8-Bit Chronicles: Ice Climber

This is no time for Wobbling.
ice climber 8-bit archives

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon the NES Ice Climber available via Nintendo Switch Online, as well the Arcade Archives release of Vs. Ice Climber.

Oh, those adorable Ice Climbers! Those nomadic cherubs have captured the hearts and minds of many a Smash Bros. fan, what with their unique blend of co-op teamwork and trusty hammers pummeling the competition. And yet, for all their icy synergy, many younger players find themselves perplexed by their relative obscurity; indeed, yours truly — as a magazine-conditioned nine-year-old overwhelmed by online E3 2001 coverage — was fascinated by their being the one Melee newcomer(s) I didn’t recognize, and my descent into their origins sculpted a mountain of my own to climb: obsessive, encyclopedic research into Nintendo’s century-spanning legacy, wherein Hanafuda cards, Kid Icarus, and love hotels fueled a passionate curiosity ascending even today.

Hence my temptation to elaborate on the monkey’s paw fiasco that was the Ice Climbers’ Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS absence (I distinctly recall an outcry against their Brawl comeback, people!), but we’d be going off-topic; indeed, let us refer to their titular source material in Ice Climber: a 1985 platform-action game that first found its home on good ol’ NES. Details on its development remain scarce — going off of MobyGames’s credits (uncredited in the actual game, mind), the closest commentary I scavenged was programmer Kazuaki Morita considering his first project a “warm-up” for the revered Super Mario Bros — a throwaway comment within his enthuasism for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. (“Oh, yeah, I worked on that game too, I guess.”) Regardless, the game’s a common mainstay in nostalgia-ridden NES promotion: variations are abound in WarioWare and NES Remix, cameos can be spotted from Tetris DS to Super Mario Maker, and it enjoyed a prestigious inclusion within the NES Classic Edition’s 30 carefully-culled classics.

ice climber 8-bit chronicles

Moments before disaster. (No, really, I died twice instantly after taking this screenshot.)

Did I mention the Smash Bros. character? Yes, I did. Surely, all this means Ice Climber‘s a timeless Nintendo masterpiece…right?

Well, let’s take a look at the gameplay: up to two players control a pair of eskimos — blue Popo for Player One and pink Nana for Player Two — who scale one of 32 frigid mountains to secure vegetables. As they penetrate Jujube-clustered floors and hop upon soaring clouds and suspended platforms, wild fauna in tiny yetis (seals in the Japanese version — apparently Nintendo didn’t get the ethics memo on seal clubbing), pesky birds, and too-cool-for-school polar bears (look at ’em shades!) threaten to impede their ascent. Proper perseverance and determination segues into the bonus level, where the sentient, beady-eyed vegetables await our explorers’ grubby fingers. A timed process demanding pitch-perfect platforming, only the most tenacious mountain climber will reach the top, where an ever-elusive condor marks its territory; grab its vegetable-clutched talons, and you’ve successfully conquered the summit!

So far, so good — there’s an appropriate feedback loop in everything from the addiction of breaking blocky floors (Are they fun to smash? Yes, but don’t get too carried away lest you find yourself with sparse room for further scaling) to navigating icy traction (some platforms, marked with a stripey sheen, slip and slide your poor avatar around; naturally, many of these debut as isolated, teeny-tiny platforms, often necessary for progression). The game is generous and approachable in its malleability: any one of its 32 mountains can be accessed from the get-go — a decision prime for practicing any particularly grueling levels — and even should you fall during the mountains’ bonus halves, you’ll continue to the next mountain unscathed despite your eskimo’s ensuing tears. (Which, naturally, reflect only the competitive Ice Climber player seeking a new high score.)

ice climber 8-bit chronicles

Hello, my fuzzy frenemies!

The enemies are Ice Climber‘s modus operandi — a meticulous balance that continually keeps players on, well, ice. The fuzzy Topi — Icicle Mountain’s self-appointed carpenter, neurotically pushing icicles every which way in its bridge-fixing mania — is my personal favorite, as a cunning player can have them dancing in their palms; true, your hammer’s indispensable should they come too close, but why not capitalize upon its repairs should an upcoming ledge prove itself too short? Just make sure you don’t wait too long, as those grouchy Polar Bears will punish loiterers with a screen-shifting earthquake likely causing your death; consequently, our stress gradually overloads whenever roving clouds or slippery platforms impede us from the next floor (Not the least when those pesky Topis have the last laugh, all our hole-boring for naught with a single, well-placed icicle). Toss in the Nitpicker bird — a nefarious avian whose homing tendencies can throw a monkey wrench into anyone’s plans — and Ice Climber is yet another veritable 8-bit Nintendo comedy: functioning upon animated hysterics to the whims of cartoonish cause-and-effect.

Alas, Ice Climber isn’t as committed to “cartoonish cause-and-effect” as it may initially appear, as one crippling flaw dislodges it from the upper echelons of Nintendo’s arcade classics — jump physics. Ice Climber‘s most vital mechanic is an uneven mess of awkward momentum and faulty collision detection, leaving us with one picky beast of a game. I’d say that, more often than not, your success in Ice Climber hinges solely upon making perfect jumps, yet that’s an adjective I’d only loosely apply; see, as often as you’ll fall one pixel short upon any desired platform, it can be just as common that your character overlaps the actual ledges without the slightest indication of spatial acknowledgment  — a demoralizing fluke inciting no shortages of “Hey, come on, I had that!”. Meanwhile, good luck with your running starts: momentum also suffers from irregular function, either gracing us with well-rounded arcs or limp, inert flops.

