What do you do if aliens abduct your archaeologist uncle? Well, if you’re a young, baseball playing boy named Mike Jones, you set out to rescue him armed with a yo-yo that the chief of the Coralcola people of Island-C gave you.
Of course, I’m talking about the 1990 NES title StarTropics. The game was a top down adventure that felt a bit like Zelda by way of Indiana Jones. Your mission was to rescue your Uncle, Dr. Steve Jones, from his alien abductors. The story progressed through “chapters” as you explored villages, fought through dungeons, and battled bosses. As you would expect, Mike’s movement was controlled by using the D-pad, but there was a quirk. You had to point him in the right direction first. In addition to your yo-yo, you could gather other weapons as the game progressed, ranging from things like a baseball bat to shuriken (throwing stars).
One of the most memorable features of the StarTropics was a paper letter that came in the game box. The item was a recreation of a note that Mike’s uncle sent him. Part way through the game, you had to dip the letter in water, revealing the numbers 747. The numbers refer to a frequency you that must input to continue with the game. It was a novel feature, a bit reminiscent of the “airport codes” that came with the game Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders. There was only one drawback. If you rented the game or purchased a used copy, you probably didn’t have access to the letter.. Without it, you couldn’t discover the code, and without the code, your game was over.
Genyo Takeda (who later went on to serve as one of the primary developers for the Wii) wrote, directed and produced StarTropics. Unlike most Nintendo games, it was produced first and foremost for an American and European market (in fact, the United States and Europe were the only places where StarTropics was released). Most titles for the Nintendo were created for a Japanese market first, and then adapted for release overseas.
In a video released on the YouTube channel “The Gaming Historian,” Norman Caruso notes that this focus on an American market resulted in a number of allusions to Western pop culture. The number of items related to baseball were the most obvious, but there were others. Mike’s Uncle is an archeologist named Dr. Jones, a clear reference to Indiana Jones. The word “cola”, a reference to Coke and Pepsi cola, is imbedded in the name of the locals (the Coralcola). When NPC’s talk to Mike, they ask him if he’s from “Americola.” There was also historical references. Two of the codes you had to input were tied to North American history, one being 1492 (the year Columbus stumbled onto the Americas) and 1776 (the year of American independence).
Though not as well known as NES titles like Super Mario Bros. or the Legend of Zelda, StarTropics remains an incredibly entertaining game, with an entertaining story, and catchy music.