It’s a real struggle to get it up, as any yo-yo enthusiast will tell you

StarTropics (1992)

I know that this was a craze that belonged to the late 80s and early 90s really, but I have borne witness to an honest-to-God yo-yo revival. It got so popular that even I, ever the non-conformist, had a yo-yo for myself. My model was a plastic Pizza Hut job, which is as American as it gets.

I never really got the appeal of them though. It’s all about being able to do tricks with them, but I could barely even get the damn thing to come back up never mind take it around the world. Mine used to hit the deck so hard it was like dropping a bowling ball on an oak floor, and it would never come back. I even used to think that one day, I could do some trickery like Ness does with his yo-yos in Super Smash Bros, but nitto.

I kept hearing about all these tricks you could do, like walking the dog, or going around the world. You watch some tricksters online these days, and they almost make a goddam circus tent out of the string, with the actual yo-yo piece itself hanging limp like a glorious plastic gong, ready to be struck. God knows how mere mortals could do any of that.

Well, it’s a kick up the arse away from coin tricks, isn’t it, very short lived. And whatever appeal yo-yoing has, it’s still not very good at its supposed strong points. Quite reminiscent of StarTropics for the NES, then, which is also a difficult beast to control. This seems to be a go-to as an underrated game on the NES, same as Crystalis, but I’m not so sure about this one.

For a Nintendo published game, StarTropics is a pretty obscure one. This is because anything it never came out in Japan, and anything that comes out on a Nintendo console exclusively in Europe and the US is pretty much doomed to never have any kind of advertising or revival behind it.

Hence, you’ll never hear a peep about it, although that’s probably for good reason. I don’t think this game even has a single reference in Smash Bros, for example, which I’d call the acid test for any Nintendo game wanting to make a name for itself.

And actually StarTropics is even more American than you might think, even though it takes place in, guess where, the tropics. Yes, you journey across a series of strange islands full of monsters waiting to gang up on you. But I’d call the dialogue quite American, since there’s an actual text-based story in this NES game, and for once it’s not horrendously translated.

You play as generic loafer Mike Jones who tries to rescue his uncle, Dr. Jones, disappointingly not portrayed by our dearly departed friend Sean Connery. The doctor has gone missing after inviting his nephew out to see him on C-Island. Is that a bad host or what? Once Mike makes it to C-Island, he finds StarTropics to be a game of two halves.

It’s almost like a blend of both Zelda NES games, only with a modern spin as you cut about in your submarine, sailing from island to island. At first, you’re on an overworld that’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy, Zelda II or Dragon Quest. But then you enter the dangerous caves, where the view switches to a top-down look, more along the lines of the original Zelda, although this game is far more limited.

The flow of StarTropics is really just sending Mike through multiple mini dungeons that are all essentially the same as one another. You’ll need to poke your head into each room to defeat enemies, using your permanent yo-yo, or some weapons you find along the way. These include way cool things that a kid in 1990s American would enjoy, like a laser gun or a baseball bat. Anything you can find really, that’ll let you come out swinging at enemy bats and skellingtons.

Getting through each of the rooms in these nondescript dungeons usually hinges on you finding a switch to open the way. This happens through plenty of trial and error, forcing you to jump on different squares and tiles in order to make switches appear, or turn the lights on, or put the heating on, or anything else that might let you continue.

One false move though, and you’ve gone bounding into the water and you lose a life. It’s pretty easy for the enemies to quickly drain your health as well, if you ain’t careful, and generally the enemies and bosses don’t get easily impressed by your yo-yoing ability.

You’d have thought that this being an American designed game, they’d be mindful of the simple-minded youths of USA playing this, but StarTropics is not an easy game when it comes down to it. On top of that, there are some design choices that Nintendo really should have been beyond by the time we got to 1990.

For example, there’s at least one death room that invites you to merrily jump your way in there from offscreen. When you do, hey presto, poor Mike dies instantly. There’s also more than one blind jump, parts where you literally have to jump in the dark and hope you get a result.

Get it wrong and – of course – you land in the water and drown. Not much of a swimmer is young Mike. For the reason, I suppose I must commend him for those peaceful bits outside the dungeons when he gaily hops on a submarine that seems to get smashed up every five minutes.

I think the most notable part of this game nowadays, something I’ve always really liked, was the mysterious letter that came packaged with the game, which turned out to be vital to your progress in the game itself. You had to somehow ‘use’ this letter to obtain a numerical code.

There are a fair few codes in the game that are references to important dates in US history. There’s 1492 for example, when Christopher Columbus doomed us all. And 1776, which you’ll remember from Back to the Future. But later in the game, you need to find a code, and the only clue is that you should dip your uncle’s letter in the water.

You might be scrambling around your inventory to find this letter, only to find that you don’t actually possess an inventory unless you’re in a dungeon, cracking enemy skulls. Of course, the answer to the riddle is that letter, a physical sheet of paper that’s actually inside the box when you purchase the game. That’s another bit of hard luck for all us renters out there.

It’s a pretty cool bit of game design, way before even something like Metal Gear Solid blew us away with Psycho Mantis, and all those other mad fellas. I always love these fourth wall breaking moments in games; it makes you feel like you’re the only one who’s ‘in’ on the mystery.

Once you do dip the letter in water, an act more sacrilegious than writing down passwords in the notes section of instruction manuals, Dr. Jones’ hidden message appears. There, you’ll unravel some of the conspiracy and find the frequency code you need – 747, if you were wondering.

Everyone with a bit of knowledge of StarTropics knows this number by heart, just like they know Meryl’s frequency in MGS – it’s those kinds of gaming moments that you never forget. They did their best to emulate this letter on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles, although the Switch just shafted you and essentially told you to go off and Google it. Alright then Nintendo, keep your juice.

Once the five minute buzz from the letter is gone, then ultimately what you’re left with is a poorly controlled, quite forgettable, repetitive NES game that’s derivative in the extreme. Strangely enough, all these negative points didn’t stop the game from spawning an even more obscure sequel, as late in the day as 1994.

StarTropics, is worth an old gander for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. After you’ve done that, you’ve pretty well discovered everything the game has to offer. You do get a bit of a conspiracy story nearer the end, and you might like the new weapons you pick up as you go, but that’s about it.

And it’s quite nice that the game has a save feature, something of an autosave feature at times as you progress. Although I do find the instruction manual quite worrying when it says that the battery will only be guaranteed to last five years – mine seems to be working OK, 30 years later. I guess I’m that lucky?

Not that you’d ever get anything near 30 years from this. This game is not as grand an RPG or an adventure like as you would like, quite far off something like EarthBound Beginnings and Crystalis, and way off Zelda. In that sense, StarTropics is definitely a bit of a yo-yo: a one trick pony that’s ultimately a bit too hard to control, and will leave you quite unfulfilled.

29 June 2021

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