Ice Climber review
Good Idea Crippled
The NES has been home to quite a few Nintendo stars that have struggled to see success in later generations. Back in those 8 bit days some managed to meet the parka-wearing duo Popo and Nana. Now more commonly known for their Super Smash Brothers appearances, this duo once starred in their own little game, where they were tasked with scaling frosty peaks while battling against various hazards.
Well, I say frosty peaks, but the mountains you climb don't really look like mountains. Rather, the game screen is made up of a series of platforms that look more like bricks than mountain ledges. It's also really odd how there are slopes seemingly going the wrong way on either side. It's not until you reach the upper quarter of a stage that it starts to actually resemble a mountain. The background, or rather the lack of, is also a major downer. Most of each stage has a plain black background, but even the upper part keeps things pretty basic here.
The sprites aren't that detailed but at least you can tell what they're supposed to be. The animation works well enough to simulate movement and actions. The colour scheme also seems to work fairly well, with a notable emphasis on bright distinctive colours, but they do seem to match up well. Things could be a lot better but they're aren't exactly terrible for that era.
The sound also seems to suffer bouts of blandness. The music is suitably cheerful and chipper but none of it sticks in the mind, and often it just sank well into the background while I pounded my way through the platforms. Sound effects are also pretty basic as well, which is neither good nor bad as I see it.
Anyway, let's move on. The point of the game is to make your way from the bottom of each stage to the top. Since your climber can't simply pass through solid objects you have to smash platform segments out by jumping into them and then leaping through the gap onto the next floor. The breakable platforms are also sometimes accompanied by moving cloud platforms and solid, unbreakable platforms. The mixture of these can lead to some interesting setups, but after a few stages the game seems to just repeat itself a bit too much. Regardless, the challenges look the part.
There are a myriad of hazards along the way to worry about too. There are a couple of enemies to fight off. The most common one is some kind of white hairball that is quite happy to fill in gaps you've made in the platforms, designed to punish players too slow to ascend to the next ledge. They can also steal a life if they touch you, but fortunately your plucky climber can whack them over the head with their oversized hammers to send them flying backwards. Polar bears (sporting some rather flashy underpants) also appear at times. Immune to your hammer, these beasts not only use the same kind of 'walk into the player to kill them' tactics many basic NES baddies use but they also sometimes jump, which causes the screen to scroll up a bit in one go when they land.
The scrolling screen is potentially the biggest hazard. As you scale the mountain the screen scrolls upwards at a steady pace (polar bear jiving aside). It's another element to punish the slow, as players caught out are killed if they disappear off the bottom of the screen as it scrolls upwards. The speed starts off slow, but in later stages you'll be fighting to keep ahead, especially when the polar bears start coming around.
The last quarter of each level switches to a bonus round. Here the screen continues to scroll but all the enemies and brick platforms are no more. In their place are a few solid and numerous moving cloud platforms. In addition there are veggie pickups to collect on the way. The whole point of this section is to score extra points by grabbing the veggies as you go up. Even better is that falling off the screen at this point only ends the bonus stage and does not subtract a life. You're also up against the clock, which applies extra pressure on the way up.
In fact, the game encourages high scoring runs by blatantly displaying a high score count on the title screen. Frustratingly though, the game doesn't actually save the scores, so any hard work put in is instantly lost the moment you hit the power switch.
This all sounds very interesting, and on that basis alone it sounds like it should be a sure winner, but there is one thing that destroys the gameplay. The control setup is terrible.
Popo and Nana handle very well on the ground. They move well enough and respond accurately to button presses. The problem is when you try to go airborne as the jumping mechanics are just so horribly broken - a critical flaw for a game that relies on jumping. There are two factors that make this such a nightmare. Firstly, your climber has very little sideways movement when they jump. You even lose sideways momentum from a dash the moment you leave the ground. The second problem is the horrible contact detection. Your character will sometimes fall straight through the side of a platform they quite clearly should have landed on. This can lead to numerous missed jumps through no fault of the player. Dying from mistiming is the fault of the player, but dying because the game has trouble detecting platform edges is just frustrating.
Which is a shame, because all the right ideas are there. Despite the stages getting a little repetitive the stage layouts are quite cool and enough pressure is applied to keep the player rushing to the top. There are also a lot of stages to play through, and the game also offers the ability to choose which stage you start at, allowing you to tackle your favourite stages at any time (without the need to even reach those stages normally first). Even without the problem acrobatics the difficulty is set right to challenge the player. It's just that a lot of the fun gets sucked out when you can't land on platforms that should be easy to reach.
There is also a two player game on offer, where each player takes control of one of the climbers to scale the same mountains. A lot of the gameplay remains the same (including the poor jumping) but the addition of a second player puts a new twist on the game. When a character reaches the top of the screen they cause the screen to auto-scroll a bit upwards. You can work together to break your way through the bricks or simply race each other to the top. When the bonus round comes around any sense of camaraderie is tossed out the window as players compete for the bonus points on offer.
Unfortunately, that isn't enough to elevate the status of the game to being 'good'. Even with a friend the terrible airborne action is still killing a lot of what is on offer. Struggle past that and you'll get a good challenge and some intense action in later stages, but it's probably not worth the effort.