Playing StarTropics is similar to the experience of slamming your head repeatedly in a car door. It is exactly the sort of game that I would have thrown myself against over and over as a kid, too dumb to realize that the sort of difficulty this game possesses isn’t fun. There is a mile-wide gulf between difficult, yet fun games such as Contra and Ghost’s N Goblins which reward skill and reflexes, and games that feature poor controls and require punishing trial and error to progress. Both are technically difficult, but one type is significantly more enjoyable.
StarTropics was released for the NES in 1990 and unlike the majority of NES games, it was not released for the Famicom. StarTropics follows the protagonist, Mike Jones as he attempts to track down his missing uncle, Dr. Jones (Dr. J). This starts out normal enough, but eventually takes you through a ghost village, the inside of a hungry whale, and into an alien spaceship. Very similar in concept execution to the first Zelda, StarTropics is an overhead action-adventure game that will frequently leave you frustrated and ready to throw your yo-yo through the screen.
StarTropics takes place across an island chain in the South Seas, populated with loads of dungeons to explore and fight your way through. Combat takes place exclusively in the dungeons, with the overworld being solely about exploration and interactions with NPCs. The overworld is bright and cheery, and provides a great tropical feel. Very early in the game, you gain use of a submarine to help you navigate the seas in search of your uncle. The submarine can submerge in certain locations in the water, appearing again in a different, unrelated spot in the water so that you can continue on in your quest.
Unfortunately for StarTropics, an action-adventure game hinges on its combat, and my biggest complaint about StarTropics is the presence of a slight, split-second lag any time you try to start Mike moving. Your input won’t actually register as movement the instant the D-pad is pressed, and this takes some serious getting used to. Changing direction while moving also has this slight delay, causing you to often overshoot the square you meant to stop on. Combined with enemies that have no such restriction (and can move in 8 directions compared to your 4), control in combat can be quite challenging in StarTropics. Why this dubious design choice was made, I’ll never know, but it seriously hinders the game as a whole.
Your main weapon is a yo-yo, which is quite frustrating and limited in range in the beginning of the game. In Chapter 3 (and later on in Chapter 7), you receive upgrades that provide you with a more flexible weapon, but they are unfortunately tied to your health, just like the sword in Zelda. The lower your health, the fewer of the upgrades you can make use of. This becomes particularly punishing when you drop below 6 hearts, forcing you back to your short, limited range yo-yo. Other weapons can be obtained in dungeons, but they aren’t retained outside of a particular dungeon and usually have a certain number of uses associated with them.
One of the most surprising things about StarTropics to me was how challenging it is. After the first two chapters the difficulty really ramps up and stays pretty brutal throughout the remainder of the game. This is certainly due in part to the slight delay in your control that was mentioned previously, but other than that, the game is just hard. Some enemies are particularly difficult to avoid and deal significant damage. Control delay can cause you to accidentally jump into water which is a one-hit kill. Rooms frequently require you to experiment, jumping blinding to hidden platforms (surrounded by water) or using the Magic Wand to reveal hidden ghosts with no indication that they are present. Some rooms require split second reactions as soon as you walk into the room to avoid death, some are merely one-hit kills for choosing the wrong door. Sometimes, the rooms go completely dark, forcing you to navigate blindly based on your memory of the room layout. All these things can be overcome with experience and memorization of the levels, but the difficulty, combined with the frequent trial and error means lots of resetting to the beginning of a dungeon before you can successfully make it through.
Also, typical of NES adventure games, StarTropics’ guidance to the player is unclear at times, absolutely non-existent at others. The player often needs to just run around trying different things in the overworld before they can progress, including trying to walk through what appear to be solid obstacles. While things are usually solvable without too much pain, the maze in Chapter 6 is particularly egregious and can prove to be quite brutal without a walkthrough. To its credit though, StarTropics is much more linear than say, Zelda, and the amount of options the player has are usually limited.
Perhaps what StarTropics is known best for is its unique mechanic that actually relied on a physical letter that came packed in with the game. Partway through the game, the player is asked to input the specific frequency of a tracking signal, which can only be discovered through dipping the physical letter from the box into water. Unfortunately, in the pre-internet days of the early 90s, this made the game particularly onerous, as without the letter, you had a 1 in 1000 chance of guessing the correct code in order to progress. Nowadays, it is easy enough for Google to tell you the code is 747, but 20 years ago, this was a major issue for people without access to the original packaging. Hopefully you knew someone who knew the code, or had parents willing to shell out for Nintendo’s Power Line phone service.
Gameplay: The overhead gameplay is very reminiscent of Zelda, as is the difficulty. If the slight control delay when starting movement went away, it would go a long ways towards making the game more enjoyable. Even still, the enemies and dungeons are overly unforgiving, and seem to reward trial and error more than skill.
Sound: The sound in StarTropics is quite enjoyable, and in particular the overworld theme is very catchy. No Grammy winners here, but it is still a good soundtrack by NES standards.
Nostalgia X-Factor: I had never played StarTropics before a few months ago when I started this playthrough (yeah, I let it sit for awhile out of frustration).
Worth Playing? Honestly, I’d give this one a pass. Unless you are going to sit and stare at a walkthrough the whole time, it is just too painful to get through some of the dungeons when you don’t know the specific tricks and tactics.