Review: StarTropics

Life under the Southern Cross

By on November 10, 2012

As the nights are growing longer and the chill from the north begins to set in your bones, visions of sandy beaches and warm winds fill your thoughts when you close you eyes. A quick dip in the ocean would be lovely; if only you were there. These types of thoughts certainly filled my mind and coaxed me in to playing StarTropics, the 1990 NES classic. What I didn’t realize is that instead of a nice, soothing day listening to the waves come in, I would instead be putting my balls in a vice.

StarTropics is one of those games that you remember from your youth that you never quite finished but have fleeting memories of renting at the video store. It would always be checked out, seemingly, but you could get it every so often. It’s also one of those games that you buy on your Wii because of these memories, but never quite put the time into it that it deserves. As a result, poor StarTropics sat dormant on my Wii for more than a couple of years, halfway finished, neglected. Fortunately the chill weather brought me to my senses, and I picked up this week to put it down, for good, by beating it.

A Warm Day on the Beach

We open as Mike, our protagonist, arrives on C-Island. He is visiting his uncle, Dr. Jones, an archaeologist who as far as I know has an extremely coincidental name and has never battled Nazis. Knowing that his uncle has been working at a nearby village, Mike makes his way to the hut where Jones should be. To his surprise and dismay, the brown, thatched hut is empty. Looking for answers, Mike speaks with the portly chief of the village and soon learns all is not well on this once peaceful island.

Mike finds out from the chief that Dr. Jones has gone missing and that there might be monsters about. Never caring about his own safety, Mike wields a weapon that surely will strike fear in to the hearts of his enemies: a…yo-yo…and then sets off for adventure!

Almost. Before leaving the borders of the village, the local shaman speaks to Mike and creepily ensures him that he will probably be ok if he grows too weary (you will see her a lot: every time you need to continue). With that, Mike BAMFs through a dungeon, and on the other side speaks to his uncle’s assistant. Dr. Jones is not on the island, but Mike commandeers his sweet submarine complete with a robot co-pilot named NAV-COM. Together, Mike and NAV-COM set sail for the open seas, and hopefully to find traces of Dr. J.

Into the Dungeon

The majority of StarTropics will have you traversing dank, dark caves, brandishing your yo-yo against evil slugs, bats, and zombie-chicken-skeletons. The glue that binds these dungeons all together are outdoor maps that look akin to early Final Fantasy over worlds, with large squares being the default size for EVERYTHING. “Let’s make the wall of this hut the same width as that pathway over there,” said the only builder in town to the air. The people that live in this world love to walk in place, and those that do meander about will assuredly stop right in front of the door you need to enter until you walk away nonchalantly. Everyone looks like they have been squished in a press. It’s adorable. These over world areas simply are linear paths to the next dungeon, and save from a couple of towns in the game, they literally are straight paths that are there purely to show you that you are in a different place that where that last dungeon was. But who is complaining? No one.

Once Mike invariably makes his way to a dungeon, everything changes. Things “zoom in” for a lack of a better phrase, and Mike looks normal. The creatures are of a correspondingly normal size, and we get our first taste of action. A lot of folks will describe StarTropics as being similar to Zelda, and while it is (he has two rows of red hearts for life!), it certainly takes a step back from the RPG side of things and focuses squarely on hot yo-yo gameplay. Items you find in dungeons stay will you only the duration of that dungeon, for example; afterwards Mike just throws all of the stuff he found on the ground because “why not?” You only have three lives to complete each dungeon, and then any progress you have made will vanish and you will have to start from the beginning of that dungeon with three hearts. Also unlike most of Link’s adventures, Mike can jump, and a lot of gameplay revolves around this ability. Tons, actually. Half of your time in these dungeons will be jumping around on things. So much jumping!

StarTropics‘ jumping actually is pretty specific to the game. I, certainly, cannot think of another title (save its sequel) that does jumping in this way. You see, Mike finds square tiles in these dungeons that are different from the rest of the floor, and the only way for him to traverse them is by jumping on them and then jumping off. When the square you are jumping to is out in the middle of a bottomless pit, that makes some sense. Obviously that square requires a jump. But when the tile is simply in the middle of a room, then it seems a little weird. At least at first. Through the first dungeon, while yo-yoing the heck out of bats, I struggled a little with remembering that to get off of a tile one must jump instead of simply walk. After a few deaths and a few continues, however, I quickly learned the tricks of the trade, and many would be deaths turned into cunning displays of acrobatics.

Unfortunately, that cunning display of acrobatics isn’t always 100%. There happens to be a slight delay when making precise turns that causes the utmost frustration at key times in the game. When running and needing to turn, Mike will kind of slide into that turn, and this is hardly ever in your favor. If you go back and think about The Legend of Zelda for a moment, especially the first, recall that Link moves only left, right, up, or down at any given moment. Mike does this too, but as mentioned, when walking to the right for a moment and then pushing up, say, his sprite will turn facing up but he will move one more square to the right before starting any upward motion. The most frustrating example of why this sucks is when you are running from an enemy and are needing to jump to a platform. Thinking that you can just turn and jump, you turn and jump and find yourself falling into an abyss because Mic has slippery shoes. This is not a deal breaker, necessarily, but it takes getting used to, and I was still cursing it during the last battle of the game.

