By Joseph Walter
It's a delightful game that tasks the player to take on the role of Mike Jones, a Seattle-based teenager, to go on a tropical journey to find his missing uncle, Dr. Jones. The gameplay is closely related to a Zelda II, where there is an overworld with RPG-overtones, and then dungeons where the gameplay shifts to a more action-centric experience, with healthy doses of puzzle-solving thrown in.
Overall, it's a wonderful game with a satisfying difficulty, an intriguing, bizarre and humorous plot and addicting "one more chapter" progression. A worthwhile addition to either your virtual console or your actual old Nintendo, I could not recommend it more.
Or course, another huge component that makes this game such a unique joy is its equally-delightful soundtrack. Taking a cue from the "tropics" in the title, the compositions are cheery and island-inspired, but with an injection of the unique 8-bit action musical sensibilities.
The tunes are absolute worth talking about, so today, I'm reviewing the soundtrack to Startropics.
Be warned, however, that some situations will be lightly spoiled by both track names and the content of the discussions. Startropics is a game with an intriguing plot and continually throws surprising and unexpected situations at the player, so if this is something you'd like to experience for yourself, come back and read the review after you've beaten the game.
The playlist I've used for this review is right here, if you'd like to listen along! The discussions of each track and the final ratings are below the break.
Alright, are you ready? Let's head to C-Island!
Right off the bat, this theme sets itself apart with its tropical flavor. Thematically, the music is gentle and catchy, perfectly accentuating the title screen (which happens to be awesome and would be a good candidate for my "Title Screens" series). Aside from the calming and breezy tropical feelings, there's a very slight hint of danger, or perhaps an adventure to soon be unfolding. Perfect for "a test of island courage!"
A simple fanfare to introduce each chapter in the game, it's a brief take on the main motif established in "Opening." It's short and sweet and makes the player crave more of the island sound!
Along with "Opening," this is the epitome of the Startropics musical style. It is the perfect example of the unique and delightful breezy island sound that dominates the soundscape, along with showing off the thematic feeling of the music in general. This tune is what plays for the majority of the overworld exploration. Its tropical beat is catchy, and despite the pleasantry of the theme, there's a nicely subtle touch of adventure that may inspire you to take a quick detour from the beaten path in search of secrets! You can practically feel the island breeze hit your face while you enjoy the mild weather of the island on your quest to find your Uncle!
This is an incidental piece that plays during story-centric cutscenes. While potentially grating out of context, it lives up to its name as the increasing tempo successfully builds tension for the dramatic moments that it accompanies.
Ah, now this is a dungeon theme! While Startropics' contemporaries used "spooky" or "perilous" themes for their dungeons (such as the original "Zelda's" excellent track), this game continues to embrace its tropical themes and delivers a composition with a calypso-styled accompaniment that successfully (and catchily) creates a track that consists of adventure and danger while being danceable all at once. The descending sequence at :14 that crests into something hopeful at :30 before looping is intoxicating, and will distract the player from the fact that the song loops immediately afterwards while they use their yo-yos to defeat the many subterranean beasts and puzzles that await them.
This theme plays when the player is near the dungeon's boss. As the name suggests, the difficulty is about to take a spike upwards. Alas, so does the difficulty of listening. This piece can be quite annoying, but on a thematic level, it's interesting that it seems to be a take on the "Tension" theme above, and does a similarly acceptable job of creating it for the player.
After a brief and threatening fanfare, the main theme that accompanies the boss battles starts. It is also repetitious and, in all likelihood, grating, but it also accomplishes its primary goal of inducing intense levels of stress. Especially if you're on your last life and don't want to repeat the entire dungeon.
Ah, now that's a victory piece! It's far from over-the-top, instead opting to remain reserved, as if Mike is smiling to himself after conquering the dungeon and its boss. My favorite sequence is when the march reaches its climax at :19. Such a satisfying moment!
