Retro Scope: Ice Climber

Iain discovers that not every old Nintendo game is a classic.

By Iain Farrell. Posted 07/17/2014 09:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

What a difference a week makes. Looking at older games in the clinical 21st century LED -powered light can be unfairly harsh, highlighting weakness where a contemporary writer might not have noticed it. That being said, while some old games have aged beautifully and are still perfectly palatable today, there are some it’s best not to revisit.

Ice Climber is an NES port of an arcade game from the early ’80s in which you take to the role of Popo or Nana in a quest to climb its various icy levels. In gameplay reminiscent of Bubble Bobble or Parasol Stars you don your parka, grab a hammer, and work your way up from the bottom by jumping through layers of destructible rock to the top. Some parts of the rock layer are thinner than others which makes them more appealing to the efficient climber as they can be hammered away more quickly. Caution is advised, however, as some of the ledges are patrolled by yeti monsters which in Pac-Man style can move freely back and forth on the levels along with natural obstacles like falling ice and the unpredictable birds. It’s a simple concept that is all at once a bit Donkey Kong, mixed with Breakout and just a dash of Joust.

Ice Climber Screenshot

Unfortunately, that’s where the comparisons with some all-time greats of arcade gaming end. Ice Climber is astonishingly annoying, requiring very precise movement which can’t be guaranteed by the inconsistent controls. Jumping and hammering your environment and enemies should be rewarding but it hardly feels at times like you’re really controlling what’s going on. A jump up through the narrow gaps sometimes requires some momentum left or right but this can be almost impossible to achieve so you often find yourself knocking into enemies that have since moved in the way or bouncing off clouds– read that last part again. You can’t even jump up through a cloud. A cloud! Kazuaki Morita, programmer on this NES port, apparently considered this game to be the warm-up for his work on Super Mario Bros., a project he was to become lead on. I feel that’s generous.

The 32 levels which are repeated until you die serve as a further reminder that this was conceived as an arcade game, designed to eat quarters while you eat free peanuts. From that point of view the design decisions make sense; they reward the player who wants to overcome obstacles by buying access in a social setting for a few minutes, and it’s important to remember that arcade games were a seriously big deal back in the ’80s. It was a big selling point on the back of a console box that it could bring the excitement of the arcade into your home. Furthermore, there’s a lot of love for these characters in modern day titles like Super Smash Bros., but I think enough time has passed that no one will be too upset if we call out Ice Climber for what it is. It’s not a classic in any sense other than it’s old. Its greatest crime is the spongy controls that at best are frustrating and at worst make it inconsistent to the point of being unplayable; it’s a shame too because when I think of the arcade platformers of a similar age that were great and try to look objectively at the idea here, I think it could have real depth.

There is a saving grace in the fact that the sprites have aged well and overall there’s a pleasingly stark retro aesthetic, but the gameplay serves to be so anger-inducing that I’d advise you to save your Virtual Console cash. There are plenty of other classic titles that deserve to be played instead.

One Response to “Retro Scope: Ice Climber

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    I gotta respectfully disagree here; I love me some Ice Climber. I only ever started playing it back when it hit Virtual Console on 3DS, too, so I don’t think it’s a rosy sort of love, either. It’s the real deal. It’s tough at times, but I think it has some solid gameplay. =)

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