Ice Climber, despite the self-explanatory title, is more complex than a cursory glance would suggest. Popo the parka-toting lad (and identical twin Nana in the multiplayer mode) must scale thirty-two vertically scrolling mountains to rescue a large number of delicious eggplants, using only wits and indestructible hammers to do so. While simple in theory, you’ll have to devise a host of nifty tricks to outsmart the bad guys and save yourself from slipping into the darkened pits below. Unfortunately, you’ll have fight a great foe before clawing your way to success: the controls. There’s a lot going on in this tiny game, but that doesn’t always make it fun to play.
Layers of multicoloured ice in the form of rectangular blocks loom high above, forcing you to make like Mario and bash them from below. Create a Popo-sized hole in the blockade and you’ve just bought yourself a ticket to the next platform, assuming you can finagle yourself through the gap. Getting used to the odd, unforgiving trajectory of leaping skyward yields rewarding dividends, but satisfaction from a job well done is not immune to frustration’s cruel sucker punch. That’s where Ice Climber begins to falter: a great platformer should deal in precise, responsive jumps; not in finagling.
That doesn’t mean the fiddly movement of Ice Climber is insurmountable; in fact, the truly rugged explorer may hack his way through the unyielding ice to discover treasures hidden beneath the surface. The many moving parts of a given level will keep you always on alert, whether you’re fending off pterodactyls with a brave swing of the hammer or hopping from cloud to cloud as they dash across the area. Survival requires a keen attention to detail and plenty of patience, not to mention an improviser’s heart. When you’re halfway up the mountain and a roly-poly yeti nudges a block of ice to plug up your escape route, you’d better have a plan swiftly forming in your head, lest the conveyer belt sweep you right to death’s doorstep. Although the awkward controls will do you no favours in these do or die moments, pounding your head incessantly against the icy slopes will increase your skill little by little. You might even gain an appreciation for this rigid brand of pixelated spelunking by the end.
A certain amount of clumsiness can be explained by Ice Climber’s origins, even if that doesn’t excuse it. Its Japanese release in 1985 marked the dawn of Nintendo’s foray into home consoles, when a platformer’s fun factor was still uncharted territory. This is a game very much rooted in classic arcade-style action; hence the screen edges that warp you to the opposite side, a focus on high scores, and timed bonus stages that occur at each level’s peak. There’s also a co-op mode that allows two players to scramble after vegetables together, but this only emphasizes the more irritating aspects of climbing a mountain poorly. A toe-tapping soundtrack and bright colours are pleasant if unremarkable, clearly stamping the whole package as an NES game through and through.
Unlike other heroes of the time, Popo and Nana never found their way to a glorious sequel, merely appearing in the Super Smash Bros. series and a few scattered cameos. As a historical artifact, Ice Climber is worth examining, particularly considering the Wii U’s off-screen play via the GamePad. While purists may want to track down the original cartridge and 3DS Ambassadors already own a portable version, you could do worse with modest funs and some curiosity. Purely as a video game, however, the game struggles.
Ice Climber’s concept is solid and the components for a real classic are all there, but the execution drops an icepick on the proverbial foot of success with too much regularity to safely ignore. Gritting your teeth and overcoming the troublesome controls could lead you to the tallest mountain as you commit the smallest of tactics to memory along the way, and there’s an honest to goodness enjoyment in such a victory. Yet looking down from the top reveals a poignant message: Ice Climber doesn’t play very well, and no amount of clever design can change that. Scale at your own risk.