Posted by Conor McMahon
Sun, sea, sand, and aliens
Winter is slowly creeping up on us, so it's as good a time as ever to explore warmer climates and take your mind off of the bad weather. For some NES-filtered beams of sunshine, why not step into the shoes of young Mike Jones, an American kid who's headed for an alphabetic island on the tropical adventure of a lifetime? Take that banana out of your ear before we continue, please.
Named after its geographical shape, C-Island plays host to the 1990 action RPG StarTropics - a surprisingly unsung title that was both developed and published by Nintendo itself. Originally, Mike's adventure was only ever intended for release outside of Japan, so the game is naturally loaded with references to baseball, soda, a hint of The Goonies, and alien invasions - everything a hip kid from Americola needs!
In terms of story things are kept fairly simple - but comfortably so. Upon arrival on the island Mike discovers that his archaeologist Uncle Steve has gone missing, leaving a sudden plague of monsters to take over in his absence. It's a little more than he bargained for, but the friendly natives and their chief Coralcola gift the heroic boy with a sacred star (a yo-yo to you and me) before sending him out on a quest of discovery.
Initially, StarTropics seems to build upon the top-down 2D world popularised by The Legend of Zelda, but actually bears more in common with its sequel Zelda II. This is mainly due to the fact that gameplay is broken up into two distinct parts - navigating the overworld and traversing dungeons. The former is key to progressing and plays like an old-school RPG, though there won't be any random encounters as you do so. Chatting with villagers, finding hidden paths and roaming around people's houses is all helped along by a goofy charm and lighthearted atmosphere, which carries through almost all of the writing.
Things change completely once you venture into one of the game's numerous dungeons, which generally take place underground and away from the tropical overworld. It's a drastic shift in both perspective and gameplay, as Mike gets a larger, more detailed sprite and can hop from place to place on a grid or walk in four directions. Movement is far from fluid as a result, occasionally making our hero feel sluggish and awkward to control. At worst, it can actually seem as though Mike is always one step behind your commands. The grid-based design also influences many of the puzzles Mike will come across, which require you to find the correct route around pitfalls or nimble enemies.
Each of the 8 chapters has a new environment to explore, at least one dungeon to complete, and revolves around a smaller, self-contained story. Whether it's saving a caged dolphin or dressing as a woman to infiltrate a female-only castle (yes really), things move along at a nice pace until an evil alien is eventually revealed as the cause of all this mischief. Half the fun of StarTropics is definitely seeing how a bizarre plot tangent will pan out and the constant allure of that next island on the horizon. It nails a strong sense of adventure, making the overworld sections a real highlight.
Dungeons, on the other hand, are a lot more generic. Essentially you'll progress by clearing enemies or finding hidden switches before facing a boss at the very end of each one. This will probably sound pretty familiar to most of you, but just imagine Zelda with 100% more hopping. Identical tiles are placed all over every dungeon, hiding buttons and mapping out the grid as you move along. Additional puzzle elements are manipulated by using magic items that last inside that dungeon only, such as a torch to light up darkened rooms or a way to identify invisible ghosts. Needless to say, these are a real breath of fresh air once they're introduced.
There are also a number of sub-weapons to be found, which come with limited ammo. It's important to use them while you can, since losing a life or leaving the dungeon means they're gone. The yo-yo on its own can be permanently upgraded during the course of the story, but nothing quite matches the swing of a baseball bat - one of the most satisfying weapons we've ever used in a game of this type! Ranged weapons such as the flame are also a safe bet, since enemies often move faster than Mike due to those shaky jump mechanics.
Because there isn't a "game-over" state as such, and plenty of chances to save, it would be a push to call this a particularly difficult game, especially once you're used to the controls. However, there are definitely a few cheap deaths and niggling design issues in store that could prove frustrating. Several paths lead towards an instant, unavoidable death for example, and certain buildings have entrances that are completely hidden away with no indication of where a door might be. It's a long game - weighing in at least 10 hours for the average playthrough - so we suggest taking your time in order to best enjoy your virtual vacation.
Ultimately, if there's one thing that StarTropics does right, it's the visual style and overall atmosphere. There's a ridiculous amount of variety to the people you meet and the places you visit, which are brought to life by bright graphics and a strong script. There are even moments that are presented from a first-person perspective, with detailed spritework to match. Piloting your submarine is all the more exciting with your robotic buddy by your side! Music has a playful, exotic feel to it as well, but the same few tracks are used a bit too often for our liking.
Taking influences from Zelda, the Mother series, and classic RPGs, StarTropics still stands out on its own as a totally worthwhile and unique experience by blending all those elements together. Clunky controls and repetitive dungeons do show their age slightly, but exploring the overworld is as entertaining as ever with some genuinely funny moments. It's vaguely remembered by many as "that game where you dip the letter in water", but a diverse range of environments and memorable aesthetic make this an island trip worth reliving for yourself.