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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Thursday Night At The Arcade - StarTropics

It seems hard to believe, but we're now in the final month of 2011. Crazy how this year has flown by, huh?

Anyways, for the month of December, I have a whole bunch of holiday themed entries planned, but they won't start until tomorrow. Rather than oversaturate you with twenty-five days of Christmas goodness, I'll designate one or more day of the week to a regular topic (but if I can make a connection to Christmas, all the better). Reason for this? There's not a lot of video games made where you have to rescue Santa, nor is there a Christmas carol version of Singstar or Guitar Hero, or Dance Dance Revolution.

Although the four games that I'll be featuring in the weeks before Christmas WERE Christmas gifts I received as a child, so at least we have that going for us.

Okay, so let's get started.

When it comes to logic puzzles, and games that force you to use your brain, they can be both a blessing and/or a curse. I've always loved video games and brain teasers that make you think. In fact, if one were to go through my collection of video games for the various consoles that I've played over the years, most of them are puzzle games, role playing games...heck, I even have a video game for Sudoku.

Because I think that a good video game, much like a good jigsaw puzzle or brain teaser, should make a person think. They should make a person want to play it because of the challenge level. That's not to say that I want to play games that require you to have a degree in physics or robotics, or anything like that. I just like games that require a lot of intelligent thought. Which is probably why you'd never see games such as Halo, Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto in my gaming library. Not saying that they're bad games, but they don't really make one think about much except stabbing, shooting, and bludgeoning people to death.

But, hey, those are the games that the so-called “cool” kids play, and I never really saw myself as “cool”. Isn't cool such an overused word, come to think of it?

So, wouldn't it just absolutely terrible if you were putting together a puzzle that was, oh, say...1000 pieces, and you only ended up having 999? That would be absolutely frustrating. It was as if you had spent all that time working on that puzzle only for it to be incomplete.

Or how about when you're playing a role playing game, and you have come to a point in the game where you're absolutely stuck in the game and don't know what your next move is? You might come across a boss that you're unable to defeat. Or maybe you're stuck in a dungeon that is like a maze and you can't get out. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea what town to go to in order to make the story advance. These events may make one want to pull out all the hair on their head, but nowadays people can visit websites like to get any information that they need to get through the game without difficulty.

Or, maybe you get a game for Christmas one year, and your first instinct is to throw away all the non-essential pieces in the game that you don't need (instruction booklet, maps, etc), and it turns out that one of the pieces that may have been thrown out is a piece that you actually need to COMPLETE the game? And because the game came out in 1990, you were literally as a loss as to how you would get the information needed to solve this impossible puzzle.

That was the situation that many, many people who had this game faced, and as a result of this, unless they had a lot of free time on their hands, the game was pretty much unbeatable.

That was the situation that many people who owned a copy of the 1990 Nintendo game, StarTropics, faced.

But before we get into that situation that caused gamers to down an entire bottle of Advil to get rid of the stress related headaches caused from the frustration of the game, let's talk a little bit about StarTropics.

StarTropics was released in North America exactly twenty-one years ago today, on December 1, 1990. It was released in Europe two years later. Surprisingly enough, it never saw a release date in Japan, which was odd, since many of the Nintendo games that were released came out of Japan.

The best way that I can describe this game is that it is a tropical island version of 'The Legend Of Zelda'. In fact, the gameplay is almost exactly like the gameplay of the Zelda series. The only difference was that StarTropics had a clear cut storyline that was linear, whereas Zelda was more open-ended. Even so, it was still a fun game to play, where you'd have to move and leap and boeing...ahem...boing across gaps and chasms.

You take on the role of Mike Jones, a teenaged boy who went to the fictional C-Island, to visit his Uncle Steve, an archaeologist who lived and worked on C-Island. However when Mike arrives on C-Island, he finds that his uncle has gone missing without a trace. Mike is naturally worried about his uncle, and sets off to find him. With assistance from Baboo, who worked as the assistant of Mike's uncle, Mike takes off in his uncle's submarine to travel to different island nations in hopes of finding his uncle alive. Shortly after Mike takes off from Coralcola (the main settlement of C-Island), he discovers a message in a bottle sent from his Uncle Steve. The letter explained that he had been abducted by an alien race, and that the only way he can escape is by rescuing him.

Wow...tropical islands AND aliens? This game just got a whole lot cooler!

With the help of the robotic control system in his uncle's submarine (affectionately named NAV-COM), Mike could travel from island to island in hopes of finding out what happened to his uncle. But along the way, Mike will be sidetracked by various villagers and people on the islands, and he will have to help them with their problems in order to continue his quest. For instance, in one level, he has to help reunite a mother dolphin with her baby, who had been kidnapped by a giant octopus. In another level, he has to help the Chief of Miracola revive his daughter, who fell into a deep sleep as a result of a curse. In one level, you even have to dress up as a woman in order to get help from the female-run village of Shecola. Some of the puzzles are rather ingenious as well.  You have to play a keyboard to open a door, based on clues given by a bright red parrot. You have to enter an abandoned village to fight off a whole bunch of ghosts. You even get swallowed whole by a gigantic whale in the middle of the game!

