Review: Startropics (Virtual Console, NES)

Star Tropics
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Platformer
System Released on Virtual Console (originally NES)
Release Date: 01/07/2008 (Original Release Date was December 12th, 1990)

StarTropics is one of those games that was hugely popular when it was first release. Nintendo Power devoted almost an entire issue to it, and it reminded of a game released in July of 1987 called Legend of Zelda.

Although StarTropics was very popular, it’s sequel was a critical and financial failure for Nintendo, which is odd because it was basically the same exact game, but with improved graphics.

Another interesting note about StarTropics – it was never released in Japan. Indeed, this game was a US only release, although the first ST game would hit European shores some time in 1992. This is an interesting footnote, if only because the game was made in Japan, and its one of the few times a Japanese development company didn’t release their game within their home country.

I’d never bothered with StarTropics as a kid. I was too busy with games like River City Ransom, or Baseball Stars in the end days of the Nintendo and was firmly enjoying the early days of my new Sega Genesis to bother with yet another platformer. I’ve always been told I had missed out, so when this came available for the Virtual Console, I snapped it up. I mean, it was only five bucks, and it gave me something new to review while waiting for Endless Ocean to come out.

So is StarTropics worthy of being a classic, or has it aged poorly over the past decade and a half?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Hey there, you’re Mike Jones, and you’re off to visit your uncle on the tropical island of umm…C-Island. Sure you can’t swim, even in shallow water, but what the hey? Free vacation!

Sadly when you arrive, your uncle has been kidnapped by aliens. The good thing is these aliens and their cave dwelling monsters can easily be defeated by your trusty yo-yo. Not so scary after all is it?

The plot is pretty ludicrous, but it has its charms. From a submarine manned by a robot that can also speak dolphin, towards strange tunnels and caves and castles scattered across the island that for some reason having jumping puzzles to solve (You’d think the islanders would want to make it easy for themselves to get around their home instead of building collapsible tiles everywhere…), you’ll guide Mike through 8 chapters of very linear adventures.

I know I’m probably being harsh, but by 1990 games had really advances in storytelling. The original Final Fantasy came out in America at the beginning of this year, as did Mega Man III. You had Ultima: The False Prophet and one of the best RPG’s ever made: The Bard’s Tale 3 hit shelves in 1990 as well. If you look back with a critical eye of what else came out the same year as StarTropics, it’s easy to you can’t use the excuse of “Oh, but it’s a really old game/an NES game” for why the plot is so thin and so poorly executed. Hell, even Duck Tales, for the original black and white Game Boy, another 1990 game had a better story that StarTropics.

Sorry guys, but it doesn’t matter when ST came out, the plot and writing was pretty poor. It’s cute in some spots, but for the majority of the game, you can tell they threw crap at the wall and whatever stuck became your impetus for going from dungeon to dungeon.

Story Rating: 3/10.

2. Graphics

This is another category in which StarTropics hasn’t aged very well. When you’re not in battle, the game looks like a poor man’s Dragon Quest. It’s the same style of graphics and overworld screen, but with less detail and substance.

The dungeon graphics are decent, but nothing to write home about. The non boss monsters are either very generic, or quite unique, such as the skull-headed moa bird. Some monsters, like the flying monkeys (who actually just leap) are pretty ugly, even by 8 bit standard, but more the most part, I’d consider what’s on the screen to be an average or slightly below average representation of what the NES could do visually.

The best graphics in the game are either the character portraits of the occasional villager or the enlarged boss character battles. They’re still nowhere near the amazing (for the NES) graphics of games like Super Mario Bros. 3, but very good for this game, and enjoyable for what they are.

I’d say this is another letdown in terms of the level of quality I’d been led to believe Startropics was. In the end, the graphics were merely mediocre for an 8 bit system, and that leaves a lot to be desired in 2008.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound
Not much to write about here. The game features forgettable and cliche MIDI’s and the occasional fast and high pitched chattering to represent characters talking. Specific noises and sound effects are sparse and when they do occur, they are uninteresting. This is merely another aspect of the game, where either Startropics has aged poorly, or it was never very good to begin with and we just ate the hype at 13 they same way modern 13 years old do for this generation’s big-budget games.

Sound Rating: 5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

I really wanted to like this game. I really did. The controls and gameplay however were amongst the worst I’ve played in an old school NES game. Yes, amongst the WORST. Maybe the game just didn’t translate well into the virtual console, but holy hell is it awful to play.

Here’s just a small list of annoyances I found in the game.

  • Your character can not move diagonally, yet some enemies do freely
  • In order to change directions, be it turn or move, your character can not do so freely. Instead your character stops and pauses before taking in the new direction. In other words, gameplay goes like this: walk forward. PAUSE. Turn left. PAUSE. Walk west. PAUSE. Turn right. PAUSE. Walk North again. Holy crap is this poorly designed. There’s no excuse for the game not being able to take in those commands fluidly.
  • You character can jump. But only onto panels or over holes. If you try jumping at any other time, your character just hops in place, which is annoying as this should be able to be used for dodging projectiles.
  • You are given a nice selection of items, and are often give more than you will ever need for a dungeon, yet they somehow all disappear after you complete it.
  • There is a lot of slowdown in the game
  • Having to pause the game in order to use healing or special items
  • The wiimote’s + and – buttons, which act as start and select just aren’t laid out very well in comparison to where they would be on an NES controller, making certain things difficult to use in the heat of the moment.
  • I could keep going, but I feel I’ve made my point. Controlwise, I’d have to say this is the worse game I’ve downloaded on my virtual console so far. I just can’t fathom a time when this gameplay would ever have been considered good or fun. It just hurts my brain.

