There is quality and fun to be found in StarTropics, and even if those may not come in large enough doses to make one wish Nintendo had kept the property rolling, they should be sufficient to allow players to appreciate it for what it is: a charming quest that still has its place as a legacy title
As gaming generations come and go and the history of the industry grows thicker, it is rather natural that only a progressively smaller percentage of old-school efforts is remembered. In most cases, the titles that are preserved in people’s collective memory belong to franchises that were able to make their way out of those early days and grow into long-standing staples of the market. Take the case of Nintendo, for example; although their teams created a rather varied and solid collection of games for the NES, their first home console with a vast library, the projects from those days that are still remembered, released, repackaged, and replayed are mostly those that birthed some of the company’s most popular series, such as the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, the original outings of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, as well as smaller but also beloved products like Kirby’s Adventure, the first Punch-Out, and even Excitebike.
There is an argument to be made that the titles that survived the generational filter to become established franchises did so because they were the best of the bunch and, as such, it is perfectly reasonable and deserved that they are the games which are remembered. But the reality is that this natural selection sometimes ends up failing and, be it for creative or commercial reasons, leaving behind games that either should be remembered with more frequency or that could have been the seeds to interesting modern properties. Within the scope of Nintendo’s first-party projects that were released for the NES, one of the most frequently mentioned victims of that evolutionary injustice is StarTropics.
When it comes to new or relatively unknown franchises, the most direct way to introduce them to others is by relating them to a universally familiar product; and given it is a Nintendo title, StarTropics is often compared to The Legend of Zelda. It makes sense: it is an adventure game, it uses a top-down view, it involves some degree of exploration, and it has a handful of gameplay elements that seem to have been taken straight from Link’s debut. However, since StarTropics is very much its own creature, describing it in such a way means overlooking the nuances that define it. And in that regard, the greatest difference it has in comparison to its most popular sibling is that it drinks a little more heavily from the RPG source.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the game’s setting and story. Taking place in a tropical archipelago, StarTropics tells the tale of Mike, a teenager from Seattle who opts to enjoy his vacation by visiting his uncle, Dr. Steven Jones, whose lab is located on C-Island. Upon getting there, though, the boy is told that his relative has not been seen for a while, which leads to a journey that will have him traveling through a bunch of nearby islands. Sure, it is not the deepest plot and it sounds like a run-of-the-mill premise for a gameplay-focused quest of the era, but StarTropics uses it as a trampoline for more than dungeons and exploration.
The twist is that the game’s adventure has a bit of an episodic nature. Its tale is divided into eight chapters, each unfolding in a standalone area of the archipelago, and most of them come sprinkled with underlying plot details that are not necessarily related to the central mystery of Dr. Jones’ disappearance. Early on, for instance, Mike will help a talking dolphin rescue her son, which has been imprisoned in a cave. A little later, he will come across a village whose chief is heartbroken due to his daughter: she has been cursed to a deep slumber, and he will only help the protagonist in his quest once Mike finds a way to wake the girl up. Consequently, where The Legend of Zelda was an adventure in the purest sense of the word, with Link left alone to explore a world as he saw fit and without much external interference, StarTropics wears the shoes of an RPG by punctuating its journey with characters, villages, and minor secondary plots.
Obviously, because of this episode-based nature, StarTropics is a far more linear affair, sacrificing the enthralling freedom of The Legend of Zelda for a thicker script. Therefore, for example, C-Island – where the game begins – will become inaccessible for good as soon as players get to the second chapter. This narrower focus, though, does not mean exploration is either dull or simple, because in pretty much all parts of the game Mike will have to do a good deal of walking around and talking to characters in order to figure out where he needs to go to and what he needs to do.
As it is the case in some traditional RPGs, these exploration segments will show Mike and the world around him in a scaled-down version, with points of interest such as villages and caves being highlighted as very visible models. During these moments, enemies will not be a factor, as they do not exist out in the overworld, leaving players free to focus their energy on making their way to the next destination. Overall, it is a pretty simple setup, but StarTropics squeezes good value out of it in a few ways, such as creating mazes out of whirlpools or geographic obstacles, and letting the hero simultaneously reach multiple locations that have characters or items involved in plot-related conundrums that need to be solved by performing certain actions in a specific order.
The second gameplay facet of StarTropics comes in the form of its dungeons, and it is here that the comparisons to The Legend of Zelda make more sense. When Mike enters a cave, the camera zooms in on the action to show a more defined character model of the protagonist, and just like Link did in his debut, the boy will have to navigate these mazes mostly by beating down enemies and opening the passage to the next room. Unlike the hero in green, Mike will never have a map of the place at his disposal, but that does not mean the dungeons in StarTropics are a linear sequence of rooms; on the contrary, there are quite a few forks on the road to be dealt with, as there are many paths that lead either to dead ends or to rooms with helpful items, like healing potions that can be consumed later or hearts. However, as the absence of a map reveals, it is a fact that the dungeons of StarTropics do not have the structural complexity of those from The Legend of Zelda.
