet.  It wasn't until I read in a later issue of Nintendo Power what the frequency was that I was able to progress.  Going through all that and waiting all that time didn't hurt my enjoyment of the game one bit.  In fact once I found out what "put Dr. J's letter in water" meant I realized it was one of the coolest and unique ways to further pull the player into the game.  It was taking the game into the real world and bringing the real world into the game.

I don't think I can put it any more simply than I absolutely love this game, I have always loved this game, and it will forever be my favorite NES title.  It combines new concepts and stories yet feels like an old classic right from the beginning.  At the time of its release it seemed that pretty much everything had been done on the NES hardware but after playing StarTropics one realizes that only after this excellent game did the NES truly do everything.  Anyone that likes adventure games should pick up StarTropics for an adventure unlike anything else.  Contrary to what many believe, the game did sell well enough to warrant a sequel which was released in 1994, the second to last licensed NES game to be released.  Every NES owner should give StarTropics at least a try.  It's a huge, sprawling, perfectly done adventure that seems to slip through the cracks of most NES libraries.  Those who know me and read my writings know I love the NES, it's my all time favorite game system.  StarTropics being my all time favorite NES game - that's saying a lot.
 

Written on 09-19-07 by David, insanedavid@classicplastic.net


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