StarTropics – NES
Release Date (NA): December 1st, 1990
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
When most people start compiling “best of” lists for the NES, giants like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid are almost guaranteed a spot. But when you run out of the titles that every 17 year old seems a little too familiar with, what’s left? Too often is the NES defined by a great but nonetheless limited number of games, and as the years wear on, entries like StarTropics fall by the wayside. The sheer quality of games like StarTropics is what makes the NES itself so timeless, and probably my overall favorite console.
StarTropics shares many similarities with The Legend of Zelda, most noticeable its gameplay and structure. There is both an overworld and an underworld and both games are filled with puzzles and secrets. Unlike Zelda, StarTropics separates its RPG and action elements between the overworld and underworld respectively. It is also a much more linear game, and instead of being set in a medieval fantasy world, StarTropics takes place in, well, the tropics with ample islander and tropical motifs and cliches.
The entire game ends up being about aliens and concludes on a mothership, but the charm of this title lies in the beautiful 8-bit overworlds and the simple but effective RPG elements. Our main character spends roughly half of his time searching islands, gathering information about his missing uncle. Most of the NPC interaction serves only to forward the story or give away simple tips for traversing the upcoming underworld, but it’s important to pay attention to what might seem random as the clues needed to solve puzzles later on are often divulged in an uneventful conversation with a local.
The underworlds take on a slightly different but still top-down perspective, zooming in a little more on Mike and requiring more standard platforming maneuvers like jumping and fighting. Mike ends up gathering a number of weapons throughout his journey, starting with a yo-yo and eventually wielding a full blown laser rifle. The underworld is also where all of the game’s combat takes place with Mike using a combination of wit and muscle to defeat various creatures. Again reminiscent of Zelda, these underworlds are labyrinthine in nature and increase greatly in difficulty as the game wears on. Besides tougher foes, Mike also make increasing use of overworld knowledge and other clues to successfully complete these areas. The “dungeons” are kept fresh by representing a variety of locations, including a simple cave at the start and moving on to such settings as the inside of a whale and ancient ruins.
For the most part the underworld is a fun and engaging part of the game, but some of the later ones can be very frustrating. It seems that there were just a few poorly designed areas where a certain configuration of enemies or traps or jumps proves very difficult, killing Mike and forcing him back to the beginning of the area despite how much progress is made. Jumping with Mike can be a little hazardous and difficult to get used to, and is really the only big factor that hinders an otherwise wonderful game. Specifically he is hard to control in mid-air, making treacherous leaps over toxic substances (water, for instance (???)) onto small platforms an unnecessarily grueling affair.
The graphics and music, especially those of the overworld areas, are a real standout. Here is another example of just how well composed 8-bit music can be; extremely catchy, never irritating, and a perfect encapsulation of an area’s mood. Colors are vivid and portray a superficially care-free world while simultaneously adding an air of mystery. The room with the organ is one of my favorite spots for the overall effect created from the music, visuals, and general tone. The cartoon stills and many of the underworld bosses are done quite well, particularly when contrasted with those of similar games of the times. There is a real creepiness conveyed by these underground seas and the creatures dwelling within.
Anyone should be able to make his or her way fairly deep into the game without too much trouble. Some of the puzzles can be a little cryptic, but the game will always provide an answer, usually somewhere near by. Well, there is one spot where the game can’t help. In fact, the answer is actually hidden inside the printed instruction manual. When the submarine is eventually accessed, the little robot inside will ask for a code from the Uncle’s letter. Without this code, the submarine cannot be activated and no further progress can be made. When NAV-COM asks, the code is:
747 to enter and then pilot the submarine
I still play this game often, and I absolutely love the semi-open ended structure of each stage and attempting to rediscover hidden areas that I’ve forgotten. I do feel like the game begins to drag just a little near the end. The underworld stages become very long and sometimes maddingly complex as well, and it’d be nice to see these areas broken up a little with the occasional overworld respite. Although not as extensive as Zelda, StarTropics is considerably long and makes a great title to revisit from time to time. Too bad StarTropics 2: Zoda’s Revenge couldn’t quite carry the torch!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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