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StarTropics (NES) artwork

StarTropics (NES) review

"Enough island hopping to make Chester Nimitz proud."

I ask this question all the time: why hasn't Nintendo rebooted StarTropics? A fair enough number of us old timers praise this NES adventure that you'd think it would've gotten a sequel on SNES or Game Boy Advance, at least, if not a full-scale remake. I know I'm making the game sound like a big deal, and back during its initial run, it kind of was...

The commercial got some of us kids talking. “Yeah, that game where you talk to dolphins then get swallowed by a whale and fight zombie birds!” Oh, and aliens. Because you just knew they were involved. They always are... Everyone thought it was going to be some varied, kooky, unpredictable quest through tropical islands until a couple of my classmates rented it and said they couldn't figure out how to get to the first dungeon. It turns out the game was more like a mixture of The Legend of Zelda and a J-RPG, where you mosey from one village to another, talk to townsfolk, then engage in some basic puzzle solving before jumping into the more action-oriented bits.

You kick things off on a standard island, enter a village, and chat with the locals. The game doesn't tell you how to advance to the primary dungeon, but drops a hint in the form of a guard not knowing who you are. Of course, that means you'll have to chat with the locals and speak with the elder before he'll recognize you and allow you to progress. Get used to the game not guiding you directly because that's how the campaign rolls. Eventually, you enter the first stage and that's when things pick up...

Everything shifts from here. Where the overworld resembled your standard Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy number, the underworld smacks a little bit of Zelda, but with stiffer mechanics. You guide Mike, our hero, through a 2D, overhead maze of chambers brimming with all manner of inventive creatures. Granted, you have your stock foes, like rats, snakes, and bats. However, you also contend with winged monkeys, mud monsters, hopping octopuses, massive minotaurs, possessed clay dolls, and partially decayed ostriches.

Each room comes with a healthy supply of obstacles and traps, too. Pools of water threaten to drown you, spikes aim to impale, and one scene even comes with gigantic bowling balls that give you “Raiders of the Lost Ark” flashbacks. Fast footwork and timing get you through most of these troubles, not to mention a handy jump function that allows you to leap over one “square” on the grid-based floor at a time. That gets you across a single space worth of water. Oh yeah, the kid can't swim, either, so if you fall into the soup you're a goner.

The first level presents a straightforward design with few branches. There's one that crops up late in the proceedings, leading you to some medicine you can use from an in-dungeon inventory to restore your health. And yes, this means you can expect some other goodies later on that fall into your bag of tricks, including a mirror that allows you to see ghosts and a snowman doll that freezes everything. Anyway, getting through the primary dungeon requires only a little bit of training and toiling. Before you know it, you're battling a giant snake for a boss, then waltzing into the next chapter.

You might expect the game to change things up a bit. After all, its commercial advertised it as something akin to multiple games in one, except that's not entirely correct. Chapter two features more island-based nonsense and additional junk to go through. You speak to a lighthouse keeper and a dolphin who give you some pointers, but exploration and experimentation remain your biggest assets in advancing the campaign. With a little bit of messing around, you realize some of the “walls” in the water and on land hide passageways through which to pass to the next challenge.

...which looks an awful lot like the first stage.

Here's the thing: I love StarTropics' dungeon layouts. They tricky, as they require you to think and tinker with various possibilities in order to get through them. One, for instance, sends you running around in a circle with no apparent way out. You don't realize it, but one room hides a ghost that you requires you to use the previous discussed mirror. Only then can you defeat the phantom, which causes the actual path to burst open.

However, almost all of the game's real estate looks the same. The first six chapters all take you through similarly stylized caverns to the point that they mostly run together. The only variation you encounter lies in the challenges you face. Stage two, for instance, comes with a whole smattering of octopuses to face, lots of watery pits to leap over, and a giant octopus as an area boss. Another level later on transpires in a graveyard, looks slightly darker, and features more undead adversaries, and culminates in an encounter against a giant specter. It isn't until the seventh chapter that your adventure changes shape entirely, sending you off to battle extraterrestrials in their own vessel.

And yet, the game succeeds despite its lack of variety and somewhat stiff control response. Its combat remains simple throughout, but works because it forces you to handle Mike with care and really plan out how you're going to tackle the opposition without taking much damage. Granted, a few segments prove to be cheap, where you practically can't avoid damage while taking on a whole room full of erratically moving flies or mummies, but the challenge factor stays about even throughout your journey.

Eventually, you learn to roll with the punches StarTropics hands to you. You figure out how to hunt for clues regarding progression, use your noggin a bit to get through the tough parts, and battle your way past all kinds of dangers. Even if you die, your brain is constantly thinking of how it can overcome the worst this title has to throw at you. You wonder if maybe jumping at just the right time won't allow you to get past arrows that fire out of the wall, or you can use the watery pits to your advantage while fighting certain enemies that aren't capable of jumping over them.

Of course, if you're playing a digital version of these game nowadays, you'll likely be stymied in chapter four by a password you need to input. As it turns out, the original physical release came with a letter you were supposed to dip in water to reveal the code. If, like me, you threw the letter away or downloaded the digital release, your only recourse is to scour the internet for the password.

In terms of all-out adventure and strangeness, StarTropics delivers. Yet, some part of me still wants to see a modern take on its concept—and not something like The Touryst, bless it. I mean, I would like to see a full-blown addition to the series, rendered in modern visuals and utilizing relevant mechanics. Of course, that also means I'd like to see more variety this time around. Nevertheless, this game remains an unsung classic that many of us fogies rave about to this day for a good reason...

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (April 06, 2024)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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overdrive posted April 09, 2024:

I remember owning this game. I also remember being really happy to have that Nintendo Power subscription due to how I bought it used and with no box, manual, etc., meaning I didn't have that necessary code to move on partway through the game. Fortunately, they did give it to you in the magazine because of apparently realizing that was a horribly stupid idea after the fact.

I liked the game. Fell a bit short of being truly elite for me. I recall not liking the whole "jump to get on top of tiles" deal as it made controls awkward. I did like the tropical island vibe of the game, but recall liking its sequel a bit more, even if it mostly replaced tropical isles with traveling through time.

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