Sunday, April 4, 2010

In Retrospect: StarTropics

*SPOILER ALERT*

Here's a game that really should have a lot more recognition than it does, because quite frankly, it's an under-appreciated gem in the NES library that always seems to be forgotten. I'm talking about StarTropics, a game released by Nintendo in 1990. I know very few people who've played through this damn game, which is a shame because I think it's gotta be one of the strongest and most well made franchises that ever came out of Nintendo's design teams. It has no representation in games that mix elements from numerous N-franchises, such as the Smash Bros. series, and it seems as if the big N has forgotten about it completely...but it seems to me that people who've played it love it, so I often wonder why it's been swept under the rug.

When I got this game, it was from my grandparents...they bought it while they were on a trip down to the States...Myrtle Beach, if I'm not mistaken. I'm pretty sure they picked it out because they were in a warm place, and the front of the box resembles a warm place. I never asked for it, because at the time I was 5 or 6 and I really didn't have a method for looking up video games that I wanted besides magazines that I didn't have the money to buy anyway. So this was a total surprise, not only because they came back with a new game for me to sink my teeth into randomly...but also because this was one of the damn finest games I've ever played, and certainly one of my absolute favourite titles in the NES lineup. Hell, my MOTHER started a file and loved it, and she wound up finishing the game before I even did...she doesn't even like video games, so that says a metric fuckton about StarTropics!

So I'll set the game up for you. You play as a teenager from Seattle named Mike Jones, who has just been flown to C-Island in the southern hemispherical tropics. Upon entering the first village and finding out some information, you discover that your uncle Steve, who you are supposed to be visiting, has been abducted randomly...shit, THAT blows! So the island chief decides that you're the best person to get him back, for some random reason, and he gives you a yo-yo to go and kick ass with, because the islands have also become riddled with monsters. Oh, and by the second chapter you find out that your uncle was in fact abducted by aliens.

So let's start figuring out how badass Mike Jones is. He's a teen who ventures into dark caves and fights monsters with A FUCKING YO-YO. And that's just the beginning, but I'll list this shit off as we go.

So the game has two main methods of play. Each chapter has an overworld map, which is top down and you can enter towns, houses and caves and the like, talk to the people. There are a lot of towns where you can only leave after you've talked to every person, so that's definitely important. You can't attack at this point because it's pretty much just an exploration phase...but you can find powerups such as Big Hearts that increase your life meter (very similar to Zelda, in that respect). Not only do you walk around, but you also access a submarine to travel between islands at the end of the first chapter. This thing is able to submerge under certain obstacles, and even go underwater in certain chapters.

When you enter a scary cavern, however, things change. The view zooms in on Mike and you weave your way through labyrinthine dungeons, and this is where you put your yo-yo to good fuckin' use. Pressing the B button causes Mike to sling his yo-yo of death out in front of him to damage enemies. That's not it though, because there's a boatload of gadgets that Mike can find in the levels as he goes, ranging from baseball bats that swing and hit all 360 degrees around our badass protagonist, to spiked cleats that damage all enemies on screen when you use them (complete with 8-bit sound era "Hi-yaaaaaaaah" effect!), to alien laser pistols that I swear to god are the inspiration for the Ray Gun in the Smash Bros. series but they JUST WON'T ACKNOWLEDGE IT FOR GOD'S SAKES! Anyway, when you pick these items up, you just hit select to choose them instead of your yo-yo, and press B to use them or attack with them...picked up items in dungeons have limited uses, however. Along the way, you'll upgrade your main weapon as well. For example, the first upgrade you get turns your yo-yo into a weapon called the shooting star which is essentially a ball and chain. When you attack with it, it attacks at the same distance as the yo-yo, but also throws out a spiked ball projectile so you can hit stuff from a distance. However, you can only use this if you have more than...6 hearts filled up I think, so if your health goes below that, you're down to the yo-yo again. Kind of neat, and it reminds me of the beam attack in Zelda which you can only use when your life is completely full, but a little bit more forgiving.

So Mike's badassedness has increased. He gets to shoot alien guns, weild a ball and chain, pilot a submarine, and kick monsters/aliens in the face with cleats while yelling HI-YAAAAAAAA! That last one alone is almost Chuck Norris-y!

The controls of the game are simple, but occasionally a bit clunky due to the fact that Mike's movement is limited to the four cardinal directions (this was later changed in the sequel, but we'll get to that game eventually). Pressing A will cause Mike to jump, and jumping is essential to this game. Mike can jump up to a maximum of 2 squares...so if you're standing on a block, and there's a block's width of water, followed by another block that you can stand on, you're safe. Knowing your jump limit is fuckin' important because for some damn reason Mike can't swim, and water is all over the place in the dungeons, functioning as the StarTropics equivalent of, say, the bottomless pits in the Super Mario Bros. series. In addition, jumping on certain blocks will trigger events, such as revealing a switch that will pave the way forward when you step on it or open a treasure chest that contains a helpful item. Jumping also lets you dodge something harmful that's heading towards you such as a fireball or certain quick enemies, so if you learn to time your stationary jumps correctly, you can avoid damage and keep that shooting star for a bit longer. Don't forget about jumping puzzles as well, which involve patterns of blocks in rooms that you need to figure out how to traverse, or maybe even memorize so that you can jump across while it's pitch black...and there are also blocks that'll sink after you've jumped onto them, so you need to be damn quick!