    Bad game all around here in this respect. It’s very hard to think of anything positive to say about it. If they were going to go with such an awful control scheme, they might as well have just made StarTropics a Mysterious Dungeon style game since it’s halfway there already. It’s playable, but god knows why anyone would want to.

    Really, really bad folks.

    Control and Gameplay Rating: 3/10

    5. Replayability

    The game is completely linear, nothing ever changes, and the game offers little if anything in the way of replay value unless like a really good adventure game, something strikes a chord with you here to play the game over and over again. Unlike those really good adventure games, StarTropics lacks the big reason people play that genre over and over again: the story.

    Even at five dollars, this is a one time only game. I realize I’m crapping on a lot of people’s childhood memories, but I can’t think of a reason to ever touch this thing again. I’d rather play through things like Wall Street Kid because it’ll change each time you play it. AND I HATE WALL STREET KID!

    Totally a one off.

    Replayability Rating: 2/10

    6. Balance

    This is by far the best aspect of StarTropics. The puzzles are interesting, and everything is nicely balanced. Every boss fight presents a degree of challenge, and they be quite hard until you figure out what you’re supposed to do. Once you know the trick, they become quiet easy, but it’s quite fun trying to figure out where to go next.

    There is a bit of a problem with some puzzles being “guess and check.” By this I mean, how there is no exact obvious answer and so you just have to run around and try things until you find a solution, no matter how oft-kilter. Often times the answer involves a secret passageway.

    I know I’ve been harsh on the game, but I did have fun trying out different puzzles, even with the craptacular gameplay. Maybe this game would have been better if it had just been done Adventures of Lolo style. THAT is an action puzzle game that still holds up in 2008.

    Balance Rating: 7/10

    7. Originality

    StarTropics was called a Zelda clone by detractors when it first came out, but I don’t really get that. The only thing they have in common are the exploring of dungeons and a heart based life system. Plus you know, Zelda doesn’t play like ass.

    StarTropics really didn’t offer anything new or exciting back in 1990, and it certainly doesn’t in 2008. There’s a flimsy story, a 8 chapter segmented game (which was all the rage back then for some reason), and the list goes on.

    StarTropics made good use of the then-rare save ability, and it was really nice to see an autosave feature in an NES game, something almost unheard of back then. Other than that, there’s nothing but misplaced nostalgia separating this game from the pack.

    Originality Rating: 3/10

    8. Addictiveness

    Thanks to the Wii logging every minute you spend with the system, I can tell you honestly, I was never able to play StarTropics more than 46 minutes straight. I just got bored with it, or annoyed with the controls and had to take a break.

    Generally I played a dungeon, advanced what little story there was, got to the next dungeon and took a break. During those dungeon exploration segments I did invest a great deal of interest in the game, especially at the beginning. Towards the end though, I was more annoyed at the lack of sense in the controls “Why do I have to jump from this panel to the next? They’re TOUCHING! They’re at the same height! ARRRGH!”

    I’ll be nice and call it a thumbs in the middle as the beginning of the game was an interesting enjoyable affair while the end was just boring and grueling for me. I finished the game only because I had to for the review.

    Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

    9. Appeal Factor

    StarTropics is considered a classic for some reason, and as such nostalgia will drive many to download this title. Sadly, many will find this title was best left played in the memories within their brain, but that won’t deter many Wii owners from playing it anyway.

    Think of Startropics as oh, Tomb Raider III. Everyone knew it was going to be bad, but people bought it in droves anyway.

    Appeal Factor: 6/10

    10. Miscellaneous

    This was a pretty bad gaming experience for me. Usually I’m all gung ho about old games and am the champion of champions for Retrogaming. This however is the exception.

    I do love that Nintendo had a wonderful solution for a bit of a problem with this game. Originally, when it came out for the NES, there was a neat little letter from your uncle that came with the game. It was a bit of realism that was made all the better by dunking the letter in water. When this was done, a password for the game was revealed. Without this password you couldn’t get past a certain point in the game. No doubt this frustrated MANY gamers who rented it, but it was a nice touch that solidified the game in terms of gamers memories for being neat rather than the gameplay itself.

    With the VC version, there is a virtual version of the letter along with a virtual bucket of water for you to dowse it in. I thought this was a very cute solution worthy of earning the game a couple of extra points here in the Miscellaneous category. Sure you could have searched the internet or Gamefaqs for the code, but this is a far more entertaining solution to this potential snafu.

    How sad is that when I found this to be the most interesting/neatest part of the game though?

    Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

    The Scores
    Story: 3
    Graphics: 5
    Sound: 5
    Control and Gameplay: 3
    Replayability: 2
    Balance: 7
    Originality: 3
    Addictiveness: 5
    Appeal Factor: 6
    Miscellaneous: 5
    Total Score: 4.5
    FINAL SCORE: 4.5 (Below Average)

    Short Attention Span Summary
    This game just doesn’t hold up 18 years later. Nearly everything about it is lackluster. There are SO many better NES based games for the Virtual Console to download instead. For the love of crap, get one of those instead.