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StarTropics (NES) artwork

StarTropics (NES) review

"StarTropics provides a fun and fascinating combination of various elements, but one miscalculation results in the title being tragically overlooked or even completely forgotten by many of today’s players, even those who might frequently delve into retro gaming."

StarTropics is one of Nintendo's most interesting releases, an American and European-only release from the creative mind of Genyo Takeda (Punch-Out!!). The game provides a fun and fascinating combination of various elements, but one miscalculation results in the title being tragically overlooked or even completely forgotten by many of today’s players, even those who might frequently delve into retro gaming.

As its name suggests, StarTropics takes place in a tropical environment. You assume the role of Mike Jones, a youth who arrives at C-Island with plans to spend a holiday with your uncle, only to find that he has gone missing. That discovery prompts you to explore the island in search of clues to “Dr. J’s” disappearance, using an interface similar to the one seen in Dragon Quest and other RPGs of the era. When the time comes to explore the nearby caverns, however, that perspective changes to more closely resemble the one used in The Legend of Zelda. Other game elements will remind you of that same title, including a similar title screen and the three hearts that serve as Mike’s initial life meter. That meter is also extended by picking up Heart Containers which look like they were plucked straight from Link's NES adventures.

Rather than using a sword, Mike relies on a yo-yo that he can later upgrade throughout the course of the game. He can also augment his main weapon by picking up various sub-weapons that range from baseball equipment to laser guns, each of which occupies a space along the bottom of the screen. Unlike much of Link's arsenal, however, these pickups are finite in nature; your stock will be completely eliminated if you should lose a life or proceed to the next dungeon. Other items are also dropped by enemies, including rare hearts and clocks which can slow down or stop enemies entirely.

What really sets these dungeon segments apart from the ones featured in The Legend of Zelda is Mike's ability to jump. You’ll be using it often, too; besides enabling him to dodge enemies, jumping also allows Mike to cross single-block gaps (or double ones, with the appropriate power-up) and to activate button-shaped switches, of which there are plenty to be found. One might even say that jumping is a defining action of the game, since the ability is frequently used while navigating caves, fighting enemies, and even dealing with bosses.

While there are many similarities to The Legend of Zelda on the NES, StarTropics boasts a much more involved story and is far more linear as a result. Despite the narrower focus, you’ll still be able to enjoy a journey of exploration as you come across numerous tropical islands and villages, help natives and dolphins, and ultimately fend off an alien invasion. The graphics are among the system's finest, as well, and the music is delightfully upbeat on the maps or suitably mysterious when you are exploring tunnels. Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming the tunes for days after you finish playing.

So, in a game full of RPG-style exploration, Zelda-like combat, cool weapons and items, endearing characters, great graphics for its day, and a series of earworms that are hard to get rid of, what could be the problem? Simply put: this game is not only hard, but unforgiving as well. Comparisons to The Legend of Zelda are inevitable, but that other game has nothing on StarTropics when it comes to difficulty. The unexpected challenge you’ll find here can put a serious damper on the whole experience if you're not up to it. I've played my fair share of difficult NES games, but this one has to rank near the top of the list.

One major factor responsible for that challenge is Mike inability to move in more than four directions, a limitation that also affected Link. Unlike Link, though, Mike frequently has less room in which to maneuver. This leaves him open to attacks. That fact by itself might not be so bad, except that hearts are extremely rare and difficult to come by. You can also refill your meter by collecting five stars, but doing so is rough without sustaining more damage, and dungeon layouts aren’t conducive to grinding. Additionally, as noted before, any items you pick up are forfeit if you should die (you do get three lives, and can stock up more if you're good or just lucky) or if you proceed to the next area. Being able to keep items or start a new life with more than three hearts (you can have a meter that consists of about 22 by the end of the game) would have helped alleviate the issue immensely, but you're afforded no such luxuries.

Besides throwing you in the mix with enemies who delight in capitalizing on your limited range of movement, StarTropics seems to cherish moments where it can be entirely unforgiving, to the point where it often just comes across as mean-spirited. This is best illustrated by the existence of certain secret rooms that immediately kill Mike once he trips the correct switch and enters them (in search of a reward or just progression through a given area). There’s no saving throw, no take-backs, no second chance (extra lives notwithstanding)--Mike is dead, and you had better hope you remember where that room or trap was on your next run through the cavern. That's just needlessly frustrating.

The game’s difficulty is a miscalculation, and that’s a real shame because it likely prevented StarTropics from catching on with gamers the way it otherwise might have. It still does have its fans, though, and they are well-deserved; there is a terrific game here, hidden beneath some cruel difficulty that will make many modern gamers cringe and even old school gamers blink. Only the most dedicated players will ever see the adventure through to its conclusion. If you're the sort who proudly laughs in the face of any challenge, StarTropics is the game for you. If you thought even The Legend of Zelda was needlessly difficult, though, you'll probably want to sit this one out and just enjoy watching a “Let's Play” video on YouTube instead…


LBD_Nytetrayn's avatar
Freelance review by David Oxford (April 27, 2013)

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