StarTropics (NES)

StarTropics: Because sometimes you just need to shove bananas in your ears.

So, what do I think after beating it? Despite what some have said, I don’t think it’s any kind of unsung classic or one of the best games on the system or anything like that. Not by a long shot. It is, however, extremely charming in a goofy way, packs some decent challenge, and is a worthwhile experience overall.

To elaborate:

As far as pros go, this game is beautifully presented, with colorful graphics, catchy music, and a relentlessly goofy story. The ending is also much more elaborate than most other games from the era. It provides a healthy challenge and a real sense of accomplishment when you finally topple the final boss.

But then the problems set in. First of all, the elephant in the room has to be the controls. Jumping and attacking feels fine for the most part, but the one thing you do more than either of those, simply walking around, feels absolutely horrid. Merely turning while in motion involves your character stopping completely, then turning in place, then pausing again for a moment before finally starting off in the new direction. It’s absolutely inane and makes the movement feel sticky, choppy, and delayed. Your character always seems to be playing catch up, several steps behind your inputs at any given time. This is especially odd because Nintendo themselves had previously nailed responsive overhead action controls in The Legend of Zelda years before! Another strange design choice is that you’re limited to jumping straight up unless you’re leaping onto a block or switch, despite the fact that there seems to be no good reason not to allow for a forward jump on open ground. I’ve heard this control defended by saying that it’s intended to allow you to change your character’s facing to attack in different directions without moving much if needed, but a very quick tap on the directional pad is sufficient to do this most of the time in Zelda, so I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s all the games like Contra and Ninja Gaiden that I’ve played recently where just moving around the screen feels really good, but the movement here was such a drag for me.

Additionally, this game is very linear, much moreso than the Dragon Quest and Legend of Zelda games that clearly influenced it. The dungeons are where all the real gameplay lives and the overworld segments linking them provide no real challenge (other than one very clever musical puzzle, perhaps) and little in the way of secrets to uncover. They could almost be replaced by static cutscenes with little real change to the core gameplay experience. At least some branching paths or sidequests could have helped make the overworld sections more interesting and meaningful.

Finally, character progression feels very limited because your inventory of found items is cleared both every time you die and every time you clear a dungeon. With only the ability to permanently gain extra heart containers and primary weapon upgrades, there’s not the same sense of variety and growth that a game like Zelda offers with its bow, boomerang, magic wand, etc.

But overall, StarTropics is good enough for what it is: A charming, simple, but deceptively challenging puzzle platformer. It’s definitely worth your time, once you set your expectations accordingly and adapt to some flawed play control.

Radicola!

(Originally written 3/22/2017)

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