There’s always a few games on each console that never get the recognition that they deserves. It’s rare though, when those games are first party releases. Enter StarTropics — a Nintendo developed title that met with very little fanfare, when compared to the other first party juggernauts, such as The Legend of Zelda and Punch Out!! Why did this fly under so many gamers radars? Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful I didn’t let this one slip by me, as it’s definitely one of the best games I have ever played.
You play as Mike, who’s uncle, Dr. Jones (no relation to Indiana) was “abducted” and it’s up to you to find him and bring him back safely. There’s a good bit of dialog within the towns, mostly nonsense driven, but everyone has something to say. In fact, one of the only drawbacks to StarTropics is that you have to talk to almost everyone in order to advance the story arc, or even open the way to advance the actual gameplay. You’ll encounter this right off the bat, as you begin your quest to find your uncle. Even if you’ve played through the game and know what exactly to do (like the giant keyboard later in the gamer) you have to initiate the dialog with the proper NPC, in order to actually trigger what you need. It does get a bit tedious on occasions, but the games charm more than makes up for this shortcoming. Towards the end, the game takes some really odd twists that I will not spoil. But lets just say the last areas really change up the look, pace and environment of the game.
The sound throughout StarTropics is a treat, aside from the text pop ups during dialog. Nothing is stock from any other Nintendo developed game. The music hits all the right notes, giving each location its proper tunes. StarTropics does suffer from some repetition in the use of its music, but like Legend of Zelda, the few songs available are meaningful, produced well, and in their own ways, quite memorable. All the sound effects sound passable for the 8 bit platform, with no real standouts to them.
There’s two distinct looks to StarTropics, which I’ll refer to as the “town” and “battle” looks. The town look is more of a dwarfed, over-world type look reminiscent to the first Final Fantasy’s out of combat look. Towns, environments and characters all look very simple, lacking any type of visual flair. When you’re inside dungeons, you’ll notice a very similar look to The Legend of Zelda, with multiple paths, dead ends and so on. StarTropics holds a visual edge with slightly better animation, better use of textures and more detail in the main character, as well as the enemies.
One of the biggest draws to StarTropics is the gameplay. Guaranteed, many people coming into this title will be turned off by the controls, and how the game plays in general. First off, the controls will definitely take some getting used to. You can’t walk diagonally and can only jump the distance of one block, movements feel grid based. That’s not the kicker though — moving Mike around has what some would call “odd quirks”. When you turn to another direction, you might keep walking until you reached the end of the “tile”, turn and then move in the new direction. To be quite honest, when I played this for the first time twenty years ago, it didn’t bother me. Twenty years later, it still doesn’t really bother me. You do feel like you’re ice skating, but you’ll never find yourself dying because of it. Just be patient, work yourself into the schematics and you’ll be running through eac area with little hassle.
Your combat revolves mostly around your yo-yo. Yes, your main weapon is a yo-yo, for a significant chunk of our journey. You can pick up expendable items, like a baseball bat that has almost no range, torches you can hurl at enemies and so on. Your enemies, for the most part, do not always come chasing after you, although there are a few that do, with multiple copies of said enemy in the same room as you. Times like that makes combat exciting, as you have little room for error, and little room for navigation. As you progress, enemy AI, as well as variations, do change up. You’ll never tire of combat, and never feel like you can take it lightly.
The similarities to The Legend of Zelda are apparent in many ways. As I mentioned earlier, each dungeon you enter has multiple paths you can take inside, although each room caries in size. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a room three times larger than any room in any dungeon you’ll encounter in The Legend of Zelda. You have hearts that represent your health, which can be replenished with hearts you find on screen, as well as total number of hearts increasing as your advance through the game.
But the true brilliance to StarTropics comes in the form of not only its puzzles, but most of the rooms you encounter in each dungeon. There are quite a few rooms you’ll come across that make you think about how to advance to the next room. It’s not always defeating ever enemy in the room, and sometimes it’s not just finding a switch. StarTropics succeeded in variety. You might be required to step on a certain tile to open a new path and not have to kill every enemy in the room, saving you time from running around and killing enemies.
Sometimes you’ll enter rooms with tiles that sink into a pit, or into water, instantly killing you. You’ll need to pay attention at all times, as you’ll rarely enter a room where the sink tile is right on your first step. Like The Legend of Zelda, if you don’t pay attention all the time, you will kill yourself on your own ignorance. Your first, second, and maybe even third time playing through the game, you’ll be exploring each tile, checking for secrets, or if you remembered whether it hid the switch that opened the door for you. It’s such an ingenious system, one that never gets old, two months, or twenty years later. Even though the game can be completed under 15 hours in most situations, the experience is one of the most memorable ones you’ll ever encounter.
Finally, I want to mention the bosses. They are a clever mix of pound and smash, and actual strategy. Early on, you’ll fight a boss that you’re better off attacking with a ranged item, like the torch, unless you want to go in close, risk dying easily and start at a previous checkpoint (which is quite forgiving, not forcing you to redo huge chunks of each stage). Later on, you’ll take on a giant ghost that you have to get an item to reveal, once its revealed, you have to dodge fireballs and mini ghosts, while trying to take the giant ghost out with ranged weapons. Each boss has a different gimmick, with some similarities shared between them, and as with fighting regular enemies and just playing through each dungeon, the immense satisfaction and enjoyment you’ll encounter is rarely seen in this magnitude.
For those that grew up with an NES, and never heard of, or played StarTropics, shame on you! Bar none, this is one of the most cherished video games in my collection, one of the most memorable games I have ever played, and one of the greatest games I have ever played. Other than some story advancement annoyances and what some would call quirky controls, StarTropics is as good as it gets for the 8 bit system, not to mention the fact that it blows away so many of these current gen titles. This is a must own in ever sense of the word, and I am extremely fortunate to still have the game, complete in box and with the cool letter that Nintendo attached to the booklet.