StarTropics follows the adventures of Mike Jones as he arrives on C-Island to visit his Uncle Steve, a famous archeologist. Soon he gets caught up in a series of fantastic events that send him diving into ancient ruins, into space, and even traveling through time.
Now, the Zelda games were two of the most popular games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It's natural that they'd be ripped off at some point - so who'd be better suited for the task than Nintendo itself? Right at the beginning of the game, a familiar name registration screen pops up, before the adventure begins. Dungeons? Check. Puzzles? Check. Heart Containers? Double check. Although the game is broken up into chapters and therefore much more linear than the Zelda series, the influence is always obvious, but certainly not unwelcome.
StarTropics was featured on the cover of Nintendo Power and had a massive marketing push, although it never quite caught on in the way Nintendo wanted it to. Perhaps this was due to the awkward controls. Or perhaps the timing was just wrong, as the games were released when 16-bit systems like the Sega Genesis were first coming into their own. Although the StarTropics sereis was made in Japan, they were geared specifically towards Western audiences and were never released over there.
The first game in the series lays out the fundamentals. You have an overworld, consisting of towns and other elements, and an underworld set of dungeons, full of monsters and action sequences. The majority of the game takes place in the latter part. Shortly after Mike's arrival on C-Island, the natives tell him that his uncle has gone missing and that there are a lot of suspicious circumstances behind his disappearance.
The teenage protagonist of the game. Hailing from Seattle, he's an ace baseball player. He is willing to go through great lengths to discover what happened to his uncle and help out other individuals along the way.
Doesn't look the least bit like Mario, does he? He leads the populace of Coralcola on C-Island and is a good friend of Mike's uncle.
The shaman of the Coralcola is the chief's sister. She's basically there to revive Mike when he runs out of lives.
Described as looking just like Mike's father (better enjoy that hair while you can, Mike). He ended up discovering something extraordinary under the islands, attracting a very serious problem. His assistant Baboo occasionally shows up to offer information.
The computer who guides the Sub-C with which Mike does a lot of exploration. A nice homage to R.O.B. the robot from the early days of the NES.
The "Prime Invader." This alien baddie is responsible for kidnapping Mike's uncle. Mike needs to work hard to stop him and his evil designs.
Through most of the game, Mike explores C-Island and the surrounding tropical areas, until he learns the hidden truth - Uncle Steve has been captured by aliens, and only by infiltrating their spaceship can he save him.
The overworld area is fairly open, though it borrows from Dragon Warrior with the secret areas to push up against, often revealing passages and hidden items like Heart Containers. There are a few puzzles here, including a rather annoying maze, a music puzzle, and to the frustration of all those who didn't get the game in box and complete, a fairly innovative puzzle which requires the player to dip a letter received with the instruction manual into water, to reveal a hidden frequency needed to complete the game. (It's 747.) Most of the story is pretty cut and dry, but there are enough amusing sequences to keep it interesting, like having to go in drag to infiltrate Shecola Castle. There's also a strange running gag about getting bananas stuck in your ears.
The underworld requires mike to move along X-Y axes like in The Legend of Zelda. The primary weapon is a Yo-Yo (kind of like Mikey Walsh in Goonies II) that later powers up into a Morning Star and a Super Nova, each with extended power and range. The power-ups are dependant on the progress in the game, as well as the number of hearts Mike currently has (if it slips below the required number, the weapon downgrades). Mike can also use other sundry weapons, ranging from bolas, room-freezing snowmen, baseballs, and even lasers, though each of them has a limited number of uses. Also needed are special crystals which reveal hidden enemies, and lamps to light up dark rooms. Medicine is also found along the way, restoring five hearts. Defeated enemies occasionally drop hearts and stars (five stars replenish one heart).
Though the dungeons are set out in a linear fashion, they are sometimes rather sizable and often filled with hidden rooms, false exits, traps, and special switches. Switches are found by jumping on a series of blocks - once to make the switch appear, then again to activate it. These do things like opening doors, materializing items, and dropping bosses to their doom a la Koopa from Super Mario Bros.
Unfortunately, the controls are a bit awkward, which tends to turn people off StarTropics. The movement works on a grid system, it's not possible to just move a few pixels, and Mike always has to move over a whole square. Furthermore, in order to walk in a direction, it has to be held down for a split second before Mike actually moves. Unless he's next to water, he can only jump straight up. And the only way to move from tile to tile is to jump, which can take a long time if there are plenty of tiles in the room. Even compared to the original Legend of Zelda from 1986, the movement feels restrictive and can get frustrating when the rooms are filled with enemies.
