(Am I really chasing a condor that stole my eggplant?)
As a devoted collector of classic NES carts, I’d been lusting after this one for a while. It’s a great feeling to be a full-fledged adult (so they tell me, anyway) who still hasn’t played all of the original ‘black box’ NES games. I’ve intentionally saved some of these uber-famous titles for a rainy day, suppressing the temptation to pick up used copies via yard sales or eBay. Call me crazy, but I love to save things. I genuinely love the anticipation and sense of reward that comes with delayed gratification. This trait extends far beyond games and includes movies, television shows, and books, but is probably a subject best saved for another post. Given that Ice Climber came out in 1985, I thought 25 full years was probably an adequate amount of buildup. Seize the day, right?
I always thought the title of the game was plural–or maybe I just got confused after played 100+ hours of Smash Brothers Brawl (the announcer always intones “Ice Climbers” when they join the battle). Regardless what you call it, the game is hard as balls, serving up the masochistic difficulty that was apparently required by 1980s gamers. The goal is simple–avoid or defeat a variety of simple enemies while climbing to the top of 32 different ice mountains. You’ll face slippery surfaces, conveyor belts, and falling icicles as well as a variety of weird creatures that blunder into your path. At least some of the game’s difficulty could be described as ‘flawed’ by modern gamers; the hit-box for the character’s primary attack (a microscopic mallet) seems flaky and often misses the intended target even though you were aiming directly at an enemy’s ugly mug. Other traits verge on unfair or “poorly programmed”– after losing a life, you’ll often respawn in the direct path (or directly on top) of an enemy–and you’ve only got 3 climbers to spare. When climbing the ice mountain, be sure to pack along a surplus supply of patience.
Though not technically a flaw, the new player should be warned that your own character’s jumping abilities are the most fearsome foe in this game. Anyone who’s ever used the climbers in Brawl will recall the oddly vertical leaps of the ambiguously-paired duo; clearly, the inspiration for their odd, parabolic leap is directly yanked from the original NES title. The game’s shockingly strong gravity will resurrect long-forgotten curse words, and you’ll probably want to throw the controller after the tenth time you forget that your character cannot change directions in mid-leap. We’ve been conditioned by decades of comparatively fluid, manuverable heroes, so it pays to remember that these guys are NOT Mario; the Ice Climbers possess the loft and grace of a cartoon anvil.
In some ways, Ice Climber feels just a few steps above a game-and-watch title. It’s a platformer of the most basic type, and the limited set of enemies and challenges have that early 80s flavor in which a few basic elements are repeated in an increasingly speedy and crowded layout. The programmer, Kazuaki Morita, has said that IC was a warmup exercise that preceded his work on Super Mario Brothers. For a warmup, this is not a bad effort–one can spot elements of Donkey Kong, Kangaroo, and the original insect-flipping Mario Brothers. Just don’t download this one expecting a volume of gameplay variations or profound plot development–hell, the framing narrative is (apparently) the theft of an eggplant(!?) by a scary-looking condor!
Since Nintendo doesn’t bother to provide you with one, Here’s a link to the original NES manual, which includes a priceless section titled “Rules and Suggestions” that includes such gems as (I’m not kidding), “Be sure to read the “tips” in this booklet”. That’s right–the manual reminds you to read the manual. Am I the only one who finds this hilarious?
At the time of this writing, the two-player co-op patch/3DS update has not occurred, and some surfing around the internet hasn’t helped me figure out if this multiplayer option is going to be local-only, or perhaps (dare I dream?) an internet-friendly co-op experience. Frankly, I don’t have a single close friend who owns a 3DS (though many have admired it), so I don’t know if a local-only option would be of much use to me. On the other hand, I’d leap at the chance to work through this title with an anonymous stranger, preferably some ridiculously obsessed player who’ll take care of the hard stuff and let me fumble around, doing my best to not die.
Regardless of some flaws and the abusive difficulty, I would still recommend Ice Climber as an entertaining platformer with some solid entertainment value for the nostalgic retro gamer. The graphics and gameplay work well even on the small screen of the 3DS, and I can think of few titles that better embody the pure essence of early NES. You’ll probably be frustrated before you ever reach level 10, but since you’re allowed to choose which mountain you start on, a player could theoretically surmount the final peak without ever having attempted any other boards. Given the difficulty of even the early stages, I sincerely doubt this is possible.