History of StarTropics – Gaming Historian

The Nintendo Entertainment System gave
birth to quite a few Nintendo franchises: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid. The system is a haven for classic Nintendo games. But there’s one series in particular that
tends to fly under the radar. It’s a series that both began and ended
on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A series that, while developed in Japan, was only ever released in
North America, and eventually Europe. And that series is StarTropics. [StarTropics Overworld Theme] StarTropics is one of those games that you see
fairly often but you don’t really know much about. I guess the cover doesn’t really help.
It’s just a picture of some random tropical island. But waiting inside this cartridge is a
really fun unique adventure, and the story behind this adventure
is actually quite interesting. So, let’s take a look. StarTropics was developed by R&D3, one of the smaller and less well-known research and development teams at Nintendo. The group primarily worked on hardware but they occasionally develop games as well,
most notably the Punch-Out series. The idea for StarTropics came from the
team’s general manager, Genyo Takeda, who had a strong appreciation for the
Western market. Most Nintendo games were
made for the Japanese market and then later localized for North America. Takeda wanted to see that change. The Western video game scene
was getting bigger and bigger and games needed to be
made for that market to help it grow. And so began Takeda’s quest to create StarTropics, a game developed specifically for North America. Upon initial boot up, StarTropics might
look somewhat familiar: save slots, heart meters, top-down perspective. It kinda reminds you of another Nintendo franchise: The Legend of Zelda. And there’s a reason for that. The Legend of Zelda had a big influence on Takeda. However, instead of using a fantasy theme
that was popular among Japanese gamers, StartTropics uses a modern, realistic setting. You play as fifteen-year-old Mike Jones, a star baseball pitcher from Seattle, Washington. One day Mike receives an invitation
to visit C-Island from his Uncle Steve, who is looking for some lost ruins. However, upon arrival, you find out that
your uncle has gone missing and it’s up to you to rescue him. Trying to find the whereabouts
of your Uncle Steve is actually a refreshing story compared to
the many “save the princess” type games, and near the end of the game there are
several twists and turns. Rather than battle enemies with a sword and shield, Mike Jones employs a variety of everyday items: a yo-yo, baseball bat, slingshot,
spiked cleats and more. The game is also filled with pop culture
and historical references to the United States. For starters, the main character’s
name is Mike Jones, a combination of two extremely
common names in the United States. He also happens to love baseball, America’s pastime. His uncle is an archaeologist named Steve Jones, but according to the game
everyone just calls him Dr. Jones. I’m sure you see the reference here. Every single village in
the game ends in the word “cola”, an obvious reference to one of
America’s favorite beverages. During your journey, your uncle
leaves clues to his location, one of them being to use the
code 1776 in your submarine, which happens to be the year
the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain. StarTropics utilizes an overworld along
with dungeons to progress through the game and is broken up into chapters. In the overworld, you’ll travel through islands and villages trying to gather
more information on your uncle Steve’s location. It’s fairly linear but there are a few
hidden areas and secrets to find. The dungeons are where the main
gameplay takes place. StarTropics uses a top-down
perspective and grid-based movement. At first, it may seem somewhat awkward. Hitting a direction once on the
NES D-pad doesn’t mean you start moving in that direction but rather
you face that direction. Only after you hit the direction
again do you start moving. Again, it’s awkward at first
but you’ll get used to it quickly and soon find that it’s essential to the combat. The dungeons are designed specifically
around this movement. Each dungeon is filled with secret switches,
rooms, traps, and of course, a boss at the end. As you progress through the game,
each dungeon gets progressively more difficult. Luckily the game employs a save system
that saves your game before and after each dungeon area,
which is very convenient. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll be fighting
off enemies with some unique items. Your main weapon is a yo-yo, strangely enough, but there are some other weapons
you can pick up along the way, such as baseball bats and even shurikens. There are also magical items as well, so the game isn’t completely devoid of fantasy. For example, the snowman doll
freezes all the enemies on-screen. But StarTropics isn’t a perfect game. Many of the villages and dungeons feel the same. And while the music is very
well done and extremely catchy, it repeats itself a lot. The plot is unique but the writing is very basic
and the world could be more fleshed out. The grid-based combat feels
limited, stiff and slow at times. There are also some traps and
dungeons that seem unfair, and you’ll only discover them through trial and error. But overall, the word “charm”
best describes StarTropics. It’s such a fun, unique experience
on the Nintendo Entertainment System. There are great Nintendo references too,
such as the Octorok enemies from Legend of Zelda, or your ship’s navigator Nav-Com, who bears
a striking resemblance to R.O.B. the Robot But let’s not forget one of the most
unique things about StarTropics: its packaging! Specifically, something that
came with the game. Remember that letter that Uncle Steve
wrote to Mike, inviting him out to C-Island? Well, the game comes with a copy of that letter, and it contains a secret to getting through the game. At one point in the game, Uncle Steve leaves a message for Mike
saying: “Tell Mike to dip my letter in water.” Well, this is that letter, and I’m about to show you what happens next. After you dip the letter in water, a
secret message appears with the words “frequency is 747MHz.” You must input this frequency into your
navigation system to continue the game. Some speculate this was an anti-piracy,