A theme you'll probably be hearing a lot. What's interesting about this appropriately downtrodden track is that it perfectly leads into the "Game Over" theme. Something else of note is that, while it is sad, it doesn't have that "oh, too bad, you baby" feeling that certain other lives-lost themes do, which helps to quickly nullify any frustration. Although, admittedly, it's still heartbreaking to see that sprite of angel Mike wiping away his tears.
As mentioned directly above, the "Game Over" theme is an expansion of the death motif. It's mysterious and mystical, which is fitting because the screen shows the island's chief priestess resurrecting you upon reaching it. Don't despair, Mike! Anything is possible under the Southern Cross!
Inside the Sub-C
Eventually in your journey, you'll be able to use the Sub-C to travel to your next island destination. Within, you'll meet your robot friend NAVCOM! The theme that accompanies the discussions within the Sub-C certainly maintains a dosage of the serene tropical flair, but opts mainly for a sensation of
peaceful security, or even a sense of "home."
Off in the Blue
This very brief fanfare plays as you set off in the Sub-C for the first time. It's a simple but lovely, reserved take on the Sub-C motif established above with a nicely constructed finale.
One of my favorite pieces, "Sailing" is essentially the "overworld" theme for while you're skimming the ocean with the Sub-C. Though still tropical, it captures a very elusive feeling that;s difficult to describe. It... ugh. I'll do my best to articulate it, but it won't make sense in context: it's almost like pure nostalgia. The embodiment of the waning ability to revisit moments from your past, with only the remnants of feelings left behind. Somewhat somber, yet comforting at once. An outstanding piece.
The Storm Before the Calm
There's not much to say here other than that this a short incidental piece that accompanies a storm that the Sub-C gets caught in. It's appropriately dangerous-sounding.
The Calm After the Storm
This slow and melancholy rendition of the "Sailing" piece is a perfect accompaniment to the sinking feeling of Mike sluggishly regaining consciousness on the beach of a nearby island, with the Sub-C smashed against the rocks in the sea! Luckily, we shouldn't have to worry about NAVCOM and the Sub-C's dire straits too much longer...
Another of my favorite tracks, "Miracola" primarily serves as the theme for the town on the new island you washed up on. Like "Sailing," this theme conjures nostalgic sensations (particularly :22) but focuses mostly on the more jovial side of island life. It really gives off the feeling of temperate weather, lovely sun and yet another sense of adventure.
This theme is used primarily for the titular graveyard. It is similar to "Getting Harder" or "Tension" in terms of its composition, opting for repetition and stressful beats. If anything, this reminds me of what traditional dungeon themes are in other games of this era. Nothing really to write home about, but it is effective in context.
This is a surprisingly gentle theme for Shecola Castle, which is the centerpiece of an amusing sub-plot. It's far from complex, but yet it is also unique. It steps away from theming associated with castles, such as regality, and instead chooses a gentle, even dreamy theme. Despite this, there's a slight bit of defiant beats, which suits the warrior women who reside within.
This is an odd piece. It's an aloof and goofy theme for a character that I wouldn't classify as such. Perhaps it reflects the aforementioned amusing sub-plot that Mike is engaged in at this very moment, but otherwise, it's an effective incidental piece.
It's a Miracola!
This is a stunningly beautiful piece for a wonderful moment in the game. Its minimalist composition hits all the right notes, stirring up feelings of sadness, joy, and, honestly, love. There's not much more to write about it. It does its job that efficiently and effectively.
Inside the Whale
At one point in the game, you'll be tasked with finding an important character in the belly of a whale. It's a maze-like sequence, which is accompanied by this confounding piece of music. Yes, it can get annoying, but hopefully the cognitive workout of navigating the belly of the whale will help you ignore it.
Peter the Parrot
Another unusual side-quest (although, to be fair, it's my favorite), Peter the Parrot's theme is surprisingly complex for something so incidental. It's joyful and fits Peter's silly personality well, all with that rhythmic island flavor. Yet again, it's as if you can feel the island breeze hitting your face. It's hard to not smile while listening to this and imagining yourself talking to a sassy parrot!
