A StarTropics Retrospective: No Water Necessary

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By Josh Nichols on March 5th, 2021

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StarTropics is as far out as it is imaginative, perhaps only rivaled by Mother in terms of how firmly planted it is in surreal fantasy and Americana on the NES. Though, Mother wasn’t released outside of Japan until the worldwide digital release on the Wii U in 2015 while StarTropics has only been released in America and Europe. To this day it’s the only game developed internally by Nintendo to never see release in Japan. StarTropics was always intended to be for American and European audiences by creator and director Genyo Takeda.

Takeda had already delivered the incredibly successful Punch-Out!! before starting work on StarTropics. Punch-Out!! was aimed directly at Western consumers and considered a massive success within Nintendo, proving games released outside of Japan could sell very well with localization efforts and by paying attention to Western markets and culture. Takeda had something entirely different in mind for his next project; he wanted to develop a game filled with American influences. He loved American films and wanted to create something that reflected that. The journey to creating StarTropics started in 1989 and it was unusual from the inception.

The adventure continues …

Takeda saw the success of The Legend of Zelda and wanted to create something in the same genre to take advantage of its success while also utilizing the adventure themes to tell a story of his own. Development was different from most games right away with Takeda starting with a script that went through the story and focused on the character’s journey through it. Takeda’s ambition and commitment to StarTropics no doubt helped provide such a unique identity but also caused the more limited release and ultimately the short life of the series. The game’s development was stretched past the initial planned release timeframe, finishing only after the Super Famicom was already in homes across Japan.

It was probably a tough decision to forfeit sales in Japan but without the extra development time, the game either wouldn’t have been finished or would have lacked details that helped make it so special.  Marketing a game is already a lot of work, especially for a game hailing from a new intellectual property, so it is understandable why Nintendo decided against selling StarTropics in Japan alongside Super Mario World and F-Zero. It was difficult enough to convince Americans to throw money at it when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was set to release less than a year after StarTropics hit shelves. It was even worse in Europe, where it came two months after the Super Nintendo’s release. In the end it was for the best though; StarTropics is exactly what Takeda envisioned and remains interesting thirty years after its original release.

Your Typical Tropical vacation, now with Aliens!

I had never played StarTropics until I decided to write this retrospective. It always looked interesting. I’d always wanted to play it but I just never got around to it. I didn’t realize how special it was. It’s a little easier to play now so I’m hoping that more people go on this strange and exciting journey that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was quietly re-released on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console applications and even available on the NES Classic Edition but the easiest (and best) way to play it is absolutely on the Nintendo Switch Online service.

StarTropics is a thrilling adventure with ghosts, aliens, monsters, magic, and even talking dolphins. It’s something every fan of adventure, retro, or Zelda-esque games should experience at least once. But it’s also incredibly difficult and unforgiving at times. Some battles are extremely frustrating and dying can send you back to the beginning of dungeons (more on those later) and several platforming segments require trial and error and just guessing sometimes. StarTropics can be as obtuse as it is compelling, so the Nintendo Switch Online’s rewind feature can really improve the quality of your experience. It’s a lot easier to recommend it to people with that feature being available and that extends to many early Nintendo games. The NES Classic Edition has the same feature, but you must press the physical ‘reset’ button on the actual system because uh, well… It’s probably best if you just play it on the Switch.

The story starts off simple enough. You play as Mike Jones, who is traveling to visit his Uncle on C-Island. It’s called C-Island because it’s shaped like the letter ‘C.’ It was a different time. It was the 90s. Mike’s Uncle, an archaeologist named Dr. Steven Jones (no, not that Dr. Jones), is missing and Mike needs to rescue him. Mike learns this as soon as he arrives at the village of Coralcola but the chief of Coralcola hooks Mike up with a yo-yo weapon before he takes his Uncle’s submarine to search for him.

The gameplay loop is wonderful. It’s very similar to Zelda, but that was of course intentional since Takeda wanted Nintendo to do more with that formula. You control Mike in two different perspectives that work very well in instantly communicating what to expect for the player. One perspective is completely top down and is limited to conversing with people you encounter, exploring, and progressing story beats. There’s no combat from this perspective. It’s reminiscent of traveling through overworlds in early JRPGs.

From this perspective Mike will talk to NPCs and obtain information that serves to move the story forward while also providing details on where he needs to go next. This also sometimes involves moving around the overworld in Dr. Jones’ submarine. The world is colorful and feels lived in, despite there not being any characters or creatures located within these screens. I honestly think they would have added people and creatures to interact with in the world if it weren’t for the already chaotic development time and the technological limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s balanced out though with how densely detailed the villages and dungeons are.

These sections also feature full screen conversations with some characters, which not only pads out main characters, but it also adds appropriate emotions to conversations. During these scenes, characters take up the bulk of the screen and are presented from Mike’s first-person perspective. This allows more details to be shown on character’s faces and it does a lot for the game’s charm and character. StarTropics gets a little silly in some portions of the story but it works, and it’s largely in part because of these “cutscenes.”

StarTropics does a great job of knowing when to switch between the two styles of storytelling. It’s an equally brilliant and elegant solution to not only putting the focus where it needs to be while working within and around the Nintendo Entertainment System’s limitations, but it also immediately sets player expectations and communicates what they’ll be doing.

Mike travels through so many locations while searching for his Uncle, all while exploring and battling through enemy-filled caves and caverns along the way. This is where the game shines the most, but its also where some of its age begins to show.

