When I think of my personal favorite NES games, some common favorites like the Super Mario Bros games and The Legend of Zelda come to mind. But right up there with them is a little adventure called StarTropics. I recently went back to play through both the original and its sequel for the first time in a number of years, and I was surprised at how well they hold up. No wonder they have resonated with me for more than 20 years.
The original StarTropics was developed by Nintendo and published on the NES in late 1990. It’s an interesting case of Nintendo creating a game specifically for the American market, insofar that it was never even released in Japan and there is no Japanese language version of it. The game was the creation of Genyo Takeda, who was known for being somewhat “America-centric,” and also created other Nintendo games with American sensibilities, such as Punch-out!! and NES Play-Action Football.
StarTropics is an action-adventure game, similar to The Legend of Zelda, but more linear, and with an old school RPG-like overworld map. What really makes it unique, however, is its setting. The main character, an American teenager named Mike Jones, explores several tropical islands in search of his missing uncle, the archaeologist Dr. Steve Jones (aka Dr. J). His adventure takes him through several chapters that include haunted villages, underwater caves, and getting swallowed by a whale! There’s also several sci-fi elements that blend surprisingly well with the tropical atmosphere to create a very appealing world. The game also has a cheesy sense of humor with a lot of “bad” jokes, but it’s all part of the game’s incredibly charming and unique personality.
Some people find the gameplay a little off-putting, as movement is strictly grid-based and can feel a little stiff at first. It’s an unusual choice for an action-oriented game, but once you get the hang of it, the control is actually very responsive. There are also a lot of clever puzzles, one of which even breaks the fourth wall. The original release of the game came with a letter from Dr. J attached to the instruction manual. At first, it just seems like a cool bit of frivolity, but you actually have to do something very interesting with it to get a code to use in the game. (Take that, Metal Gear Solid!)
Despite being featured on the cover of Nintendo Power magazine and having a TV commercial, the original StarTropics was not terribly successful. Still, it managed to have one sequel, Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II, released for the NES in 1994. As you can probably imagine, it didn’t fare much better having come out at the very tail-end of the NES’s lifespan, and three years after the introduction of the SNES.
The game takes place a few months after the original game, and instead of hopping from island to island, Mike is traveling through time. Zoda, the antagonist from the original game, is back and is attempting to find seven magical “tetrads” (yes, like from Tetris) hidden in various time periods, and Mike is in a race to get to them first. All the charm and humor is back from the original game, bad jokes and all, and it plays fast and loose with history as Mike meets several fictional figures, including Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur.
Perhaps the most notable (and controversial) change from the original games is the control scheme. Rather than being grid-based, you now have completely free movement in eight directions, including the diagonals. Because of this, the gameplay is a bit faster and even more action-oriented. It also feels more like a platform game with its free-form jumping and multi-layer level design.
These changes were likely made because Nintendo thought that people didn’t like the unusual controls of the original. Ironically, some fans of the original didn’t care for the more traditional controls of the sequel. In fact, the sequel tends to divide fans in general. Personally, I enjoy it every bit as much as the first game. I will admit the time traveling theme isn’t quite as appealing as the tropical island theme, but I still appreciate that they did something different rather than just rehash the original. After all, what’s the point of a sequel if it’s just more of the same?
It’s unfortunate that StarTropics has become another forgotten Nintendo franchise. It doesn’t even have reference or representation in the Super Smash Bros series, which is practically a digital museum of Nintendo history. The fact that the series is practically unknown in Japan probably has a lot to do with it, but in my opinion, it’s really due for a comeback. It’s a shame we never even got to see what the series would’ve been like on the SNES (although SquareSoft’s Secret of Evermore had a similar tone and feel, in my opinion).
Fortunately, both games are available on the Wii Virtual Console in both North America and PAL regions. The operations manual for the original even includes a digital version of the letter from Dr. J, so you won’t be missing the secret code. Definitely check them out if you like classic action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda. Perhaps one day Nintendo will take us back to the Southern Seas for another test of island courage.
StarTropics.com – A fan site formerly known as C-Island.
Hardcore Gaming 101 – Another excellent retrospective.