Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Startropics 1's Password

Startropics was a delightful little game released way, way back in the days of the NES. It has a special place in my heart as one of the first games I ever beat, and, provided that you count it as an RPG (which I do), probably the first RPG I ever played from start to finish.* And I think it holds up pretty well against time, too--it's got a decent enough plot, there's a certain lighthearted personality to it that you still, to this day, don't find very often in an RPG, and, providing you're one of those people who count gameplay as an important part of an RPG, it's still fun to play--in a refreshing way, even, since few games in the past 2 decades have tried to copy its exact feel.

There are, for me, 2 really notable aspects of this game that I feel are worth recognizing here. The first I've already covered--the game's ending, which is strangely powerful for the little game, yet not so epic that it's over the top in such a title. The second, however, is a clever little gimmick.

I've mentioned in a previous rant that I really do like the idea of interesting swag that comes packaged with a game--stuff like a game's soundtrack, or that marvelous little Vault Boy bobblehead figure that came with Fallout 3. It's not always good, of course--FF12's metal case was pointless, and its little bonus disc on the history of the FF series was little more than a stupid advertisement--but it's generally an effort I appreciate. And I appreciated it even all the way back to when I was 7 or 8, when I opened up the Startropics 1 box and found that with my game came a neat little mock letter from Dr. J, a character from the game, to his nephew, the main character, which basically just set the premise for the game. "Neat!" I thought, and set it aside.

Well, as it turns out, that letter was actually a part of the game itself. See, it's like this. There's a part in the game where you need to put in a password to your little navigating robot to continue on with the quest. The game gives you no information on what it is, with its only hint being to put the letter Dr. J sent Mike (the hero) into water. The game, of course, has no letter item in its inventory, and I found myself wondering exactly how I was supposed to accomplish this in-game if Mike didn't still have the letter on him. I spent some time looking for the item, in case I had missed it, but couldn't find anything.

And then I remembered the letter that came with the game itself.*** Wondering if an idea this crazy could actually be the solution, I found it amongst the junk in my room, ran out to the kitchen, and held it under the faucet for a moment. A moment later, lo and behold, across its bottom appeared a secret message with the code.

If only I knew any proper swear words at that point. I could have properly conveyed my feelings: Holy shit that is so cool.

It's just an example of really neat, creative thinking going into the design of a game puzzle. Where so many RPGs are content with just pushing crates into the right place, or having the sheer genius to be able to press the "Search" button in front of something really suspicious in order to find a password or essential item, Startropics 1 included in its neat puzzles one that required sleuth work in the real world, making a plot-essential item an actual, real object. What a neat, creative thing to put in the game it was. Kudos to Nintendo for such a nifty idea!

* "Probably" because I'm not ENTIRELY sure about this--it MIGHT have been The Magic of Scheherazade. My memory's a little foggy on this; it WAS something like 20 years ago.**

** Jesus CHRIST how the hell did I get so old?

*** Yeah, yeah, I know it seems obvious enough to figure out from the start, but give me a break. I was in the second grade. At that point, my deductive reasoning with video games peaked at "Hey, that enemy has spikes on his head. Maybe I shouldn't jump on him."


  1. If this is an RPG, what counts as an RPG for you? I'm guessing you also count the Zelda games in this genre. I'm really curious to know why though.

  2. The question of what is and is not an RPG has gotten too convoluted in the last decade, I think, to really keep any concrete definition--if it really ever had one to begin with. I think that there are a lot of factors in what makes an RPG, like gameplay that derives from numerical stats and a plot-based progression, among other things, but also that an RPG doesn't necessarily have to have ALL of the qualities associated with RPGs to qualify as one. What it comes down to for me is whether it has enough RPG qualities that it can be reasonably counted as such--a judgment call. Because every time I've seen anyone try to hammer out a definitive set of rules for the genre, those rules will without fail disqualify a number of games that are more or less universally recognized to be RPGs.

  3. I've tried to do that myself, and would like your insight, which is why I asked. I really don't know anyone else that considers StarTropics an RPG. Here's my blog post on it:

    I tackle the problem by having a list of items to check off. Most are 1 point and a few of the more prominent ones are 2, with a total of 20. So far, going with this, and using a score of 10 as a qualifier, I think it's been mostly accurate. It does cut out all the Zelda games (except Zelda II) though, so as someone that includes those, I'm hoping you could take a look to see if I'm missing anything.

  4. It's a good list, and flexible enough to be more reasonable than most people's flailing attempts to constrain too diverse a genre into too strict a definition.

    I would set it up differently, myself, though. For starters, a lot of games that no one would consider RPGs have stores in them, so at most the shop should be 1 point, if it even is there to begin with. The first part of 4, Story, would get 2 points. And even still, it just seems to me like this list doesn't have enough variables taken into account, and takes into account other ones that aren't fair to count against many RPGs that don't have them. I mean, going by your point system, Metroid Prime 3 gets a 10, from what I can figure, so it actually counts as an RPG, though I don't know anyone who's called it such. But then, I got 11 for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which you imply was cut, so we're probably not interpreting your criteria in the same way. And how do hybrid games work out? Sakura Wars 5, a combination date simulator and RPG, only makes the minimal 10 if you count Stat Increases as a point even though it's not so much stat increasing as stat flexibility--you can increase stats by increasing your relationship with a character, but if you worsen the relationship afterward, the stats decrease again. I mean, sure, many RPGs allow for the possibility of stats being lowered, but those are usually very unusual circumstances (like giving up permanent HP to the Pillar of Skulls in Planescape: Torment in exchange for knowledge), rather than simply being an integral part of the gameplay. But does it get leniency since it's 2 separate game types merged in one?

    I still think the whole matter requires using judgment rather than concrete criteria, and that it's inevitably going to have some subjectivity to it, really.

  5. I'm not familiar with Metroid Prime 3, but I don't see it getting more than a 7 or 8. Also, A Link to the Past gets a 9. I don't count the story that high, and nearly every game has a story now. I was considering adding interaction and influence with the world somewhere, but so few games do this that I didn't bother adding it (it's definitely in the final reviews though).

    I guess we're interpreting each point a little differently though. In case you're interested, the points in each category for Zelda 3 are 1,1,1,2,2,2. Metroid Prime 3 I won't bother since I don't know how accurate it is. Maybe I'm just using my judgment to fit aspects or reject of each point in the end, so this is mostly a form to make sure I consider everything.

    For the stores, I was trying to capture the dungeon crawl experience of going to get treasure, coming back to sell it, and buying better stuff. If this wasn't worth 2 points, then most rogue-likes wouldn't count as RPGs.

  6. Sorry to bring back an old topic, but I completely disagree about that letter thing being a great idea: back in the days when we were kids, we didn't have any money to buy games, thus we rented them. What do you think happened when we rented Startropics and got stuck at the password entry ? No, there was no Internet at the time. So much anger I had felt when it happened!

    1. Ooooooh, ouch. Never thought of that. I guess that must have been kind of rough. This could actually be the very first step the game industry ever took to penalize renting over purchasing, now that I think about it.

    2. Indeed, this seems more like a creative approach to copy protection than game puzzles. And of course, at the time this game came out, here in Russia we had only pirated Chinese copies of NES games, so no fancy boxes or included stuff.