Retro Views: StarTropics

September 25, 2011 // Published by Matthew Blackwell

Long before Keiji Inafune was single-mindedly trying to court the "western" audience with Lost Planet, Nintendo followed a similar, albeit far more subtle strategy to win over the American gamer who hadn't quite sunk his or her teeth into The Legend of Zelda. That game ended up being StarTropics, which is pretty incredible considering how very different it is from most attempts to find a western audience.

For one, the game was never designed with a primarily capitalistic view. Genyo Takeda, creator of the game, was living in America, working at Nintendo Integrated Research and Development, a studio within Nintendo of America that created games less-suited for the Japanese market. What started off as a pet project soon evolved into a full adventure with the weight of Nintendo behind it, a strange mishmash of elements of Zelda and other action-RPGs that plays unlike anything else, even its own sequel.

StarTropics shouldn't be limited to being a cross-cultural footnote in the developing era of video games, but it is fascinating to look at the game as an exploration of American ethos as viewed through a Japanese lens. It's a similar thing that happened in Earthbound, but obviously with far less satirical intent. StarTropics has interesting signifiers like the fact that every town ends in the word "cola" (ex., Miracola), or that the main character, Mike, plays baseball and attacks with a yoyo, that show that the development team took some stereotypical elements of American culture and turned them on their head. Whether this was meant for any reason other than either a surface-level understanding of American culture, or simply as a "this is what Americans are going to like" sort of thing, it's unclear.

But it shouldn't be said that this is a primary focus. Indeed, the game is very much about the same sort of adventuring and dungeon conquering as the Zelda series, appearing as a sort of modern counterpart to that series. StarTropics is a little bit more bizarre (there's a fair amount of religious imagery in the game, which is strange considering Nintendo of America's policies on that at the time), but the two games share a razor sharp design document that simply just works.

The story of StarTropics isn't really anything to write home about: you play as Mike, and your goal is to traverse the Hawaii-esque islands in search of your missing uncle. But little moments along the way, like an episode with a dolphin, or the many encounters with "chiefs" of villages, make the experience anything but rote. This may be very similar to a Zelda game in execution (with a couple of major and minor differences, obviously), but it's far more rough around the edges in terms of its storytelling, and it's really fun to play because of that.

Unlike The Legend of Zelda or A Link to the Past, StarTropics actually seems to recall some of the design decisions seen in Adventure of Link. The overworld of StarTropics isn't a place where battles occur – rather, the game cuts to a separate, more zoomed in perspective whenever battles occur. And moreso than those aforementioned Zelda classics, the game is almost separated into discrete levels, which is interesting in this game's context, as it  puts the focus squarely on the battling.

Yes, the dungeons feature some (very) light puzzle solving, but the game is fit to throw another type of puzzle at you with its battles. The biggest fundamental difference between StarTropics and, well, most other games, is in its battling system, which places Mike and all of the enemies on an unseen grid. This means that enemies can only move in four directions – but the same rules apply to you. This makes every enemy pattern apparent rather than the seemingly-random patterns of a Zelda game, but more than that, it means that there is a very specific way to beat every enemy. It's ever so video game-y, and that's what makes it great. It's a system that has no basis in real life, but it's designed to fit together with the design of the game, and it's incredibly satisfying to boot.

It's also fuck-shit-balls hard. StarTropics certainly didn't pander to American audiences in the same way as, say, a Final Fantasy II EasyType or anything like that – this is a game where you can't rely on reflexes even though the temptation is seemingly always there. Unlike the roguelikes that StarTropics could be considered a (strange) example of, there's nothing turn-based about this game, meaning that you have to formulate strategies for beating these pattern-heavy enemies on the fly, which, by the third or fourth dungeon, has already become a Herculean task. That's not to say that the game doesn't earn its difficulty, and the system is still one of the most interesting things in gaming (side note: I'd love to see a new StarTropics game that keeps that system intact), but I did literally hurl my controller at one point due to frustration, so yeah, it's hard.

But it's also rewarding. StarTropics demonstrates that vintage Nintendo sheen in every aspect, with expressive character portraits and a bright, tropical aesthetic that gives the game a charm all its own. And of all the classics of the chiptune genre in 8-bit games, StarTropics has one of the catchiest and most awesome soundtracks out there. Sure, it's basically a digitized version of Latin music, but it's done so well here that it stands as a premier example of video game music composition in any era. While the same can't be said of the game as a whole (a lot of those Americanizations are clearly very late-80s, early 90s, making the game feel dated in comparison to the timeless Zelda games it quotes), StarTropics is still a fascinating and very entertaining game even today, and its contributions to gameplay design could use another look.

Johnny Amore recommended this game to me about three years ago and I just played it. I'm a bad friend, aren't I? If you don't want me to be a bad friend, recommend a game for me to play and I WON'T put it off forever for no good reason.