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Ice Climber (NES) artwork

Ice Climber (NES) review

"Very nearly lands on the platform of greatness, but accidentally slips through the edge instead."

Your motivations in Ice Climber are charmingly pure. As the brother and sister mountaineering duo of Popo and Nana, you do what mountaineers do best : climb mountains. The goal of each stage is to reach the top of a vertically-scrolling mountain level, using your trusty hammer to break holes in icy ceilings so that you canslip through and continue your ascent.

After the title screen (with the wonderfully iconic theme music), you'll immediately notice that your greatest enemy is the spotty jumping mechanic. Most platforms are evenly vertically spaced, and Popo (and Nana, in the simultaneous co-op mode) can jump just high enough to pass through a hole in the ceiling of his current stratum and land on a ledge. He can't get much horizontal distance with his jumps, which of course means he'll have to be standing pretty close to the edge of an overhanging platform if he wants to land on it when he leaps.

The problem is that the edges of platforms aren't actually solid. Landing on the very edge of a ledge will often result in your character falling back through it. In fact, although platforms are supposed to be solid, you'll want to jump up through the edge of a platform and land closer to the center of it whenever possible. This is awkward and adds an unnecessary learning curve to the game, but it's something you'll learn to deal with after some practice. Though it keeps Ice Climber from making a good first impression, the weird jumping mechanics are consistent enough that you can gradually learn to deal with them.

Awkward platforming aside, Ice Climber has a lot to offer. Each mountain is an obstacle course, featuring various types of platform that all behave differently. Regular floors can be broken by jumping and hitting them from below with your hammer. Some ice can't be broken (and is marked in a way that causes it to more closely resemble steel), and other ice acts as a conveyer belt, constantly moving your character in one direction as long as he or she stands on it. Clouds can also be used as platforms with some finesse, but they move from one side of the screen to the other and that means you’ll have to be quick if you want to use them to reach a higher floor.

The various types of ice work in tandem with the enemies, who feel more like traps than proper adversaries. The most common enemies are Topis (miniature yetis or seals, depending on which region's version you're playing) who aren't interested in attacking you, though you will die if you touch one without bashing its skull with your hammer. Their real purpose is to repair holes in floors. They start on one side of the screen and slowly walk across to the other side. If they reach a hole, they'll run back to their starting point and grab some ice to fill it in.

This is where the obstacle course feeling comes into play. Picture a scenario where the two layers directly above you are fast-moving clouds, with one level of regular ice above them. You'll need to climb to the top cloud and smash a hole in the ceiling to make it through, but the clouds are moving so fast that you'll only be able to land one strike at a time before falling back to the bottom. Next, imagine that a Topi is wandering around, looking for holes to fill. Suddenly, persistence isn't enough to grant you progress. You'll need to climb the same stretch several times within a certain space of time if you want to make it to the top. Combine such a scenario with the polar bear enemy, who shows up if you don't progress for a little while and moves the entire playfield up one level (so that you'll fall and die if you're trapped at the bottom of the screen when that happens) and you have a situation where the various types of platforms and enemies are working together to create a challenge that is greater than the sum of its parts.

There are loads of different situations where these few gameplay building blocks are used to create a unique experience. Two consecutive layers of small, broken ice platforms that are difficult to jump through, but will gradually be filled if you wait for a Topi. Layers littered with unbreakable walls and unbreakable patches in the ceiling above, meaning you have to plan ahead when coming up from the level below. This limited tool set (four types of ice and three types of enemies) really does go a surprisingly long way toward providing compelling new challenges for the adventure’s duration, and you’ll also encounter a bonus stage every nine levels or so that does a nice job of breaking things up (plus you can’t die in those particular stages as you race toward a circling condor).

Ice Climber is a game with one flaw that keeps it just short of greatness. The level design is impressively varied, with a simple set of rules and obstacles that are put to great use and keep things interesting through all of the game's 32 levels. If not for the awkward jumping, Ice Climber would be a true classic. Even as things stand, Ice Climber is absolutely worth checking out, as long as you have the patience to adjust to its weird rules.


Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (April 22, 2013)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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