StarTropics is one of the first games I think of when I recall my childhood days playing video games. I saw the commercial for it back in the early 90s, and I was hooked. To this day, I can pop it into the NES, and still have a shitload of fun playing it.
StarTropics is an action/adventure title with unique, compelling gameplay. It was originally developed in Japan to appeal to Western audiences, but never caught on quite enough to become an established franchise - only getting a single subpar sequel.
The gameplay is very similar to the Legend of Zelda, almost like a natural evolution of that game. You play as a young hero, who must overcome the challenge of underground dungeons by finding new weapons and items, solving puzzles, finding secret passages and defeating huge bosses. You even have hearts as a measure of your health, and increase said health with heart containers.
Unlike the Legend of Zelda, StarTropics takes place in a unique tropical setting with a more modern theme. There are no swords and shields in this game, but rather sporting goods like baseball bats and baseballs. Considering the main hero, Mike Jones, is from Seattle and loves baseball, this makes sense, and also partially explains why he can damage enemies with a yo-yo.
Basically, you start off your adventure, thinking that you're on a vacation to C-Island. When you arrive, the chief tells you that your uncle (a famous archaeologist named Dr. Jones) has been abducted by aliens. You set out to rescue him by traveling from island to island, in a custom-built submarine, receiving information from the residents of said islands along the way. The overworld exploration sequences are fairly reminiscent of the earlier Dragon Warrior games, but without those pesky random battles, opting instead for puzzle solving and maze exploration before you head back underground for more action.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with StarTropics - the stiff combat controls. When you're in a dungeon, adapting to combat can be a bit tricky, and can get really frustrating later on when you encounter sinking blocks. Basically, each room is built out of an invisible grid, and Mike can only move one square at a time, and never diagonally. Also, you can only jump forward if you have a tile to jump on, or a pitfall/water hazard to jump over.
Also, some of the puzzles can be a bit tedious because they require you to find a hidden pressure switch by jumping on the right tile, which wouldn't be a problem if there were only a few tiles in that room. Worse is when you have to look for a hole in the wall to pass through, with no indication of a hole being there. If you haven't played through the area before, you will need a lot of patience.
Having said all that, the challenge of the game is also what makes it fun, because it feels good to discover a new secret, or a hidden exit. It feels good to kill a monster, because there's a satisfying little explosion that occurs when you've administered the final hit. Also, the music is perfect. Even though the soundtrack is limited, I never got bored of it.
This game requires you to be a lot more strategic about your movements than in the Legend of Zelda, and that's a good thing. You have to take the time to observe the patterns of your enemies' movements and plan your approach accordingly. Studying the timing of the traps will also keep you alive (that one should be obvious).
The bottom line: StarTropics is a fantastic game that got overlooked by many when it first came out. If I had to assign it a score, I would give it a 9 out of 10. If you've never played this game, try it out when you get the chance. It may hurt at first, but the pain is worth it.