Captain Bell's Memorial
Yet another favorite, it is first used for Captain Bell's Memorial, but reappears near the finale of the game. This is an extremely eerie piece of music that just about makes my hair stand on edge. Expertly used sounds for the organs conjure an otherworldly sensation (more appropriate than you might think, if you've yet to play the game). And while there are no tropical elements, its composition is still thematically cohesive, meaning that this piece doesn't feel out of place. Certainly one of the most effective tracks on the entire soundtrack for setting a scene and mood so perfectly, it's practically tangible.
The Organ Played
After solving my favorite puzzle in the game, you're treated to this exceptionally awesome rendition of the climax for the "Victory" theme, this time played by an organ. That's it. Nothing else to say other than that this moment is super satisfying.
Have I mentioned how weird this game is yet? Yes, this is "My Country 'Tis of Thee/God Save the Queen." It certainly esoterically fits the context for which it appears (which is at the completion of a certain puzzle) but... there's something sort of sad about it. I was oddly emotionally affected by this moment, and I couldn't even begin to tell you why. But hey, if you play the game and get to this part, let me know how it made you feel!
Dr. J Found
One of the most detailed incidental pieces, Dr. J's theme is appropriately triumphant. The feeling of pure, exasperated joy is easily interpreted from the composition, mimicking the feeling of how great it'd be finally find your uncle safe and sound after such a perilous journey! But your journey isn't over quite yet...
The Alien Spaceship
When you're in the final stretch of the game, Mike must lay siege to an alien spaceship hiding in the tropics. This theme is a rendition of the typical "Dungeon" theme, but has undergone a technological make-over, with some more sinister elements implemented as well. And although it still has the compositional sensibilities of the tropical themes (especially its calypso background beat) its newly spine-tingling additions to the core "Dungeon" theme is expert stylistic choice, giving the player something familiar while making sure to subtly and concretely declare the game has changed and the stakes have been raised.
Inside the Spaceship
This is my favorite piece of the entire game. Serving as the "overworld" theme for exploring the massive interior of the alien ship, it's a major change of pace from almost every other piece. The prickly sounds and ominous bass that start the song are appropriately threatening, and give off the feeling of being involved in something far bigger than Mike probably should be. He's in real danger now. It's not just about saving his Uncle anymore, this is about saving pretty much everything. The sequence starting at :14 is worth discussing because of its thematic departure from the bulk of the song. It's a brief, gentle, even comforting interlude that is reminiscent of previous island-centric themes in the game. I'd like to believe this musical moment represents Mike's presence in Zoda's mothership; a force for good against evil.
It Was for the Children
This is a moderately meatier version of the "It's a Miracola!" theme, but is close enough that they're essentially identical. Either way, both are equally effective, and, if I were to classify this theme as an operatic motif, I would call these two tunes "the emotional theme," such as the way John William's classifies "the Force Theme" in Star Wars.
A typical NES ending theme and easily the most typical sounding of the entire score. Still though, it maintains a surprisingly complex orchestration during its climax.
Now we're back to weirdly unique Startropics themes. This is an astoundingly somber piece for the credits, that once again calls to mind the elusive nature of nostalgia. It's fitting, too, as this piece accompanies a slide-show of each and every major moment in the game, causing the playing to reflect and, in my case smile and tear up a little, because hey, why not? The most incredible part is that despite sounding like the tune is looping, it's actually building up to a finite conclusion starting at 3:05 that not only satisfies, but has an effective emotional impact. By the time this sequence and its song concludes, you'll feel as though you've gone on an amazing adventure to C-Island and beyond. And the best part is that you did.
Bonus Track: Medicine
Not on the playlist above, you can hear it in this video. It plays when the player discovers a secret room in one of the dungeons. These are often very helpful, offering up rare Life Potions to help you complete your quest. This peace is appropriately tranquil, as you needn't worry about enemies in these rooms. They're a perfect place to take a breather, rest your thumb, and then psych yourself up once more before jumping back into the fray, and this song serves those purposes swimmingly.