Released: December 1990
US Cartridge ID: NES-OC-USA
Genre: Action RPG
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 4 megabit
Mapper: MMC6 (256k PRG, 256k CHR)
StarTropics represents Nintendo’s recognition of the popularity that its NES had achieved in the United States by the late 1980’s. Understanding that there were significant cultural differences that defined fans’ interests between Japan and the US, Nintendo assigned one of its Japanese development teams, R&D3 (previously responsible for Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!), to create a game that was specifically designed to appeal to the tastes of the Western world gamer. StarTropics carries the distinction of being one of only two NES games developed internally by Nintendo of Japan that would never be released in their native country (the other is its direct sequel, 1994’s Star Tropics II: Zoda’s Revenge). Drawing obvious inspiration from classics The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior, StarTropics combines recognizable elements from both in its presentation and its style of play, creating something that feels fresh and new while still retaining enough familiarity to remain accessible.
The player assumes the role of Mike Jones, a high school baseball star from Seattle, Washington. After receiving an invitation from his uncle, famous archaeologist Steve Jones, Mike travels to C-Island to meet him. When Mike arrives, he learns from the local villagers that the beloved Dr. Jones has been kidnapped, and is asked by the village chief to rescue him. Knowing Mike is a pitcher, Chief Coralcola gives Mike a special yoyo, a powerful weapon capable of defeating the evil monsters that have appeared in the tropics of late. Mike heads off toward the tunnel leading out of the village, determined to save Dr. J.
StarTropics is played primarily through two different game types: the “travel stage,” and the “battle stage.” The travel stages play from a perspective similar to Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, and provide plot exposition between battle stages. During this exploration phase, Mike must visit the small villages on nearby islands, solve riddles and help troubled villagers. Performing these tasks oftentimes requires that Mike enter a battle stage, where the perspective will shift closer to the action, similar to the view utilized in the on-foot sections of The Guardian Legend. Mike’s yo-yo is his primary weapon, and is upgraded twice over the course of the adventure. He can also wield limited use power-ups that he finds in the battle stages, including baseball bats, bolas, slingshots, and ray guns. Each action stage is made up of several rooms, and the exit to the next room is typically opened by killing specific enemies or stepping on the right tile switch to open the path forward. Several of the rooms feature puzzles that must be solved in order to open the correct pathway to the next area, often including finding secret passages and using magic items in the appropriate places, freezing enemies, making invisible enemies appear, or igniting lanterns that brighten dark rooms.
The plot serves to propel the action forward at all times, providing both context and motivation for everything that Mike does over the course of the game. Unlike The Legend of Zelda, which provides a basic framework and allows the character to explore the world at will, StarTropics’ narrative frames the action with a more cohesive, actively developed plot. The chapter structure makes the game significantly more linear than Zelda and its ilk, but provides much more focus on the task at hand, further involving the player. The storyline doesn’t take itself terribly seriously; throughout the game, Mike will explore the tropics in his uncle’s submarine with NAV-COM (a robot that looks suspiciously like R.O.B.), save a young dolphin at the behest of his mother, be swallowed by a whale, and fight aboard an alien spaceship. The absurd plot never loses its tracking, nor its droll, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, keeping StarTropics both lighthearted and entertaining for its entire duration.
StarTropics‘ graphics and sound are well suited to the tropical backdrop. The graphics in the travel stages look like most 8 and 16-bit RPGs, in that though they feature a good amount of detail, they are small and endlessly tiled. The maps and villages are all brightly colored, and characters and separate villages are distinct enough to visually differentiate between them. Dialogue scenes with important characters are a highlight, taking place against well illustrated close-ups portraits. The graphics in the battle stages are extremely well done, featuring large bosses and a huge array of enemies that are loaded with small details, giving them a lot of character. The music is excellent, conveying the island feel through all of the tunes while keeping the tone appropriate for any given situation.
The controls are excellent, though initially awkward. Unlike most NES games, movement in StarTropics is tile based. This is typical of overhead RPG’s, and during the travel stages, control is exactly as anyone well versed in the genre would expect. It retains this in the battle stages: each room is made from an invisible grid, and Mike moves one tile at a time in one of the four cardinal directions. While this feels contrived and unintuitive at first, it allows Mike the ability to change direction while attacking without moving him, and also completely eliminates the problem of properly lining up a shot, a common issue that many NES games viewed from the same perspective suffer from.
Despite its huge marketing push from Nintendo (including a cover feature in Nintendo Power, Volume 21), StarTropics went sadly unnoticed by the gaming public at the time of its release. It’s hilarious and charming story, innovative gameplay, and stiff but fair challenge make it amongst the best that the NES has to offer, easily standing toe to toe with its spiritual predecessor, The Legend of Zelda.