8-Bit Week

This underrated NES RPG paved the way for oddball gems like EarthBound

This odd 8-bit NES game is still fondly remembered by many.

It should have been Majora’s Mask. When I was 10, I spent the little allowance money I had on enough Wii Points to get both Pokemon Rumble and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the now-defunct Wii Shop channel. I purchased Pokemon Rumble, but waited until the next day to get Majora’s Mask because I was a kid with a short attention span.

When I returned to my Wii the next day, some of my Wii Points were spent, making it impossible to buy Majora’s Mask. My brother had spent Wii Points behind my back on an obscure game that we had never heard of on Virtual Console: StarTropics. While I was initially angry at this series of events, StarTropics ended up being a very important game to me — and numerous online content creators — despite its obscurity.

StarTropics is an oddity among Nintendo’s franchises, feeling like a mix between the top-down adventure style of early Zelda games and the intriguing characters and worlds of Earthbound. Unfortunately, the series ever received two games, both of which released on the NES in the early 1990s in just North America.

While the likes of Kid Icarus, Punch-Out, and even Duck Hunt have enjoyed nostalgic nods from Nintendo in recent years, StarTropics hasn’t seen more than muted Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online digital re-releases.

Despite that, its impacts can be felt across many creative people today. It inspired my love of analyzing games on a deeper level, and even gaming YouTubers like Nitro Rad (aka James Lewell), who tells Inverse the 8-bit classic was a major influence on their channel’s tone. While this might be Nintendo’s most obscure franchise, that doesn’t dilute its importance.

Lewell, whose YouTube channel boasts more than 260,000 subscribers, tells Inverse his family already owned StarTropics when he was born. “When I was super young, I would play my Dad's NES, and StarTropics was the one game that stuck out to me most,” he explains. “It's a great adventure game, and once you get around the bulky controls it still holds up.”

StarTropics was an unusual game for Nintendo to produce during the 8-bit era. It was specifically created with a Western audience in mind, so its protagonist is named Mike Jones and the game has a western sense of humor that puts players in wacky situations.

This Japanese take on a Western aesthetic gives StarTropics a similar feeling to that of Earthbound. Still, it isn’t afraid to embrace its fantasy side, asking players to fight a hydra and venture to space.

From a gameplay standpoint, StarTropics switches between overworld exploration and Zelda-like dungeon crawling. Dungeons see players occasionally tile-hopping to move around, which are the bulky controls Nitro Rad is referring to. For me though, these controls only add to StarTropics’ mystique and charm.

StarTropics is available through Nintendo Switch Online or the Wii U Virtual Console.Nintendo

While I initially didn’t want to like StarTropics because of how it had gotten on my Wii in the first place, when I took the time to play it I was thoroughly impressed. The mysterious way it entered my life also encouraged me to research it more.

I learned about the game, its lore, and development history right as I was beginning to get interested in thinking about games on a deeper level. It was one of the first games I deeply researched, playing a role in the early stages of my life that would eventually inspire me to write about games for a living.

StarTropics’ weird and sarcastic sense of humor is also similar to my own, so this game probably influenced my comedic taste as well. It also influenced Nitro Rad’s self-prescribed “laid back” tone in many of his videos. “I love this idea that a radical 90s kid who goes around with a yo-yo shouting "THIS IS RADICAL" gets to be the one to travel through time and save the world from aliens,” Lewell says.

He also points out that StarTropics had a massive influence on his taste in visual design and the games he enjoyed.

“The combination of the tropical ocean setting, with elements of space and science-fiction is such a unique blend,” he explains. “The sense of adventure the game has made me love going great distances. Whether it's going from island to island, village to mountain, or earth to space, traveling and seeing all sorts of interesting things was an idea StarTropics made me fall in love with.”

You'll have access to a submarine in StarTropics, with a navigational robot inspired by the NES peripheral ROB.Nintendo

He also brought up the game’s now-legendary puzzle that had players dip a letter in water to reveal a secret code — “the idea of having to go beyond the game or do something beyond what a game would normally ask of you is incredibly cool to me.” He credits StarTropics for sparking his interest in weird peripherals like the E-Reader, and obscure games with obtuse puzzle solutions like Siren and Anodyne, which he frequently covers on his channel.

While StarTropics seems simple enough on the surface, various aspects of the game have clearly seeped into people’s minds creatively. Whether it be my love of researching weird or obscure games, Nitro Rad’s tone and taste in games. Other YouTubers have been influenced by the game as well. Channels like Gaming Historian and AntDude have produced videos delving into the game, and Shesez, best known for the Boundary Break series, using modified Mike Jones art for his channel icon.

It's a shame Nintendo doesn't acknowledge StarTropics more often. In a perfect world, it would be awesome to see StarTropics get a The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening style remaster. Lewell thinks a modern reimagining would work if it took cues from The Binding of Issac, or designers opted for “2D revival with either retro or hand-drawn graphics.”

At the very least, some representation in Smash Bros., whether it be through spirits, assist trophies, Mii Fighter costumes, or a new character would be appreciated. For now, Nintendo doesn’t seem interested in doing much more than re-releasing it. The first game is included with Nintendo Switch Online, though the sequel, Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II, is not currently available on the service.

StarTropics might be destined to be forgotten as time goes on, but that doesn’t mean its impact is nonexistent. Games live on not just due to their popularity, but the impact they leave on those that play them. StarTropics is a perfect example of the latter.

8-Bit Week is an Inverse celebration of the classic — and forgotten — games that pushed the boundaries of interactive entertainment in the 1980s and beyond.

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