Japanese videogame developers making titles specifically for the western market is hardly a new phenomenon. While the western game market of the NES era wasn’t as absolutely vital for companies as it is today, Japanese game company executives still sensed the potential money tsunami that would result if they could get westerners playing games in the same percentages as their eastern contemporaries. Hence the creation of StarTropics, a game made by Nintendo specifically for America, never even receiving a release in Japan. Starring ace high school pitcher Mike Jones, StarTropics saw players traveling across a series of tropical islands attempting to solve the mystery of Mike’s missing uncle.
There tend to be two things players remember most about StarTropics. The first is the gameplay cribbed straight from The Legend of Zelda. While StarTropics is much more linear and story-driven than Zelda, anyone who has played both will nevertheless notice an immediate similarity, most likely as soon as they see the identical data management screen. Mike also shares the same life bar as Link and spends most of his dungeon-diving time killing monsters and solving simple puzzles in square, one-screen rooms. Perhaps since Zelda was an attempt by Shigeru Miyamoto to capture in videogame form the excitement he felt exploring the forests and caves of the Japanese countryside as a child, the team behind StarTropics attempted to replicate the experience for westerners by transplanting Zelda’s assets into a game where a distinctly American hero explored areas reminiscent of distinctly American vacation destinations. Then again, maybe the developers just got lazy.
The second thing everybody remembers is the infamous letter. Every copy of StarTropics was originally accompanied by a one-page letter from the hero’s uncle inviting Mike out to his lab. This on its own was fairly unique, but things got even stranger. At a certain point near the end of the game’s fourth chapter, Mike received another message from his uncle, this time in the game, telling him to dip the letter in water. The intent was for players to take the physical letter they had received with the game and lightly dip the blank bottom portion in water to receive an additional hidden message, including a vital code, “747,” necessary to activate a special feature of Mike’s submarine, without which he could not advance to the next chapter. In theory it was a pretty clever idea, and for the handful of players who saved the letter and understood what the game was telling them it made for a very unique and immersive experience. After all, Mike’s uncle was talking directly to them. Wow!
Of course, the reality of the situation is that many American children were less than fastidious in keeping track of all the stuff that came with their games and the letter was often misplaced soon after the game was opened. Many others simply didn’t understand that the game was referring to an actual physical item and spent hours hunting for an in-game letter. Also, few people who rented the game or purchased it second hand ever even received the letter, and thus were completely at a loss when they arrived at this segment. In the era before Internet walkthroughs, this pretty much guaranteed that a huge percentage of StarTropics players never saw anything beyond the fourth chapter.
With its stiff controls and unforgiving difficulty, StarTropics isn’t the easiest game to go back to so man years later. Nevertheless, it is one of the more interesting footnotes to NES history and definitely worth a look by those curious about Nintendo’s forgotten properties.