Dungeons are still in a top-down style camera angle, but Mike, enemies, and the environment are all bigger and more detailed. This is where the Zelda-style dungeons take place, which features combat, platforming, puzzle-solving, and exploration. Mike’s main weapon is his yo-yo, but he also wields other weapons and magic. The puzzles vary in quality, with some being more annoying than engaging, but there were plenty I legitimately enjoyed solving that felt really satisfying. Those “a-ha!” moments are unfortunately brought down some by puzzles that I honestly don’t know how I would have solved without checking a guide online. It’s difficult to hold that against the game too much though since the ambitious game design was limited by the technology of the time. There are plenty of moments like that in The Legend of Zelda as well.

There are also some instances of cheap deaths though that were just as ridiculous then as they are now. I distinctly remember one instance where I died as soon as I moved to the next screen. I moved through a doorway and Mike died immediately from an environmental hazard that’s only avoidable if the player chooses not to go that way. But you can’t see the danger and so you don’t know to avoid that hazard. This was more common during this era of video games but that still doesn’t make it enjoyable or fair game design. This was also back when games were figuring out what worked and what didn’t when transitioning from the quarter-munching era of arcade gaming. Luckily, I was able to just roll my eyes and rewind the game playing on Switch, but I probably would have stopped playing if that happened to me on the original hardware. When you die in dungeons, you’re sent back to the beginning of the dungeon. That’s already a stiff punishment but it’s especially frustrating when it’s from the game hitting you with a cheap death.  

Be Kind and Rewind

Despite some of its dated game design, I still found quite a lot of fun in the dungeons. It’s just frustrating because the good stuff in this game is very good but there are just enough moments to really hamper some parts of the experience. These moments unfortunately aren’t just an area in one section or two either; every dungeon has moments where I found myself exclaiming “But how could I have known that would kill me?” or simply wondering how long I would have been stuck looking for a door or platform if I didn’t have access to guides online. I’m all for problem solving and puzzles in games, but there are just so many invisible doors and platforms that don’t need to be invisible, especially since the platforming and movement is so satisfying when it works and situations are built around those mechanics!

The overworld portions of the game are usually more straight forward but there are a few instances where I firmly believe progression would have been impossible without either checking a guide or just searching for the next location through trial and error. I chose the former option but I wouldn’t have had a choice in these moments at release. There’s one major instance that only would have been a problem if you didn’t buy the game new before the age of the Internet. Now it’s just a strange decision that remains interesting in hindsight.

Additional Postage Required

DRM, and how its implemented, is always an interesting topic of discussion. For StarTropics, Nintendo decided to use a very interesting form of DRM protection which is as neat as it is ridiculous. The game came with a letter and map when purchased brand new, which sounds like something you’d expect to find in a Limited Run Games release, but it was far more than a fun bonus, and something that was more common with many games. The letter provided additional story context, as well as some necessary information that is needed to progress through the game. The letter reads:

“Dear Mike,

                I am sorry I did not write you sooner, but I just returned from a long voyage in the islands in search of lost ruins and artifacts. I was very pleased to find your letter upon my return. Boy, time sure is flying by! Last time I saw you, you were just starting school… and now, 15 years old, an honor student, and captain of your high school baseball team!

                I think it’s a great idea that you visit me during your vacation. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the tropical islands, the blue water, and the friendly people you’ll find living under the Southern Cross. You can even take a cruise in my super submarine, Sub-C.

                I have enclosed some pictures and a map of C-Island for you.

Hope to see you soon, and give my regards to your family.

                                                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                Uncle Steve”

Alright, so the set up for the story alone is crucial enough to where I think it should have been put into the game in some form or another, even if just an item in Mike’s inventory or something. I don’t know but Nintendo thought it was necessary too, which is why it was used as an incentive to buy the game instead of renting it or borrowing from a friend. I think the vacation aspect is pretty important because it lets you know why Mike is coming to visit and how his vacation went from being a chill tropical hang with his Uncle to a daring and stressful adventure to save his Uncle from extraterrestrials. But most importantly, the game asks the player about halfway through to dip the physical paper letter in water to reveal a set of numbers that are necessary to progress. It was the 90s and DRM protection was ridiculous.

I would have been so frustrated if I managed to make my way through a large portion of this difficult game, only to get stuck because I don’t have a piece of paper that came with the game when purchased new. Nintendo included the letter in the Virtual Console releases on Wii and Wii U, which can be accessed by going to the digital manual for the game. It’s not available in-game at all on the Nintendo Switch Online version. I’m sure Nintendo was thinking players could just look it up online but it’s still lame that there is no way in the game’s release to get this critical piece of information. Not only do players need to break immersion and use a computer or phone to look it up but they also shouldn’t have to stop playing a game to progress. But if the player doesn’t input the 3-digit code from the letter then they’ll be stranded on an island halfway through the game and unable to get the Sub-C to the next location. StarTropics isn’t the first game to include egregious DRM protection into a game, and certainly wasn’t the last, but it’s worth pointing out. It’s also odd they didn’t include the letter digitally in the Switch version like they did on Wii and Wii U.

A Sight worth seeing

StarTropics is still a lot of fun most of the time. It could just be so much better. It’s something I’d love to see Nintendo remake at some point because they could iron out all the issues, expand on some segments, and create a near-perfect experience. They don’t even really need to change much with the story. It’s already got everything it needs. It goes from a kid visiting his Uncle on vacation to a battle against an alien that looks like it came straight out of the mind of H.R. Giger. It’s just such a shame it never got the chance to be fully realized in what could have been a creative franchise that continued for decades.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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