Leap to the pinnacle of the mountain, alone or with a friend, in order to rescue abducted eggplants from a dino-bird. 8-bit games were weird, man.
Japanese title: アイスクライマー • Ice Climber
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-IC]
Japanese release date: Jan. 1985 [HVC-IC]
European release date: Sept. 1986 [NES-IC]
Alternate versions: Vs. System ; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1985]; Famicom Disk System *; Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [GBA, 2003]; NES Classics series [GBA, 2004]; Virtual Console [Wii, 2008; 3DS, 2013; Wii U, 2013]
*Note: Famicom Disk System version was an expanded adaptation of the Vs. System game, released under the name Ice Climber.
Was it coincidence or was it corporate mandate that so many of Nintendo’s early NES and Famicom games appeared in pairs? We’ll never know, but there’s no denying that early first-party Famicom games tended to go two by two, like a digital pixelated Noah’s Ark.
For example, you had maze chase Devil World; then, about a month later, Nintendo published Clu Clu Land. Traditional Japanese board game Gomoku Narabe Renju appeared side-by-side with traditional Japanese board game Mah-jong. F-1 Race brought the racing genre to Famicom, and four weeks later Excitebike debuted. And now we have Ice Climber, which feels like nothing so much than the binary twin to Mario Bros.
There’s a pattern at work with most of these game sets: One half of each pair was designed by R&D4, and the other wasn’t. I don’t really know how game development processes worked at Nintendo in those days, but if you told me that the company’s different internal teams were constantly racing to outdo one another by building distinct games around the same set of concepts, I’d believe it. This trend even continued beyond the early NES era, with Metroid. That Nintendo R&D1 creation basically bolted together the side-scrolling of Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. with the adventure and RPG elements of Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda—a story for NES Works 1987.
With Ice Climber, we have a cooperative two-player platformer based around jumping and interference from foes. It feels for all the world like an alternate spin on the basic premise of the original Mario Bros. Ice Climber even maintains Mario Bros.’s jump physics, which is unfortunate, because this game revolves entirely around jumping as you endeavor to reach the pinnacle of a series of mountains. Your protagonists here leap in high, shallow arcs, with a bit of lag to their response and some very, very fussy platform edge detection. Making a successful jump in this game requires a lot of practice and a sincere effort at mastery, which turns the whole affair into a terrible slog.
One of the keys to the success and timelessness of the sequel to Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros., was that its jump mechanics felt so intuitive, so effortless, that bounding across the Mushroom Kingdom became sheer joy. Ice Climber, on the other hand, turns jumping into an endless font of frustration and anger.
Much like the bulk of future R&D1 venture Kid Icarus, Ice Climber scrolls vertically, one way, upward. Missing a platform and falling off the screen amounts to death, and many stages feature tiny little footholds from which a plunge becomes almost inevitable. It’s a maddening game, and I suspect it works a lot better if you approach it from the perspective of its original release in early 1985, when the world had yet to witness the majesty of Super Mario Bros.
Interestingly, though, this wasn’t strictly the R&D1 counterpart to Mario Bros.; it was more of a joint venture. While Ice Climber was designed by Tadashi Sugiyama and directed by Kenji Miki, Shigeru Miyamoto supervised production, and Super Mario Bros. programmer Toshihiko Nakago helped code it. One can only assume that this project was fresh in Miyamoto and Nakago’s minds as they began work on that seminal masterpiece. “Let’s never make a game with controls this terrible,” one imagines them agree.
Maybe it’s not really fair to bag on Ice Climber simply because its single most important game mechanic, the one on which everything else hangs, feels clumsy and primitive. Look beyond the fact that it plays so rough and you’ll find some fun elements.
For starters, it manages to maintain that delirious weirdness that so many 8-bit Japanese games had. The entire game begins with a pterodactyl abducting an eggplant and whisking it away to the top of a snowbound mountain. Your mission is to climb to the top of several dozen mountains, reclaim your fruit, and… well, that’s basically it. If you beat the final mountain, the game simply repeats from stage 1.
Each mountain features the same general structure: You begin at the bottom, climb up about two screens, hit the midpoint of the stage to begin the bonus round, and attempt to make the summit before time runs out. The lower half of the mountain isn’t timed, though a polar bear will amble along to force the screen to scroll upward if you take too long to advance, and so long as you reach the bonus round you’ll advance to the next mountain, even if you slip and fall. Bonus rounds differ in layout depending on the mountain, but no matter which level you begin on you always collect the same fruit and vegetable bonuses in sequence, beginning with eggplants. If you manage to collect the ears of corn in the fifth bonus round, you’ll earn a 1UP… though unless you’re jockeying for a high score, 1UPs aren’t particularly important in a game where you can begin straightaway from any level.