And that's why this game is good! StarTropics has a mix of wicked elements that all just seem to come together in each dungeon. One second you could be figuring out just exactly what the best path is to pick up as many hearts in a room while jumping between blocks that are destroying themselves behind you! Later on in the same dungeon, you happen to lose all of those damn hearts because you've been run over by a giant, indestructible bowling ball. After you've gotten past that, you encounter some Ghost Pirate enemies that can't be killed by conventional means...until you realize you can reflect their projectiles back at them with a seemingly useless mirror weapon you picked up earlier! Oh, and before all this, you had to memorize notes that were given to you by a parrot named Peter and replicate them by stepping on a giant set of piano keys (these are all in chapter 5, by the way)! StarTropics isn't just a straight up action game, or a straight up puzzle game, or a straight up exploration game. It's a damn good amalgamation of all of those things, which makes it very unique and keeps you hooked because the first time you play through the game, you never, ever know exactly what's gonna be coming up next on your journey, or what kind of tricks or enemies will be in the next room in a dungeon. Every chapter seems to have its own feel to it because of the situations they present to you, and it winds up that each part of the game finds a place in your memory because of that. I remember every damn part of StarTropics to this date, and I think that's pretty fuckin' cool.

Oh, and lets not forget the letter that came with the game that you had to dunk into water! There's a point where you need to submerge a letter that came with the game which was supposed to have been written by your uncle, and you can't proceed without doing so. Well...you couldn't back when the game came out, but now that the Internet(TM) is around a bit more, you can find ways around it. Still a damn cool feature though!

The enemy selection is extremely varied, but they all seem to fit where they belong. The first dungeon has your standard enemies, such as bats (Noctos), rats (Rattus) and slug-type enemies (called Jellies) that can be picked off pretty easily with your yo-yo. Later on, who knows what the hell you'll run into. Shall I mention the ostriches with a skull for a head and a visible spine that jump over water pits to get you? Or perhaps I'll recall Mr. Armstrong, an arm that comes out of the ground and throws projectiles at you in the graveyard dungeon. Oh, and don't forget the alien troopers that fire beam weapons at you near the end of the game! StarTropics has insane enemy selection...a lot of them'll stick out at you because they're cool, a lot of them'll stick out at you because they're just plain weird, and a lot of them'll stick out at you because they're just friggin' nasty. That bowling ball I mentioned earlier for example! Or the white floating orbs that can't be killed, and take away your ability to attack with any weapon for about 5 seconds after they run into you. You certainly never get bored of the enemies, that's for sure, and they all present their own interesting challenge. Throw a few different kinds in one room, and it gets even more interesting!

The bosses are damn good, too! Most of them involve Mike fighting huge creatures, such as the C-Serpent in the first level, or a giant octopus named Octo the Huge in the second chapter. Most of them follow patterns, so you need to figure out exactly when to retaliate and attack, often after dodging projectiles. Others have tricks to them that'll take a few tries to figure out...but I'm not gonna spoil those. Each boss has you interested, right up to when you fight your final enemy, and you might be killed by them a few times, but I can say for certain that I don't recall a single one of them to be unfair.

The music of StarTropics is terribly catchy, particularly the overworld music and the tune that happens to be played the most while you're in the dungeons. You'll find yourself humming these pieces of music quite frequently...or at least, I do. The sound is all really well done, too. Swinging the baseball bat for example, has a powerful "voooOOOooom" sound to it that fits perfectly, and when Mike gets hit by an attack and flinches, it certainly doesn't sound pleasant. Bosses squeal at you, enemies explode in a satisfying sound when you destroy them, and there's nothing quite like that sound as the Try Your Luck sign spins and you pray that it doesn't read -1 when it lands, subtracting one of your lives. There's really nothing wrong with this game in terms of sound quality and everything fits amazingly.

So yeah, the badass scale increases for Mike because he fights all these giant bosses and weird enemies with a yo-yo. Although he can't swim...he's still a badass because of that, because Bruce Willis couldn't swim in Unbreakable and he was still a badass so that point is moot. MIKE FOR SMASH BROTHERS FOR GOD'S SAKES! C-Island could even be a wicked stage!!!

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The Bottom Line

This is a classic game that everyone should play if they're a fan of adventure games, hands down. The entire game is a cohesive experience that constantly provides the gamer with new and unique obstacles and situations that never seem to get old. Although the controls feel a little weird because of your restricted movement to four directions, I actually find that this game feels better than the sequel, which provides you with the ability to move in 8 directions. Kinda weird how that works...

StarTropics is a diamond-studded treasure of the NES-era, and I wish Nintendo would acknowledge that and create a new adventure for Mike, even if it's just a WiiWare download or something. But alas, it seems like it's a franchise that'll be ignored.

Seriously, play this game if you haven't, because you've been missing out. If you have played it, then play it again and relive the relentless assault of unique situations, characters and enemies that this game throws at you without sacrificing even a hint of solid action, puzzle-solving, and platforming to do so. Couple all of this with a pretty neat story (at the time) and some amazing sound production and music, and you've got yourself a veritable classic that should never have been ignored as much as it seems to have been.

Easily a 9.5/10, with only .5 being subtracted because sometimes Mike feels stiff when you move him around. Other than that though, this game is pure gold.

The southern cross is always on your side.

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