The VC Advantage: Dear Mike

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JC Fletcher
January 10th, 2008
In this article: letter, nes, startropics, vcadvantage
The VC Advantage: Dear Mike

The internet has made it easy to find cheats for games, but we miss the tips pages from game magazines, when the discovery of a new code could inspire you to go back to an old game. These codes aren't exactly new, but oldness is the essence of the Virtual Console! We're bringing back the classic codes every week on The VC Advantage.

Chances are, even if you've never played StarTropics, you have heard about its gimmick. The letter included in the box is by far the best-known aspect of the game. Nintendo may be able to get away with changing the name of the basic weapon in the Virtual Console release, but there was no way they could excise the letter and get that by us. As much fun as playing the actual game is (and it really is the nearest successor to Zelda on the NES), this addition made digging around in the box even more fun.

In case you've been exiled on a remote island for the last seventeen years, we'll refrain from spoiling the game -- until after the break. Then it's on.

At the end of the game's fourth chapter, protagonist Mike Jones learns that his uncle Dr. J, who has been abducted, is in possession of a tracking device, and that he has sent Mike a message containing the frequency required to track him. Dr. J's assistant Baboo tells Mike to submerge the letter he received in water.

For some of us, it took a few minutes to realize that the reason we couldn't find any letter in the game to submerge was that he wasn't talking about anything in the game. Baboo is, here, referring to the physical letter enclosed in the game's box; when dipped in water, the number 747 appears. The moment of recognition that the silly paper included in the box, attached to the instruction booklet is actually important is one of the best moments of NES gaming, as StarTropics unexpectedly breaks the fourth wall.

We don't usually expect to interact with games through conduits other than the controller and the screen. We push buttons (or wave around, these days) to communicate with the game, and the game makes the pictures moooooove to communicate back to us. You can't usually heal your character by making yourself a glass of chocolate milk. But that's what happens in StarTropics. Your actions outside the game affect the progression of the game.

Computer gamers were a little less dumbfounded by this puzzle. Thumbing through the other stuff in the box was the mundane reality of computer games at the time. Copy protection schemes relied on forcing the player to find numbers, symbols, or words in the instruction manual or some other included material; it came off as irritating at the time, although in retrospect companies were remarkably creative about it. Like StarTropics, the best copy protection was integrated into the game's story in a clever way. Space Quest V, for example, required you to enter coordinates from the manual in order to travel between planets. The Ultima games went overboard, first requiring you to translate Britannian runes, then find information on the included cloth maps written in those runes.

On the consoles, however, this has no motivation other than gameplay. The wacky idea of referring to out-of-game materials in-game came up again in Konami's generally postmodern Metal Gear Solid, in which ArmsTech president Kenneth Baker actually refers you to the game's CD case.
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