Retro Review: StarTropics

StarTropics is a top-down action game that is superficially similar to the Legend of Zelda. Its perspective sets it apart from games with similar gameplay, but at its core, this is a linear game focused on combat and puzzle solving.

StarTropics is surprisingly dedicated to its main movement mechanic. Your character, Mike, can only move on a grid, which feels odd at first and hints at the game’s nature as a puzzle game. There are also tiles scattered about most rooms, and you’ll need to jump on these, even when they are adjacent to one another. The most common puzzle involves stepping on a particular tile that is not called out in any way to spawn a switch or an item. While it’s not often obvious which tiles may hide secrets, it’s usually simple enough to try stepping on all of them.

Where StarTropics starts to have problems is when the puzzles get a bit more obtuse. Early on, you’ll find hidden paths called out by subtle shadows, but a later dungeon has no hints at all, requiring you to press on every wall any time you’re stuck. At other times you’ll need to use a limited item to search for secrets, and there are far more screens to search than items available. And there’s an entire dungeon based on the concept of false exits that make you start over. None of these are particularly fun, though they by no means ruin the game.

On the other hand, combat can actually be quite enjoyable, under the right circumstances. The nature of how Mike moves, especially in regards to the tiles, make combat a tactical affair that rewards good planning. Mike’s primary weapon is a short-range yo-yo, and most enemies are most dangerous up close, so you’ll have to be quick on your toes. You can pick up various alternate combat items, though unfortunately these tend to be used for gimmicks and are of limited use otherwise until quite late in the game.

The one major flaw in the combat StarTropics is that you always start with 3 hearts, even if you have the full 22. There’s usually no way to farm health, though most of the later dungeons give you quick boosts. And these boosts are absolutely vital, because as the game goes on, your yo-yo will get significant upgrades that only function when you have certain amounts of health. As a result, on your first life in a dungeon (which often starts at full health), things are significantly easier than any subsequent lives. This can be a frustrating mechanic.

In the end, though, StarTropics pulls together quite nicely. The last few areas are focused more on combat and exploration and less on obtuse puzzles, and can be quite a lot of fun. It’s not a bad game on the whole, just one with uneven difficulty and some unfortunate design decisions.

Review Score: C+