But have help in the form of weapons and items. When you first play the game, Mike is only armed with a yo-yo. Now, some may think that a yo-yo is no defense against evil monsters and scary things, but Mike must have won some yo-yo competitions in his youth because he can shoot off his yo-yo with deadly force. During the course of the game, his yo-yo can be upgraded into better weapons to use, but only if his health is high enough. There are also temporary weapons he can use as well, such as baseballs, baseball bats, and slingshots.
At the beginning of the game, Mike only starts off with just a few hearts. During the course of the game, Mike will be able to find large heart containers that will add hearts to Mike's life meter (a maximum of 22 hearts can be placed in the life meter during any game). And as the game progresses, he'll need EVERY heart he can get, as Mike only has three lives during the course of any game (unless he gets rare 1-UP's in the game through the Try-Your-Luck minigames that occasionally pop up). If Mike loses all of his lives, it's game over, and he'll have to start at the very beginning of the dungeon he was playing at the time.

At the end of each level, Mike will usually face some sort of boss character. And, each boss will have some sort of strategy to defeat them. For instance, when you're fighting the octopus that abducted the baby dolphin, you have to wait until he gets close, freeze him with a snowman doll, and attack away until the deep freeze melts. In another, you have to use a rod of sight to make a giant ghost appear to kill him. In another battle, you have to defeat a boss by making the platform that he's standing on sink into the ocean below. Some of these boss battles are fairly easy. Some are obscenely hard.

And once you rescue Uncle Steve, there's one level where Mike will have to board a spaceship...

...ahem...I said SPACESHIP... defeat the head alien (named Zoda) once and for all to save not only the island nations that Mike visited, but also to rescue a treasure that Zoda had Steve take while he was under Zoda's control.

All in all, I though StarTropics was a decent game, and incredibly challenging. So challenging that I only really did manage to beat the game once and only once. But really, it was a fun game to play, and it turned out to be one of the better presents that I received from Santa back on Christmas 1991.

But now here's where the frustration comes into play. It was bad enough that the gameplay for StarTropics was challenging and difficult. Turns out that many gamers couldn't get past chapter four in the game at all.

Why was that?

Because in order to get through chapter four of the game, you needed to know what the secret code was to get a radio frequency needed to advance further in the game. And what was worse, the code was NEVER revealled in the gameplay at all.

Or, was it?

When most people got the StarTropics game brand new, they found the cartridge, an instruction booklet, and a letter written on parchment paper from Mike's Uncle Steve, congratulating Mike on his success with the high school baseball team, as well as his looking forward to his visit.

Now, if you're like a lot of game players, the most important part of the game was the cartridge itself, and it wasn't uncommon for people to think the letter was just some fancy added bonus and threw it away in the trash.

What many gamers didn't realize until it was too late was that the letter CONTAINED THE CODE NEEDED TO COMPLETE CHAPTER FOUR! Can you imagine a gamer getting to chapter four, and the game prompting you to enter the 3-digit code needed to advance, and you didn't have the letter? That would be frustrating!  

Gamers were so frustrated by it that Nintendo Power magazine was forced to publish the code in order to keep up with the demand of letters from fans asking about the code!

Here's the letter in question.

And, here's the message blown up in case you can't read it.

Thank goodness I was a bit of a packrat back in my childhood. I managed to still have the letter that came with the game, and I managed to get through without any problems. But it was an ingenious move by Nintendo, and it added an extra bit of challenge to the game. Those who didn't have the letter? Well, you could still play the game by guessing the code, but with one thousand different possibilities, needless to say you'd be wasting a lot of time.

But, you've now seen the letter, and I know what you're saying...there's no code on the letter at all.

Ah, but there is.

There's a point in the game that sounds like a cryptic clue that doesn't make a lot of sense the first playthrough. But the clue reads 'tell Mike to dip my letter in water'.

And that's all you needed to do. You didn't have to dunk the entire letter in a sink full of water, for that would destroy the letter. But, if you look at the empty space down below the letter, all you had to do was dip that part in water, and the code would appear, written in invisible ink.

Cool, huh?

Now, for people who bought the game used, or who lost their letters, they were pretty much out of luck until the Internet came along. And, I have revealled the code to all of you in this blog entry somewhere.

You just have to look for it. There's three clues that reveal the 3-digit number hidden somewhere on this entry.

Can you figure it out?

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