Good, bad, or indifferent, the NES has a deserved reputation for featuring some brutally hard games. Whether it was because designers were still stuck in the arcade mindset of making hard games to keep the quarters pouring in, or they realized that, since they couldn’t make a terribly long game, they had to pad them out by making games so tough, or they just REALLY wanted gamers to feel like they accomplished a great feat by beating a game, I don’t know, but the fact remains that there are very few easy buckets in the NES lineup, and not a lot you’d really describe as an honest challenge. That being said, you can imagine my excitement to find out today’s game, 1990’s StarTropics, managed to find that elusive medium of just challenging enough without whacking you in the nards at every turn.
You play as Mike Jones, a teenage baseball player sent to visit his uncle, an archeologist named Dr. Jones (hmmm…) on Coralcola Island in the South Pacific, only to find that Dr. Jones is missing, and of course, you have to track him down. In layman’s terms, this means you’ll be hopping from island to island in your uncle’s submarine, exploring caves, secret tunnels, and all manner of dungeon, solving puzzles, and fighting myriad angry creatures until you find Dr. Jones and discover what got him worked up into such a tizzy in the first place (SPOILER ALERT: Aliens, bro!).
StarTropics plays rather like Legend of Zelda, and I could make a case this is the game Zelda II should have been. In the overworld and in towns, you see things in a top-down perspective, walking around, talking to villagers for clues and searching for hidden passages and dungeon entrances. When you enter a dungeon, things change up a bit to a more action-oriented approach; Mike looks a lot bigger, and can jump as well as attack, and this is where the meat of the game takes place. You start with a short-range yo-yo that can eventually be upgraded to have a projectile attack also, but only if you have enough life energy.
Aside from that, you’ll also collect secondary weapons that only stay with you while you’re in the dungeon; slingshots, baseballs, mirrors that can deflect certain enemies’ attacks back at them, even ninja stars that can be split into two and change direction, as well as magic items like a wand that shows previously hidden enemies and a lantern to light up blacked-out rooms. Most dungeons feature a boss at the end, and while some bosses are a bit tougher than others, it’s nothing that pattern recognition and good timing can’t overcome.
Not all the action is combat-related, though. Each dungeon has quite a few puzzles to solve along the way, from triggering switches hidden in jumping tiles to finding secret passages that go through walls to otherwise unreachable areas, this is very much a thinking man’s NES action-adventure game. I do understand that more than a few readers’ sphincters probably clenched at the prospect of hidden passages and jumping puzzles in an NES game, but I assure you it’s much less rough than it sounds.
Unlike Legend of Zelda, where you had to be prepared to bomb every square inch of every cave to find hidden areas, here, passages are marked (both in dungeons and the overworld) with a distinct shadow that indicates a hollow space. Even better, jumping’s not an issue because all the ordinary issues (not gauging the distance correctly or bad landing detection) are non-existent; point Mike towards the tile and press A, and, assuming there’s only a one-space gap, Mike will land in dead center of the tile without a problem. This isn’t to say there aren’t tricky spots, like a room where you have to uncover a door switch and jump on it before the entire floor gives way, but it’s still nice to know the mechanics aren’t the issue here, and it’s refreshing to see puzzles that don’t have the most esoteric, ass-backwards solutions possible (I’m looking at you, Uninvited).
It also doesn’t hurt that StarTropics looks very nice. The story is presented to you through cut scenes that have a sepia tinge to them, and the characters are very well-rendered and detailed, and some artwork, like Peter, the parrot in the “Captain Bell” chapter, is just downright pretty. Your navigator, a robot buddy named Nav-Com, resembles R.O.B. the robot, and thankfully, they didn’t turn him into the wacky robot sidekick who spouts hacky jokes and terrible dialogue, he just does his job. Also, after beating a dungeon, the game tells you “Wow! You’ve done it!”, which never stopped being strangely encouraging. The dungeon art, you’ll see quite a bit, and it looks pretty standard, but it works fine. Sounds are as bleepy and bloopy as most NES games tend to be, but I can’t fault the designers for the limitations of the hardware. There’s also a few neat little quirks to be found, for one, pausing during the action stages makes Mike turn towards the screen and hold up a little sign with “PAUSE” written on it. Enemy design isn’t bad; you’ll be facing a lot of NES Logic enemies, snakes, bats, rats, and such, but there’s also a handful of stranger creatures, like the skeletal ostrich and the giant purple minotaurs that take a LOT of punishment to put down.