I’m compelled to say this much in Ice Climber‘s defense — we ain’t dealing with a turd in the vein of Urban Champion or Donkey Kong Jr. Math; really, Ice Climber‘s theater offers enough amusement for more forgiving players such as myself. Merely observe the chaos unfolding throughout its multiplayer — what should be an innate balance of delicate teamwork and devious competition gradually unravels at the seams, as displayed above via Nintendo Switch Online footage taken with my good friend Mike. Our first NES online experience done in the name of research, I’ll readily admit the inevitable input lag offers only an approximation of local NES play (as shown here; I assure you, we’re not purposely jumping off the ledge!). And yet, I can’t claim it wasn’t a delightful time — a sense of “so bad it’s good”, if you will, what with the unintentional gaffes frequently obstructing our progress (As seen above when Mike’s Nana, in a desperate bid to ascend, nearly destroys my platform — the inevitable tragedy speaks for itself!). Unfettered screams and rousing cheers were had, I assure you.

But Ice Climber’s theatrics are strictly confined within the mountains’ first halves — that the bonus levels entirely revolve around jumping renders Popo and Nana’s sluggish acrobatics bare for all to see; in other words, Ice Climber‘s first half is fun, but the second half ain’t. Much as my apologism compels citations of the game’s aforementioned leniency, this clunky imbalance does no favors for the 8-bit stigma of outdated gameplay. Not that retro veterans didn’t dismiss it as a dud even back then, mind; in fact, it’s hardly uncommon to encounter Nintendo fans who find its “classic” status within the NES pantheon baffling and undeserving– a false legacy earned only through a peripheral series. (That being, of course, Smash Bros.)

Alas, even ports to arcade and other consoles didn’t work around Ice Climber‘s jumping woes. Dedicated Nintendo fans may recall the Atari ports of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., but did you know Ice Climber received JPN-only licenses for PC-8801 and Sharp X1? Both ported by Hudson, the former’s particularly interesting in how the color limitations dedicate themselves almost entirely to blue — a perfect complement to the arctic snow. While I imagine they’re enticing collectibles for mega-Nintendo fans — a cursory glance at eBay unveils no sales at this time — their choppy movement certainly renders them inferior to the NES original.

Even so, Nintendo’s arcade conversion is an interesting beast — Vs. Ice Climber supplies an additional 16 mountains for a total of 48 levels, the latter 24 achieved after surviving an initial eight-stage gauntlet. Featuring wind conditions battering random mountains, vegetable booster points lodged indiscriminately within floor blocks, and a new Super Bonus level (“Reach the top before time runs out!”…huh, sounds familiar), your mileage will vary on this definitive edition of Ice Climber; personally, much as I appreciate the new challenge and handy  wins/loss references (a proud Popo for conquered mountains; a stoic Topi for humiliating defeat), I’m not keen on the revamped music/sound effects, particularly how the percussion’s tinny claps irritate our eardrums.

(By the way, I’d elaborate on its rare enemy substitutes in a Mothra-esque butterfly (replacing the Condor) and a spear-wielding bee (Nitpicker), but there’s been much confusion regarding whether the Arcade Archives version I’ve been playing includes the latter. While the moth’s still present, both their absence from the electronic manual boosts social media testimony that stand contrary to Nintendo World Report’s claim. Of course, all this non-existent controversy raises the real question —  whether bugs were an appropriate fit for Ice Climber‘s chilly climate — but regardless, I’ve been unable to spot this elusive insect for myself. Any Ice Climber super-fans willing to chip in?)

Regardless, no matter which version of Ice Climber you choose, the game leaves us in the cold. I bear no ill will towards Nintendo’s failures here; after all, we’re dealing with a product hailing from their formative video game years, and if Ice Climber was a stepping stone for Super Mario Bros.‘s world dominance, I’ll happily accept its shortcomings. All the more reason, then, why I persist advocating for a modern reboot — nothing so ambitious as Kid Icarus: Uprising, mind, yet I firmly believe a genuine classic’s buried in its icy depths. With the protagonists’ popularity via Smash Bros., there’s no better time to capitalize upon a classic upgrade, what with Switch’s pick-up-and-play portability.

But until the day Nintendo unearths that treasure, I’m left stranded on Icicle Mountain with only frigid veggies to scrape by. Yet even with defective boots, I persist in scaling its peaks, outwitting its sneaky inhabitants only to slip and fall again and again. Why? Because it’s there.

ice climber 8-bit chronicles

So close, yet so far away…

(By the way, which of the two Smash Bros. remixes do you prefer? Toshiyuki Sudo’s Brawl arrangement naturally complements the three-act Summit stage with a cheery three-act frenzy (even if I’ve never accurately deciphered the radio-esque vocals at the beginning; seriously, what’s with that?), yet Shogo Sakai’s Melee remix — particularly its Christmas jingles for the game’s level theme — never not sends me into nostalgic reverie. Ah, my 4th-grade days…)

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.

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