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Ice Climber: Cool concept, atrocious execution

It looks cute, but beware.

Ice Climber must be somewhat beloved because Popo and Nana have been characters in multiple Super Smash Bros. games. But playing the original game is an exercise in frustration. Which is a shame because the concept is cool.

Instead of the usual left to right platforming, in Ice Climber it's vertical. Each stage is a mountain of eight levels (five visible at a time) to ascend. Parts of each level are made of ice you can smash with your hammer when you jump, thus creating gaps to jump through. The premise of the game appears to be that a condor keeps stealing your eggplants and carrying them away to the top of mountains! The top of each stage is a bonus area where you retrieve your vegetables (which, despite the singular animation, aren't always eggplants).

Why do so many early NES games involve eggplants?

What ruins this cute game is the atrocious jumping mechanics. When jumping from standing still, your ice climber can move left or right only a single block, which is only 1/32 of the screen. While this may be more realistic than Mario, it's useless for traversing gaps. This means you need to be running before you jump. Unfortunately, this is only slightly better, as the climbers get just enough reach to traverse a gap. Despite their poor distance, they jump very high. Imagine running and somehow jumping 20 feet straight into the air but then landing just a few feet away! That's what Nana and Popo's jumping is like.

Worse still, when jumping they actually pass through the very edges of platforms! As a result, you have to wait to the last moment to push the jump button if you don't want to whiff right through your target and fall back down. Again and again and again you will watch in dismay as your little climber plummets through the platforms! A few minutes of this and you'll want to throw the controller in frustration.

While you focus on trying (and failing) to make precision jumps in which you must ignore your eyes to correct for the phantom edges, little yetis (called Topi) continually close any gaps in the ice by laying down new bricks. While this is a neat concept, on later levels it adds an additional level of frustration, as they keep filling in the gaps you're laboring to create. You can smash the Topi with your hammer, but they come back seconds later. Also, birds keep swooping down at you. You can bash them by jumping at them, but this, too, must be timed right or the bird hits you instead of getting hit by the hammer. Finally, if you're too slow due to repeated falling, a polar bear in sunglasses comes out and forces the screen to scroll up, killing you if you're on the bottom-most visible level.

A silver lining of the game is that you can play it with a second player simultaneously. Another plus is that you can start on whichever level you want, no password necessary.

Add a second player to share the pain.

The basic concept of the game is compelling, but it's ruined by the controls. I could see players tolerating this pre-Mario, but it launched alongside Super Mario Bros. I don't know how anyone could suffer this after playing that. Furthermore, like SMB, it has 32 levels (which then loop endlessly arcade-style), but they are very repetitive. Each level looks identical but for slight variations in layout and challenge.

In a pre-Mario world, this could have been a good game. Honestly, I could imagine a quality remake of this game that fixed the controls and added more level and enemy variety. The time for that has probably passed; there should have been an Ice Climber 2 or Super Ice Climber that solved these fatal flaws.

I give Ice Climber a D.

Linked Reviews
"Ice Climber’s concept is solid and the components for a real classic are all there, but it doesn’t play very well, and no amount of clever design can change that."
— Stephen Kelly, Nintendo Life, 5/10

"While displaying some cute design and showing signs of fun, the actual play experience is shaky. Jumping horizontally is troublesome and inconsistent, as it's tough to garner distance, and this is made up for by the player being able to seemingly jump through platforms."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 2/5

"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."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

"Ice Climber's biggest claim to fame for its time was the ability for two players to play the game simultaneously."
IGN, #79 of Top 100

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