I do have some minor issues, though. Twice in the game, including the very beginning, you’ll run into a situation where an area is being blocked by a guard who refuses to let you pass because, according to him, he doesn’t know who you are. The first time, I tried talking to everyone else in the village for clues, but got nothing. As it turns out, all you have to do is exactly that, talk to everyone else, and then go back and talk to the guard. The second time, I tried to pre-emptively talk to everyone else, but no dice, so I had to talk to everyone again. Also, Mike doesn’t move particularly quickly in the dungeons; pushing a direction doesn’t make him move right away, instead, he has to turn to face another direction first, then moves. You’ll get used to it, by and large, but when you’re crowded by enemies, it’s inconvenient, to say the least. Mike also cannot jump forward unless he’s clearing a gap, so if you want to jump to evade an enemy, remember you can only jump straight up.
In a strange turn of events, at one point, you have to tell Nav-Com the frequency for your uncle’s distress signal. Where do you find it? In a letter that’s supposed to be attached to the instruction manual…and you have to dip it in water. Yes. You have to dip an actual, physical letter in real-world water to get an invisible ink message. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a measure of copy protection or a breaking-the-fourth-wall, wink-nudge type of moment (though given this game’s personality, I’d guess the latter, and if it is, that deserves some serious credit for creativity), but I didn’t care for the entire momentum of the game to crash to a halt so I could dick about the internet looking for a three-digit code.
Aside from those minor hiccups, I do have one serious sticking point, one so severe it singlehandedly cost this game a 5-star rating. Y’see, the first 85, 90% or so of StarTropics is a very fun romp with just the right level of difficulty, up until you find your uncle, who tells you an alien spaceship has landed nearby and you need to go check it out. The exact moment you board the spaceship is the exact moment StarTropics takes its smiley-face mask off, smacks you in the base of the skull with a sock filled with silver dollars, and proclaims “LOL FUCK YOU I’M STILL AN NES GAME!”, because once on board, prepare yourself for a tidal wave of: enemies you can’t reach, enemies you have to carefully maneuver around to hit, enemies that show up out of the blue and run you over, enemies that blow through your health like a sneeze through a wet tissue, and mandatory teleporter hopping with no idea where you’ll wind up. It literally takes everything I was prepared to praise StarTropics for not having and hurls it at you in this one level, and all it’s missing are the birds from Ninja Gaiden waiting to knock you into the pits between jumps. I cannot stress enough how disappointed I was that this game that I’d really enjoyed up until that point would feel the need to revert to all the tricks I hated so virulently about many other games of the era.
Despite that little bit of emotional scarring, and after calming down, I have to say that StarTropics is still nothing short of a great game. The overwhelming majority of it is a very well-balanced adventure game that definitely deserves a spot up at the top of the NES heap. It looks good, plays well, rewards patience and observation, and yet, doesn’t really punish anyone…until the end. Also, for anyone reading who owns a Wii, you can also scoop up a copy on the Virtual Console, and I would definitely invite you to give it a try…and if you decide to turn the game off after reaching the spaceship, I do not blame you.
It’s an adventure game for NES that doesn’t require precision jumping or a walkthrough for every puzzle! Character artwork is great, and the story is pretty decent.
Controls are a bit sluggish in the action stages, and there’s that teensy, tiny little matter of the spaceship level.