There's an exchange near the beginning of Back To The Future Part III, where Marty McFly and the Doc are trying to get their time machine circuits to work right. The Doc picks up the little time-travel chip, inspects it, and says "No wonder this circuit failed, it says 'Made In Japan.'" Marty replies "What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan." and the Doc just scoffs. Being from 1985, Marty wouldn't quite have known about the NES, but on the subject of video games, his words are pretty true. Most of the really big titles in console video gaming are from Japanese companies like Nintendo or Capcom. Western developers were mostly more focused on the PC world, but in recent years we've had blockbuster Western-made console games from developers like Infinity Ward. Back in the 8-bit era, though, Japanese-made games were on top of the world. The focus had shifted thanks to Atari causing the Great Video Game Crash, and mass amounts of money were being made. An interesting idea came into Nintendo's heads; if most Western games were kind of ehh, why not make a really GOOD game especially for English-speaking countries? A bunch of Japanese game developers living in the US got to work on such a game, taking inspiration from good old Zelda. The result was StarTropics, and it is surprisingly pretty damned good.
In StarTropics, you play as Mike Jones, a regular kid from Seattle who plays baseball and probably eats apple pie. Mike has an uncle known simply as "Dr. J" who is studying something on a small tropical island called C-Island (so called because it is shaped like the letter C). Dr. J invites Mike down to C-Island to hang out in the sun, and Mike promptly heads to the tropical paradise.. only to learn from the village chief that Dr. J has been kidnapped by something-or-other (later revealed to be GODDAMN ALIENS). The chief gives Mike a yo-yo to fight monsters that have mysteriously cropped up as of late, and sends him on his way. Mike soon takes control of Dr. J's submarine, Sub-C, which is piloted by a robot named Nav-Com. Nav-Com is very clearly a Robotic Operating Buddy, HI ROB THANKS FOR SAVING VIDEO GAMING AS WE KNOW IT YOU ADORABLE LITTLE SCAPEGOAT. Mike progresses from island to island in the tropics, searching for clues to find his missing uncle, and along the way leaves a path of destruction as he kills creepy monsters with his magic yo-yo.
Gameplay-wise, StarTropics is like Zelda crossed with an RPG; hell, the file select screen is LITERALLY ZELDA'S WITH A LITTLE MIKE SPRITE INSTEAD OF LINK. Much like Zelda, the game is split up into an overworld that you explore, and dungeons that you enter in order to kill things. There are distinct differences that make StarTropics stand out from being a complete Zelda clone, though. For one, the overworld sections have more in common with an NES RPG than an action/adventure like Zelda; you walk around, enter towns, and talk to people in order to advance the plot. There are scattered sections where secrets can be found by "pushing" against walls to find secret passages, but most of these stand out simply. The game is still very linear, progressing with a chapter-based system; very rarely will you find yourself lost with no idea where to go (except for one part, but more on that in a bit). Dungeon entrances are found in the overworld, and they are often placed in the way of your next goal, requiring you to enter and get through alive. The underworld sections evoke even more from Zelda; you wander around various rooms filled with enemies, and your life force is represented by hearts. If you're low on hearts, the game makes it ear-bleedingly obvious by repeating a shriller variation of Zelda's YOU'RE GONNA DIE beeping. Again, however, there are differences in gameplay. The dungeons are built around a sort of grid-based system, and moving in a direction will move Mike one "square" forward. This makes control a little stiff at first, but it becomes natural as you play the game. Mike is also able to jump to other grids, something which is needed to jump across watery gaps to other squares; Mike shares that cursed weakness of "not being able to swim" with other game heroes, and will die if he falls in the water. There are a variety of items to gain in each dungeon, ranging from good things like heart-restoring medicine and extra lives, to special weapons like baseballs and bats, to essential special items like a staff to make ghosts visible.
And then, there's the letter, so infamous and fourth-wall shattering that it gets its own little segment. Near the halfway point of the game, you're required to input a special frequency into the submarine in order to progress. Your only clue on how to do so is a message from Dr. J telling you to "dip my letter in water". There's no letter item in-game, and there's nothing you can do besides enter the code or talk to a lone NPC. The solution to this puzzle isn't found in-game; it's found in the confines of reality as we know it. When it was sold in stores, the game came with the cartridge, instructions... and a "letter" from Dr. J, welcoming you to C-Island and whatnot. The player is meant to PHYSICALLY take this letter to the nearest sink, and get it wet, causing some sort of chemical reaction to reveal a secret message.. and the submarine code. (Rather hilariously, the bottom of the letter contains an interesting caution.) PC gaming had done copyright protection before, mostly confined to adventure games, but this was one of the first on a home console. It also became a scourge as time went by; in 1990 you could just go to a store and pick up StarTropics, but what if you bought it used in like, 1994? No letter, no code; unless you want to try every possible number combination up to 999. The rise of the Internet helped to lessen the blow as the code was easily looked up online, but in the pre-Internet days this had to be a real BITCH. The Virtual Console rerelease does this beautifully; in the absence of physical media providing you the letter, the digital operations guide has a letter and a bucket-of-water icon. Dunk that virtual water on, and get your code.
StarTropics is somewhat of a Zelda clone. This is undeniable. Nevertheless, it's a very GOOD one; it's got that same lighthearted silly feel that Earthbound has.. and like Earthbound, it's obscure and not remembered all that much. At least we got in on Virtual Console. The game also jumps in difficulty after the halfway mark, and the last two chapters are like the Zelda hack from hell. Perserverance, however, will net you victory over a game that belongs in any collection. Just remember not to taste, eat, or otherwise consume this letter.