The game, however, makes up for it quite nicely. As far as combat is concerned, there is not much to differentiate it from Link’s quest: Mike mainly uses a melee tool, in his case a yo-yo that gets upgraded as the adventure goes along, to hit foes; the weapon launches a ranged projectile if his health is above a certain threshold; and there are secondary consumable weapons, like guns and spell-deflecting mirrors, that are found in the dungeons and can be used to dispose of specific bad guys. It is a fun system that paves the way to exciting battles and good enemy variety, but it is indeed essentially a twin of what The Legend of Zelda had done four years earlier in 1986. The ingredient where StarTropics finds its uniqueness is in the nature of what is in the rooms.
Undoubtedly, there are a whole lot of rooms where the goal is defeating either all enemies or a specific target, but StarTropics branches out quite nicely. For starters, the game frequently uses blocks that need to be jumped on as a source of variation: sometimes hopping on them reveals secret switches that open the way forward; occasionally they light up dark rooms; there are moments when Mike needs to jump from block to block in order to safely make his way across lava or water whilst dealing with enemies; and in some action-focused rooms there are blocks that disappear as time passes or as the boy jumps on them.
Moreover, in a clear evolution on the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda and perhaps as a nod to what was about to come – in a much more developed form – in A Link to the Past, most of the mazes in StarTropics have gimmicks or moments that define them. There are large thematic rooms that stretch across two screens and use that setup to their advantage; there is a dungeon where players need to use a wand to reveal enemies that are invisible, which is not an entirely good twist; and there are even puzzles that involve multiple rooms.
As a game released when the NES was at the tail-end of its life, StarTropics is a product that – in many ways – takes advantage of the better production values and more advanced game design concepts that existed in that period. This is visible in its solid presentation, in its quality soundtrack, in how its dungeons are built, in how its adventure is structured, in how its great boss battles are visually spectacular for the console they are in, and in how progress lost due to death is reasonable rather than unforgiving for modern standards. Sadly, this greater maturity is not enough to stop the game from bumping onto a few bad habits of the era. And unfortunately, examples of these shortcomings abound.
There is how falling into water, lava, or holes, rather than depleting Mike’s health slightly, means immediate death; this exaggerated punishment turns the numerous rooms where these traps are a threat into nightmares, especially when disappearing blocks are involved. There are various moments in the game, be it inside the mazes or outside them, where invisible passages must be found for the hero to progress, which leads to a dull process of walking into solid walls until something happens. And there are frequent design details that instead of being a fair challenge come off as cheap attempts to kill players, like the invisible enemies that exist in one of the dungeons and that appear without any sort of introduction or explanation; a room where invisible holes on the floor make Mike fall into a lower level filled with damaging traps; another where blocks start disappearing as soon as the protagonist enters through the door, making it nearly impossible for unaware players to react fast enough; and a dungeon where taking the wrong path means being forced to go back to the entrance.
Curiously, though, the most frequent issue in StarTropics is not one of these bad habits of the time, but a different issue altogether: the controls. The problem on that front has to do with the fact Mike always moves on a grid pattern and, because of that, pressing a direction different from the one he is facing will not cause him to move, but merely turn his body; as such, it effectively takes two button presses to make him change direction. It may sound like a silly detail, but in a game where avoiding foes is so crucial, this decision causes an odd delay in movement because abruptly dodging to the side is not possible, since it never feels like it happens as fast as it should. Truth be told, some players may adjust to this quirk and not feel like it is an issue most of the time, but it is safe to say nearly everyone who goes through StarTropics will encounter situations where they will be hit or die because of the game’s strange choice in that regard.
As a hybrid between the adventure and RPG genres, StarTropics was a pretty unique concept for the time, and the fact it uses a greater focus on story and more advanced dungeon design concepts to expand upon a few areas of The Legend of Zelda formula makes it easy to see why some fans often point to it as a franchise that was undeservingly left behind by Nintendo on the NES days. Contrarily, its punctual annoying design quirks, its irregular controls, its big gameplay overlap with a more popular property, and its birth towards the end of the system’s lifespan as a somewhat dated product might explain the reason why it was abandoned. Yet, when it is all said and done, there is some quality and fun to be found in the package, and although those may not come in large enough doses to make one desperately wish Nintendo had kept the property rolling, they should be sufficient to allow players to appreciate StarTropics for what it is: a charming quest with some nice ideas that still has its place as a legacy title.