The game starts off easy, but around chapter three the difficulty picks up, getting nasty in chapters five and six, and sometimes wretched by chapters seven and eight. Most enemies and attacks only hurt Mike a bit, but coming into contact with a rolling boulder, a mini-boss or boss, or falling into water or lava instantly kills him. He can continue endlessly, but there is a set number of lives to complete each dungeon (requiring to start back at the beginning after losing them all). The game saves automatically when entering or exiting a dungeon, making for a rather convenient setup. There's a score system, based presumably on time, lives lost and enemies destroyed while dungeon crawling, but it has no effect on the gameplay. Powering up is done by collecting items in the overworld and by reaching points in the story.
The graphics are decent enough during the underworld scenes, but on the overworld, they leave something to be desired. The music is quite catchy in some parts, even if the same primary theme is repeated constantly.
While not as great as the original Zelda or Crystalis, StarTropics was still a far cry from the likes of Faria or Hydlide, possibly even better than the Master System version of Ys I in terms of gameplay; all in all a very well made, solid game from Nintendo that has been overshadowed and probably forgotten since its debut.
After defeating Zoda and saving three magic cubes that turned out to be a kind of escape pod for seven alien children sent into exile on earth to escape the invader's wrath, life seemed to have gone more or less back to normal for Mike. Uncle Steve, however, found more hieroglyphs in the ruins that contained the cubes and has been investigating them, leading to the mysterious "Oxford Wonder Book" which outlines several real and faux historical figures. After some telepathic hints, Mike ends up deciphering the book and is sent hurtling through time to collect seven Tetrads (blocks shaped not-so-coincidentally like pieces from Tetris) before Zoda can get his hands on them. Eventually Mike gets caught up in the struggle between Zoda and the Argonian children he rescued at the end of the last game.
The Argonian princess. She's able to communicate with you across space and time to advance the plot. Eventually she falls victim to yet another classic Nintendo archetype and needs rescuing.
The legendary magician. He pops up throughout the adventure to take on the role of reviving Mike when he runs out of lives, and bestows special attack skills on him at key points.
The leader of Argonia, who apparently was good friends with Merlin. For reasons to be revealed in the game, he had the Tetrads sent through space and time.
The plot is a bit more subdued, though still fairly quirky. Personages such as Cleopatra, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Leonardo da Vinci appear along the way, sending Mike navigating through pyramids, English sewers and even Dracula's castle. The game's rather bizarre sense of humor once again resurfaces, like when Mike is sent on a mission to deliver pizza to Cleopatra (from Caesar's Hut, no less, a gag which works on at least three different levels). There's also a special treat for fans who've completed the original game, as they get to revisit some old areas and meet old friends. Zoda is back, of course, with three clones of himself spread throughout time.
The mechanics are pretty much the same, although the clunky controls from the original game have been greatly improved. Mike can now move as he jumps, veering left or right to reach other platforms. Furthermore, there are also height levels in the various rooms, giving an added incentive to master the jumping skills. Mike now has two primary weapons - a series of upgradable swords and a psychic shock wave attack. The former is a strong, steady throwing weapon, while the latter is upgradable and like the Yo-Yo in the first game, dependant on the health bar for power. Some enemies can only be hit with the psychic shock wave, and having a faster rate of fire, it's usually the weapon of choice. Again there is a set of secondary weapons of limited use, but they're not quite as valuable in this game.
The dungeon design is a bit more innovative. There's also a "random" dungeon element, where moving around on the overworld triggers Mike falling into certain smaller dungeons that need to be cleared before going on. This only happens in a few chapters (including right at the beginning) and can get annoying at times. Most of the puzzle elements are gone, though there's a wretched sequence of trial and error in chapter five that has Mike fishing for a lost mine. Switches can be walked on without having to jump on them. The dungeon designs have been improved, still sporting the usual secret rooms and other fun designs, as well as the addition of special arrow tiles that send Mike moving in a certain direction, though some of the puzzle aspects seem more or less gone.
The music has taken a hit in this game compared to some of the catchy tunes of the original, though the theme for the Zoda boss battles isn't too bad. Graphically, the game is a bit sharper, although the colors aren't quite as bright. Mike's sprite has been entirely redrawn as well. Like the original there is a battery backup auto save as well as the return of the scoring system.
There is some debate on whether this game is better or worse than the original. The first one is enjoyable, though the second seems a bit better made and more balanced in terms of difficulty. Both are definitely worth a try. It's a shame that this series never spawned further sequels. There have been rumors that poor sales on Star Tropics II doomed the series to obscurity, but given the release date in the system's life cycle, it's somewhat understandable. At least both games have been released on the Virtual Console for Wii. To those who want to dust off their NES and play them in their original forms instead, the first game is fairly common, but Zoda's Revenge may be a bit more tricky to find.