Ice Climber NES, GBA, arcade Developed by Nintendo Released in 1985
I have a tradition where, every time I visit a foreign country, I make it my goal to find a place that still sells physical albums and bring one back home from a band I like, mostly since there are no music stores left where I live and I find physically browsing a store more fun than scrolling through Itunes. Still, each album has a collection of songs on there and more often than not the really good pieces end up mixed in with some forgettable and mundane stuff. The same goes with video game companies: everybody talks about Mario, Link, and Samus when discussing the NES, forgetting the mediocre filler games like Nintendo’s very own Ice Climber.
Those kids from Smash Bros.?
This is a vertical platforming game starring Popo and Nana, two ice climbers that have to reach the top of a series of perilous mountains made out of the blocks from Super Breakout. To do this you have to jump around to reach platforms, but when a ceiling of blocks above you blocks the path you can break away pieces by jumping into them. This means levels are slightly non-linear, as you can choose to make holes anywhere you want and upset the original layout of the stage.
Blocking you from doing so are regular enemies like birds that will kill you upon touch, as well as strange creatures that will run back to their hide-out to fetch new ice when they come upon a hole. They will patch over your work, which is especially annoying when levels begin to incorporate moving platforming or tricky layouts that leave you unable to immediately use any hole you make. Fortunately, these foes can be tricked or smacked with your hammer to buy you more time. The only exception is the polar bear, who will force the screen to start scrolling up if you are taking too long for his liking. Players have three lives, which are lost by either touching a monster or falling off the screen.
So far so standard, but what sets Ice Climber apart is its peculiar control scheme. Popo and Nana can both walk around fast enough, yet despite the vertical nature of the gameplay, their jumping leaves a lot to be desired. You make a lot of height, but when in the air you can only barely steer yourself left and right. You have some momentum, so if you make a running jump you’ll get slightly further. Still, this means the game doesn’t feel good to play, as you are constantly struggling to make relatively simple jumps. You either bump your head on the ceiling and smack another block or end up falling through the platform you wanted to land on, thanks to some really dodgy collision detection. This starts out an issue in the bonus stages that you are allowed to fail, only to slip into the normal stages as the challenge ramps up in later mountains.
Gamplay score: 6.5/10
While visually simple, Ice Climber manages to grasp that Nintendo magic that makes many classic games so adorable. And that magic is, itself, created by effort. This manifests in the simplest things, like the blocks you knock away mimicking shading by incorporating lighter and darker pixels, as well as the imaginative character designs. In a display of the NES’ greatest sprites, the sunglass-sporting polar bear of Ice Climber should not be missed.
Actual gameplay is accompanied by a repeating tune, with separate tracks for the title screen, victory screen, and opening sequence showing off the stage. This was one of Akita Nakatsuka’s first soundtracks, but I certainly feel this is not him at his best, especially since he filled Koji Kondo’s shoes in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in his very next work. Most of the tracks are fine, but hearing the same, looping noise on every mountain certainly started to annoy me.
Presentation score: 7.5/10
Ice Climber is the okay song on a band’s album otherwise filled with their greatest hits. The game enjoys some good visuals for the time and offers gameplay that is more methodical and slow than the speedy platforming action offered in Super Mario Bros., which launched in the same year. While it might frustrate some, come at it with the right mindset and you can certainly fill an afternoon conquering its tricky mountains.