In These Caves There Be Items

The various dungeons you will encounter are filled with ridiculously annoying enemies, and each definitely has at least one boss for you to murder in cold blood. Fortunately, these bad guys also threw about the caverns nice weapons that you can use to kill them with. Unfortunately, they are all pretty fleeting.

Beyond your trusty yo-yo – which does get upgrades as you progress, sweet! – you might find in any given dungeon throwing stars, baseballs, a shoe thing that lets you hit every enemy on screen with a jump kick, and quite a few more. There are four slots at the bottom of the screen that show you what items you have, but rarely will you ever fill them up, if ever. I cannot remember a time when all four of those slots had something in them, but surely that exists in the game otherwise there would not be four slots. Anyhow, the items you pick up all have a limited amount of uses, and, of course, once they run out they are gone. With that in mind, you might think to conserve these precious items, but once you figure out that Mike totally ditches all of this cool stuff when he leaves a dungeon, you begin liberally throwing baseballs and bolas at everything.

Your yo-yo, once it gains power, turns in to a pretty awesome morning star that is actually called the Shooting Star. This not only deals more damage but extends the range of the now-awesome yo-yo by a square or two. The downside, however, is that you have to have a certain amount of hearts to use it. Once you get below seven hearts, it changes back into the standard yo-yo. How? ARCHIPELAGO MAGIC! In battle, this becomes a royal pain. In the heat of things, after a couple of hits your spiked death ball will turn into a wimpy plastic disc on a string, and while you walk-the-dog at your enemies, they are continually attacking.

Besides weapons, a couple of dungeons introduce torches to light up dark rooms and an anklet that allows Mike to jump over two spaces instead of just the normal one. These are the most common, but when researching the game, apparently there is a “Snowman Doll” that can stop enemies in their tracks. I do not recall ever finding that.

The most important item you can find in dungeon is the magic potion, which does what you might think it does. By consuming this mason jar of red liquid, you regain a few hearts of health, and finding one of these bad boys is about the greatest sight you will see in your spelunking.

Image sprites via The Sprite Resource

That Time You Bruised Your Leg

StarTropics is notorious for being difficult. This review will not try to deny that by any means, but I will preface this section by saying that the difficulty displayed here is in no way on the levels of some even-more-notoriouser NES titles that serve no purpose other that to make you want punch cute things. If you have an understanding of Ninja Gaiden in this regard, then StarTropics never comes close to that level of rage, but it certainly holds its own.

What makes this game so frustrating boils down to basically two things: the game stealing your health and enemies who are total jerks.

Like the weapons you throw away after completing a dungeon, Mike apparently likes to make sure his journey is that much harder by hitting himself in the face with a brick until he gets down to three hearts. Every time you leave a dungeon after felling its boss, no matter how many hearts you might have had, you now have three to start you off with for the next dungeon you will eventually find. What a gyp! On one particularly good run, I bested the boss and came out of the dungeon with just a couple of hearts empty only to see them all drop down. The real kick in the pants is that upon exiting the dungeon, a message pops up that says something to the effect of “Well done!” as you lose all of your gear and hearts.

Before starting this game know these things: your yo-yo will almost always feel woefully underpowered and enemies exploit this by being horrible jerks. Many of them move in fairly erratic patterns that make your ability to only attack in the four cardinal directions a waste of a good button press. If you do happen to defeat one, good luck getting a life replenishing heart out of one. The odds of that happening are slim to slimmer. Couple this with the fact that you will start each dungeon no matter what with only three hearts, and you got yourself a frustrating time. To be fair, you can start to pick out the patterns of the bad guys after you have died to them a few times, but they are just random enough to surprise you in bad ways.

Earlier tonight, while playing the later portions of the game, I came across an area so rage creating that I ended up with a bruise. Combine Mike’s ability to slide with enemies shooting…things and a room full of gaps to jump about, and you have a recipe for me shouting, “WHY WON’T YOU JUMP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION YOU ****!” A few iterations of this later part of the dungeon with continues that took me back to the start of the dungeon caused me to flail a fist that struck the top of my leg. It is a little red now, but nothing too crazy. The point I am trying to make is: watch out if you are easily angered.

But Is It Good?

With all of that said, is the game itself good? Most certainly. Nintendo does this crazy voodoo where their game can make you shout and stomp your feet but you continue to play because of some damn reason. As a result, if you happen to be jonesing for a pretty straight forward dungeon crawler a la Zelda that has good challenge but is not insurmountable, then by all means. The easiest way to find the game is currently on the Wii for 500 space bux. They also have the sequel, Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II, but we will have to save that discussion for another day.