Scoring is the point, though. Ice Climber presents itself as a race to the top, and to dominate the leaderboards, and it’s really much more entertaining when played with two people. One person grappling against the awkward jump physics is frustration; two people trying to outperform each other with the same built-in handicap is hilarious.
As with many early NES games, Nintendo gave Ice Climber a pretty hefty overhaul for the VS. System, and VS. Ice Climber really plays up the two-player rivalry. The 24 mountains you can tackle in the arcade version display a different icon depending on how you perform: Player 1 or Player 2’s icon denotes a clear mountain, depending on who earned the most points, and an enemy icon means the mountain was cleared but both players failed to complete the bonus round. As would be fairly standard practice, Nintendo released VS. Ice Climber for Famicom Disk System toward the end of 1988. While it doesn’t feature nearly so many revisions from the original release as VS. Excitebike, it nevertheless changes things up with enhanced music, more animation, and the level-conquest icon screen at the end of each mountain. Unlike VS. Excitebike and Clu Clu Land D, however, Nintendo has never released this adaptation of the game internationally on any console or download service.
Whichever version of Ice Climber you play, though, the basic experience remains the same: You control one of a pair of parka-clad kids wielding a mallet, trying to climb tot the top. Both kids, named Popo and Nana, can leap high and chip away overhead blocks by smashing into them—perhaps the inspiration for Mario’s block-busting skills in Super Mario Bros. You can also knock-out overhead enemies by leaping into them… though this requires some skill, as you’ll be knocked out instead if you hit the monster or hazard with your head rather than your mallet. Chipping away at blocks plays an essential role in Ice Climber, as your goal is to reach the top of each mountain, and many stages have screen-spanning floors that obstruct your path. You need to break away portions of the ceiling above in order to leap to the higher levels. This task is made more difficult by a number of complications that appear along the way. Small birds will wander around overhead, potentially spoiling your jumps by circling overhead at inopportune moments. More vexing are the little white fuzzballs, which are called Topi: They patrol different levels of the mountains in search of gaps in the floor. When a Topi scouts a hole, it scurries back to its cave at the side of the screen, then reemerges with an ice pile that it uses to restore two blocks of the floor at a time.
As Popo and Nana can only break away a single block per leap, preventing Topis from filling in the gaps faster than you can create them becomes difficult, especially for a single player. In fact, it goes from tough to infuriating once you reach advanced stages where you have to make your leaps to higher levels from moving platforms or tiny bits of floor that work like conveyor belts. This does mean there’s a certain satisfaction to be found in thwarting Topis, either by smashing them directly with a mallet or simply breaking out the floor from beneath them and causing them to plummet to their doom.
These few game elements—breakable and unbreakable floors, birds, Topis, moving platforms, conveyor belts, the polar bear whose presence forces the screen to scroll upward, and bonus fruit—comprise the entirety of the Ice Climber sandbox. Each level is simply a more challenging arrangement of these concerns than the last. And it’s reasonably entertaining, provided you can play with a friend. It’s no timeless classic by any means, but it does seem to hold a nostalgic sway over gamers of a certain age.
Popo and Nana and other Ice Climber elements have appeared in numerous iterations of Smash Bros., including as tricky, conjoined, playable characters in Smash Bros. Brawl—though they were dropped from Smash 4, to much fan outrage, due to the limitations of the 3DS. The game has been reissued many times over, in Animal Crossing, for eReader, for the Classic NES Series on GBA, and on every iteration of Virtual Console.
Taken alone, Ice Climber is merely a blip in history. However, if you examine it in tandem with Nintendo’s next production, Wrecking Crew, it paints a picture of how Nintendo kicked around ideas of varying merit in an attempt to create a proper Mario Bros. follow-up. Super Mario Bros. looms large over the early days of the NES, and it really does feel like nearly everything Nintendo developed and published prior to that game’s creation was simply building up to it.
Super Mario has become such an integral part of video gaming that it can be difficult to understand why it had such impact in the first place, but Ice Climber provides some essential context. Prior to Super Mario Bros., the fussy, uncooperative jumping controls and platforming design of Ice Climber wasn’t simply acceptable, it was about as good as it got. But once Mario journeyed to the Mushroom Kingdom, things would change forever. That leaves poor Ice Climber stranded as a bit of a relic, but at least it has cooperative play to help dull the sharp sting of obsolescence.