anti-rental measure implemented by Nintendo. I mean, without this code, there’s no way to continue through the game. I don’t know if this is actually true, but regardless, this is really cool, and an innovative way to use a game’s packaging. StarTropics has all the elements
of a new Nintendo franchise and Nintendo thought so, too. It was the featured game in
volume 21 of Nintendo Power and was given a large
walkthrough over two issues. Released on December 1, 1990, in North America,
the game was a moderate success. The game was released two years later in Europe. But even before StarTropics
was available at retail stores, Takeda was planning a sequel. One that would be bigger and better than the first. To expand his new universe, Takeda added two
additional screenwriters from Nintendo of America, George Sinfield and Brian Ullrich. This would not only make the story more fleshed out but it would also get staff from
North America involved in development, something Takeda felt was
important for the future of Nintendo. The group bounced draft ideas back and forth, even meeting in Japan over several
months to help write the story. Initially, Takeda wanted to play up the
kid-and-professor plot with Mike and his uncle, similar to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the writers eventually settled
on a plot based around time travel. The sequel was officially called
Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II. After returning to Seattle,
Mike Jones and his uncle get to work deciphering an alien code they found from the tropics. After discovering the secret to the code, Mike is sent back in time and learns he must
collect seven mystic tetrads to recover the legacy of the Argonian alien race. Along the way you’ll meet several famous people throughout history including
Cleopatra, Leonardo DaVinci and even some fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes. The writing was greatly
improved over the first game. Characters have more
interesting things to say and time travel makes environments much more varied. They also tried to work in
more humor into the game, with some mixed results. However, the time travel gag is somewhat cliche and the game is still fairly linear, with maybe
even fewer secrets than the first game. Visually, Zoda’s Revenge is an
improvement over its predecessor. There’s more action on screen,
there’s a much bigger variety of enemies, and everything seems a little more detailed. It’s not as colorful as the first game, but that’s due to getting
away from the tropical environment. The core gameplay remains pretty much
the same, but you’re no longer confined to a grid. Zoda’s Revenge introduces
eight directional movements and even allows you to
change directions while jumping This really improves the overall combat experience and gives you a lot more freedom. This also improves the boss battles after each dungeon. However, there are some negatives to your freedom. Jumping around is a little too fluid and can make platforming a bit more difficult
than the first game, which basically guaranteed
where you would land a jump. They also completely removed
invincibility after getting hit. This is a huge problem in the game. Even the smallest enemies can threaten your life
simply by running into you over and over again. But when you add everything up, Zoda’s
Revenge is a good sequel to StarTropics. It’s not as good as the original
but the charm is still there, and there are even more Nintendo references. Those tetrads you have to
collect are clearly from Tetris, and while traveling through the desert,
you come across a man riding a Koopa Troopa. But Zoda’s Revenge didn’t receive
as much fanfare as the first game. One major reason was the release date. StarTropics II was the last game
Nintendo made exclusively for the NES, released in March of 1994. It came out almost four years after the original, and by then most people were playing
the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. Another reason may have been
the actual title of the game: Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II. If you’ve never played the first game,
you would have no idea who Zoda is, and even then, you only meet Zoda
at the very end of StarTropics. I wonder why they didn’t just call it StarTropics II. After the game’s release, Genyo Takeda and his team returned to focusing on hardware. He still works at Nintendo today with the odd title of Technology Fellow. Essentially, he is the manager of all
hardware-related products at the company. And since Zoda’s Revenge, we haven’t
seen another StarTropics game, let alone a reference or even a cameo, which is disappointing because
I absolutely love this series. When Nintendo opened up a ballot for
new Super Smash Bros. characters, I submitted Mike Jones. He’d be perfect for Smash with a
yo-yo and a baseball bat as his weapons. But it’s doubtful we’ll ever see a return to the series. Although the series was short-lived, the StarTropics games are really good
and definitely worthy of your time. If you want to play the original
cartridges, you’re in luck. They’re both fairly common and
usually go for under 10 bucks each. But you can also get the games
on the Wii Virtual Console. If you decide to pick up
StarTropics on Virtual Console, it does have one notable change: the yo-yo has been renamed to the Island Star. Apparently, the word “yo-yo” is trademarked in Canada, so Nintendo changed the name
to avoid any legal issues. It also comes with a digital letter that you can “soak” in digital water. StarTropics, we hardly knew ye. Here’s hoping that maybe someday we will see you again. That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian. Thanks for watching. Funding for Gaming Historian is provided in part by supporters on Patreon. Thank you.

Comments 4

  • Digital letter in digital paper? 😆 those nintendo folks are crazy.

  • I have an unopened Star Tropics. <flex>

  • I was so pissed when I bought this game; my copy didn’t come with the paper you soak in water for the submarine password..

  • Anti rental measure. No wonder why it wasn't popular

  • I'm actually trying to play this game now. I'm on chatpter "3" of the first first game… the "ghost" dungeon…. this game is insanely hard to me. I feel like I have to spend all day to feel out how to play out a "dungeon"….woof… I grew up with "older" games… so i'm just wondering if anyone else has this experience….. not ghost n goblins hard… but almost??

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