Saturday, October 23, 2010

NES Month: StarTropics

  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Hudson Soft 
  • Platforms/Release: 
    • NES: December 1990 
    • Wii: January 2008
  • Genre: 2D Action-adventure 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • NES: Common (US$1-10) 
    • Wii: DLC (US $5) 
StarTropics can best be described as The Legend of Zelda themed after TV's Lost, 14 years before Lost was a thing. You get to travel between numerous small islands, each presenting you with a side-story that's stranger than the last. There are dungeons you must struggle through armed with a weaponized yo-yo (you read that correctly). The plot is out there, though, eschewing traditional save-the-princess tropes for something more contemporary and original.

The character you control in this game is a young teenage boy named Mike Jones (Who? No, not that one.) whose archaeologist uncle Steve has gone missing. Your journey starts from his house on C-Island, where you get to take his submarine, the Sub-C, off to your first destination, the island of Coralcola. The overworld segments play in a zoomed-out top-down perspective like in Dragon Warrior, but without any random battles to worry about. Note that all the island names in this game end in "cola" for some reason. This gets funny when one of the NPCs asks if you're from "Americola". The ending half of the story takes a turn or two for the weird, but I won't spoil anything.
All the island names end in "cola". [1]
Gameplay will alternate between this format and the dungeon levels, which is where you'll be spending the bulk of your time. The comparisons to The Legend of Zelda are inevitable, so let's get them over with. You go through a series of rooms, most of them one screen big, and must try to survive your way through them without draining all the hearts from your life meter. However, it's not like this game was built off of the Zelda engine. Mike's movement is entirely grid-based, so if, for example, you were to press Up and then Left immediately after, you'd finish walking up to the next space while facing left. Unlike Link, Mike can jump up (to avoid some enemies) or across small gaps, when you press A. In order to survive and thrive in this game, you have to get used to this movement system, as well as using the yo-yo weapons, which shoot forward in a limited range. If you can familiarize yourself with this range, and mash the B button quickly enough, you can take down most threats before they touch and hurt you.

Learning how to move effectively is only a small part of the challenge; much of it comes from the game itself. You get multiple lives in StarTropics, but all the enemies and traps you'll have to deal with can drain them quicker than you can say "smoke monster". As high as the level of difficulty is here, it's not exactly prohibitive; with each failure, you'll have an idea of how to get through the trouble spots, and you'll be prepared the next time you have to go through them. In one more comparison to Zelda, there is a battery-backed save system in StarTropics. The game saves automatically when you enter or finish a dungeon, or on special occasions. You can also continue as many times as you need, but since you only get three hearts filled on your meter when you do so, it's better to just reset and reload one of your save files.
You'll have to deal with a lot of jumping puzzles. [1]
Speaking of trouble spots, there's one rather unique sticking point I just have to mention. Included in the box of the NES version, along with Game Pak and manual, was a letter written by Mike's missing uncle Steve. At a certain point mid-way through the story, you are asked to refer to the letter and input a radio frequency to continue. You do this by rubbing the letter with a wet cloth or sponge, and the answer will reveal itself. People who rented the game, or bought it used without the letter, were out of luck, since there was no workaround that did not require the letter. This moment was so infamous that the answer was eventually printed in Nintendo Power magazine, and now that the Internet has taken off, it's easier now more than ever to beat the system and look it up yourself. If you want me to tell you the answer, I'll give you a hint: it's the model number of a famous airplane. ...Oh, fine... It's 747 MHz. Oh, and if you're playing the Virtual Console version on Wii, the letter is included as part of the digital operations manual, so you have nothing to worry about.

StarTropics is another one of those cult classics that doesn't have much else to its franchise. It received only one sequel, StarTropics II: Zoda's Revenge, for the NES in 1994. Both games are available for download on the Wii Virtual Console if you want to check out either one or both. If you enjoyed The Legend Of Zelda but have memorised its secrets to death, then by all means, give this a try. You'll be blown away by both the later half of the story and by the difficulty, which is inordinate by either NES standards or overall. But like so many other classic games known for beating you around, it's worth slogging through this to witness everything it has to offer.

The Call: 85% (B+)

1"StarTropics - NES Screenshots".  MobyGames

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