As we say goodbye to the Winter solstice for yet another year, with each passing day getting slightly lighter for longer, spring seems to be on the horizon rearing its beautiful head and in no time at all be preparing for Easter with all the chocolatey-goodness that comes with it. Until that point however we still say hello and greet dark mornings, blustering winds and the ever-present threat of snow to envelope us in our own homes. It seems relevant therefore to focus on a game that encompasses the many traits of winter and all that is associated with it. People often say that in life in order to progress and move forward, then you have to reflect and look back. However, drawing on today’s game then the question is whether you need to look down in order to move up. What better way of doing this than with the assistance of Popo and Nana (no, not that Nana who enjoys word games and hot water bottles) with their trusty mighty mallet in Ice Climber for NES. Looking back at it now, is it rich, velvety and luxurious like a nice hot chocolate? Or as welcome as yellow snow? (don’t eat that – Ed)
Ice Climber was released on the NES in 1986 within the PAL region, and is a platforming-game set vertically, with which you control Popo wearing a beautiful blue Parka jacket and scroll up the mountain on eight different platforms in order to reach the summit. However, it is not as easy as climbing and jumping your way up, as standing between you and the peak of glory are ice blocks that need to be destroyed with your head a la Mario-style. Aside your trusty noggin you have your mallet that is used to whack the living hoo-hah out of monsters and birds looking to attack you. When you reach the final platform at the top, you’re greeted with a mini bonus stage where you collect vegetables on different platforms. Not for health benefits but for extra points. Reach the top of this part quick enough then you encounter a soaring condor who loves nothing more than stealing vegetables so time your jump right and hang from him for more points.
When you turn the game on, as per most of the black box titles on the NES you go straight to the start screen and are presented with three options to pick from. 1 Player game, with which you control Popo solely, 2 Player game where both Popo and Nana are on screen (the difference between Nana wearing pink instead of blue) and finally, an early level select option. In total, there are 32 mountains waiting for you to climb, so you do have the choice of peeking into the future somewhat and seeing what level 18 has in store, or if you’re feeling especially curious as to what the final level has in store then you have the opportunity to do this. Every level does start the same though, you see the condor grab the vegetable, take it up the mountain and then off you go. The goal of the level is always the same – to climb up the mountain, destroying ice blocks with your head and timing your jump accordingly to reach the next platform. What you will find is that some blocks cannot be broken and some act like travellators so you have to use that entire gaming prowess you’ve learnt over the years to overcome the mountain and its blocky perils.
At the top, having traversed the platforms with the grace and stealth of a woolly mammoth, you are given 40 seconds in order to collect as many vegetables in the bonus stage as you can, whilst also reaching the top of this stage to meet the soaring condor. Should you jump in time and meet the condor then the level ends, but the level can also end should you run out of time or you mistime your jump and plummet towards the base of the mountain. You get given a score at the end of the level which is made of a number of criteria such as if you met the condor, the number of enemies hit or blocks broken as well as the number of vegetables you gained from the level. The game doesn’t have a plot or story, like a lot of the games at the time the idea is to work through the levels to get the highest score. With no battery back-up however, the only way to prove your gaming credentials and worthiness is to take a picture to show truly what a winner you are.
The controls for Ice Climber are as simple as they come – the D-pad moves Popo and Nana around, the A-button makes them jump and the B button makes them use their mallet. One gripe is that when you try to jump and move at the same time, something done well in Super Mario Bros, the controls become very rigid and doesn’t feel like you jump as fluidly as said moustachioed Italian plumber. Regardless of how hard you push the D-pad to the left or the right, your character doesn’t move far at all, which at first is workable but the further into the game you get the more noticeable it becomes where platforms do get shorter and everything seems to speed up. Music-wise, it is simple yet does the job well and the sound effects suit the game well so no need to take out a subscription to your favourite streaming service just yet.
So overall, Ice Climbers definitely holds its own well and was a good game to be used as a launch title for the NES in US markets. It plays like a good arcade game and can imagine it would have been a good game with you the player hunched over the arcade stick pumping in your coins to progress further and further into the game getting angry under glowing neon signs and the smell of warm cola in the air. You may have seen Popo and Nana in more recent titles such as the Super Smash Bros series which goes to show the longevity and the love for these deliciously-dapper characters with their mallets of fun. Another testament to the popularity of the game was the re-releases on Virtual Consoles and Game Boy Advances so future gamers got to enjoy what we all did in the late 80’s. The main gripe with the game is its clunky stiff controls at times and sometimes gameplay can feel a bit repetitive in collecting the same items throughout the level and jumping onto platforms but if you can overlook this and take the game for what it is, then you got yourself a fine arcade game that subliminally made us all want to at vegetables. Now where are those aubergines to snack on…
All screenshots from Moby Games.