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RELEASE DATE (NA): December 1990 GENRE: Action-Adventure
// review by SoyBomb

The legend of Mike Jones begins...

Time to stare at the TV and hope that another exciting game just turns itself on in front of me!

StarTropics? I know about that! I played the sequel, Zoda's Revenge: StarTropics II a few years ago, and it was pretty good! But I had played the original StarTropics many years ago, and as I recall, it was quite a taxing game. But then again, I was just a fair-haired wild child back then with about as much skill in gaming as I did in professional taxidermy. (That is to say, very little.) I probably couldn't even survive a level of Contra in those days. But this is the! This is 2015, I am a fully-grown, partially-fledged adult, and I will not let this demon tear my soul apart! I will conquer this game come Hell or high water, whatever that means! Let's go!

Many hours, an empty container of beer nuts, and a few snapped controllers later, I can say that this was an experience. I need an Alka Seltzer to calm my stomach acids.

StarTropics is a game developed directly by Nintendo, solely for the American market, though it was released in Europe nearly two years later. It was directed, produced, and written by Genyo Takeda, the man behind many of the technical marvels of the company, including battery back-ups in cartridges (a feat not yet seen before), the design of the Nintendo 64 controller, and development of the Wii console, among his many other achievements. Currently serving as Nintendo's "Technology Fellow", Takeda also had his hand in a number of software releases, including Punch-Out!!, Pilotwings 64, and Pokémon Puzzle League. Oh yes, and Star Tropics, of course.

You're put in the running shoes of Mike Jones, a teenager from Seattle who has come to visit his research uncle, Dr. Jones, on C-Island, an island literally shaped like the letter C. Unfortunately, upon visiting the village of Coralcola, Mike discovers that his uncle has disappeared mysteriously. Suspecting trouble, Mike now has to dive into the caves of the island to look for clues, donning a powerful yo-yo given to him as a weapon. He later learns that Dr. Jones had been abducted by aliens and, using Dr. Jones' submarine, has to travel between many islands, looking for traces of his lost relative.

And yes, I said "yo-yo", and I meant it. That's your primary means of attack. Get used to it.

If StarTropics is related to any game, it's the original Legend of Zelda. I wouldn't be surprised if it used a modified engine. Gameplay is split between two parts: overworld exploration and dungeon crawling. In the overworld areas, things resemble a typical RPG of its time: you travel around the islands near C-Island, visiting each small town and generally advance the plot by doing so. For the most part, your path is very clear — there isn't much in terms of exploration, aside from finding a few hidden heart containers to increase your life meter. When you arrive in towns, they're as bland as they come for tropical urban sprawl. There are no shops to purchase items, no magic academy to absorb a new spell, no inns to rest your head... The closest you'll come to the latter is when an islander in a hut will offer some rejuvenating coconut milk). The towns basically serve as stepping stones in the story, giving you advice on where to go next. There may be occasional quests to take on, such as awakening a chief's daughter from a lengthy slumber, but these points still lead you to explore dungeons, the bread and butter of StarTropics.

Dungeons, oh yes. The weather in here is quite unusual because it's where the game both shines and drizzles. Similar to the Legend of Zelda, each dungeon is a maze of sorts, although it's much harder to get lost in StarTropics. There isn't a map, and you really won't need one. The sprites may be small on the overworld, but underground, Mike is a tall beast of a man, complete with a snappy 90s 'do. The dungeons are separated into rooms; many of them are one screen, but you can also expect some that scroll.

Mike hops around, using his yo-yo to defeat enemies. It seems silly at first, but after certain plot points, his yo-yo is upgraded to a Shooting Star (provided he has six full hearts in his meter) and later, a Super Nova (requiring twelve hearts); getting hurt enough demotes your weapon to the next weakest state until you can crank that life up. If you're taking a pummeling from enemies, prepare for things to get worse as your weapon gets weaker. This is a point of contention, but it also helps keep you on your toes and not rely solely on firing off yo-yo shots for survival.

That Shecola is quite a place. And quite a beverage, too! Tasty!

One of the biggest issues I have is that when turning in a different direction, there's a delay before Mike actually spins around. If you're dealing with a slew of enemies on screen, being able to switch direction in a split-second is crucial, and that's where StarTropics falls short. Sometimes he doesn't even turn around when you want him to, causing you to fire in a direction you hadn't planned on. I wish they had fine-tuned the controls; this is somehthing definitely addressed in the sequel.

Another issue is the tile-based gameplay. For the most part, I'm fine with having to hop on tiles to get across lakes or pits. As well, hopping on some tiles to make other things appear, like a button to open a door or chest, or perhaps a weapon, is unique. But they really overdo it sometimes. There are rooms made up entirely of tiles; you can't just walk across them. You have to hop from one tile to another. With enemies flying around in the stage, that just makes it way too difficult to avoid them! Have some mercy: I don't want to spend my time hopping across a million tiles! Just let me progress and rescue my uncle! When Dr. Jones asks me how my journey has been, I don't want to have to say "It was great! I hopped on, like, thousands of tiles. It was... okay." And when I defeat a boss, why do I have to go to the next room, hop on a tile in the middle of the room to make a button appear, then go hop on the button to open the door out then leave? Why not just let me exit without having to do extra things?

With hampered controls in tight situations, you'd think StarTropics would be difficult enough, but other problems get in the way. The last two chapters of the game (aboard the alien ship) push the limits of how difficult an NES dungeon can be, mostly because the game starts you off with only three hearts (out of, by Chapter 17, a possible 16), meaning you have to rebuild yourself and start off with the poorest of weapons when you need something stronger. Errors are not an option, as every single heart counts. Thankfully, with the exception of the final dungeon, most of the bosses are the least of your worries; once you make it there, the hard part is over. I could never get past the first alien ship section as a young lad, but after much deliberation, practice, and caramel hot chocolates, I have conquered those demons. Actually, they were robots, but you get the point.

Now I really like the presentation of StarTropics. Granted, the overworld is rather bare-bones with graphics that haven't much improved at all since the Zelda days of 1986. This part shows its age and then some. It's painfully clear that the world is made of large square tiles only, resulting in really jagged islands with sharp corners not pleasant to approaching sailors. The underworld is much better, with larger characters and much more detailed sprites. Heck, for a boss that moves around so much, the final boss is impressively large. I feel as though most of the art design went here. The soundtrack is also something I enjoy listening to; all those island rhythms just melt the heart and waggle the behind.

One stand-out feature of StarTropics that really gives it an edge isn't actually in the game. Rarely do games from this era interact with the real world, but StarTropics dared to be different. With each copy of the game came a weird piece of paper with nothing written on it. At one point, the game asks you to actually submerge the paper in water, and a code will appear that you input into the submarine communication system to engage the radar system so you can look for your uncle. It's quite a novel approach... unless you're renting the game or buying it used — then you're screwed. Now that the megalopolis known as GameFAQs is around, this isn't an issue, but back then, if you didn't have the paper, you didn't have the power. NINTENDO Power!

StarTropics is a game that successfully combines a light-hearted story with some really rough dungeon exploring. Without practice and perseverance, you'll never see the end of this one. I almost cracked open a controller on the fiftieth try of the final dungeon. But it IS doable, and if I can do it, there's hope for everyone. If you stick with it, you'll find quite the little charmer that will lure you in with its humour and Pacific air.

Also, there are references to putting bananas in your ears.

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