Ever since I started writing legitimate game reviews on this accessible website, nothing has scared me more than to review specific types of games. The first among these select types are multiplayer games because a lot of the player’s experience comes from self-pertained skill and interaction with other players, and reviewing part of a game based off of that sounds tricky. Another type is arcade games. Who knows if I will ever actually get around to or be willing to confront arcade games in the first place, but the reason I find them so daunting as well is because they are essentially pure video games seemingly immune to a critical consensus. The final type (there are a few more up for consideration, but these are the major ones) is NES games — which somewhat relates to arcade games in the sense that they are so simple-minded in nature and seem nearly impossible to criticize.
However, I decided to take on the task of reviewing a game from one of these categories — an NES game by the name of StarTropics: one of Nintendo’s more obscure games and one of their rare franchises that never made it past the NES. Curiously enough, this game was developed in Japan but only ever released in North America and Europe. In StarTropics, you play as the 15-year-old Mike who sets off with nothing but a yo-yo in his hand on a quest to save his uncle, Dr. Jones, from a race of aliens who kidnapped him.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, however, I have a slight disclaimer: I played StarTropics on the NES Classic Edition which has a built-in save function. I have to admit that I did cheat by using it in a few areas, so I may not have genuinely “endured” the complete adversity StarTropics had to offer. However, I still think I experienced enough to get an idea of its relentlessness.
At first glance, the 1990 release StarTropics is structured much like The Legend of Zelda, containing a top-down Battle Mode view and overworld travel system (called “Travel Mode,” which is more reminiscent of Zelda II in how it transitions to its Battle Mode). This is because head designer, Genyo Takeda, was heavily inspired by the first The Legend of Zelda, so it’s no surprise there are many discernible similarities between the two.
The overworld gameplay is mostly monotonous and regrettably linear, resulting in its expendability — there are still a few interesting secrets to be found — but once the player reaches the first dungeon, the gameplay becomes interesting. Although they are also slightly linear (the later dungeons are fortunately much less so), the dungeons contain some commendable design aspects. The first one in particular, starts out with a room already full of enemies — easily beatable ones at that — and gradually but quickly eases the player into the game’s general feel by having them jump across platforms, defeat enemies, and feel the controls to prepare them for the more perilous territory.
Every dungeon also contains some enjoyably hidden secrets such as limited, albeit more powerful weapons and health medicine mainly through the use of graphics (speaking of which, are colorful and superb, especially for the NES). Every item has a purpose — the designers did a great job presentation-wise by bestowing the player with a new item, and then immediately having them use that item on an enemy or in a room to convey its function. There were multiple times I facepalmed during play due to my untrusting attitude and lack of experimentation of the weapons, but trust me when I say every item has a purpose — sometimes more than one.
If there is one major difference, though, from its doppelgänger, Zelda, it is StarTropics’ grid-based movement. This form of movement is both a blessing and a curse. It acts as a blessing because of its platforming aspects. Sometimes the platforms are converted into treacherous obstacles, and most times, you have to hop around the room and fight enemies simultaneously — which produces a unique mix of combat and player activity.
However, this could act as a curse as well when no grid-hopping is involved because Mike’s movement on the ground is marred by the rigid controls. Turning a different direction is notably stiff. It takes an extra push of a button to propel Mike in a different direction, which is certainly an interesting choice (it could allow you to face north to strike an enemy without actually moving towards the north), but it intermittently makes Mike’s ground-based movement a burden to work with.
StarTropics offers a great variety in enemies. There are constantly new ones to be found right up until the final level in the game. Their behaviors are learned through trial and error, keeping the player consistently vigilant. Boss battles are a joy — using its grid-hopping combat and discoverable weapons to its advantage for plenty of memorable boss fights.
There are a few instances where the dungeon and enemy design is faulty — but only infrequently so. There was a point where I discovered a secret door, but when I went through the screen change, I was killed instantly, making me feel punished for my exploration. One of the bosses also felt extremely luck-based. The player is forced to get right up against it, and it was nearly impossible to dodge any of his attacks. There’s also a certain type of enemy that moves at lightning speed in the one of the final levels, and in one particular section are incredibly difficult to evade because of the platform jumping animation and little time you are given to act.
But overall, StarTropics fits right in with the rest of the unrelentingly difficult cast of NES games from the era. Of course, it’s not the most original nor thoughtfully polished compared to some, but stands as a classic example of old games and how they used to be focused on nothing but pure, dumb fun.