The Limits of Nostalgia: Ice Climber

April 6, 2012

It’s like life, yes? Always another mountain to climb.

Being spoiled on modern games is the type of experience that makes Ice Climber feel even older than it is. Yeah, it’s an NES game, but it’s unremarkable even in an eight-bit context. These characters have names, but they’re essentially interchangeable as palette swaps of one another. The enemies are innocent birds, bears, and (um) fuzzballs, that are mostly minding their own business unless they are actually trying to repair the mountain that is their habitat.

Clearly, environmental conservation wasn’t on the minds of the developers here, nor those who enjoyed the game.

Worse than the lack of an identifiable central character and the fact that the route to completion is via destruction rather than construction is the physics. Momo and Popo can apparently jump three times their height upwards, but side to side, their jumps are hopelessly feeble. It’s like their knees work, but their ankles don’t. Even if you build up a head of steam on your way to a jump, your momentum actually slows down when you make the jump.

There’s not even a defined goal! Why are we jumping? Is it because the pterodactyl stole the eggplants? Is it because the Ice Climbers are trying to get home, and only the eggplant (or pumpkin, or pickle) stealing pterodactyl can get them there?

Good Lord, this game’s a mess.

I never owned Ice Climber, though I did covet it. As one of the original NES experiences, complete with standardized, pixelated pseudo-screenshot cover art and the types of generic names we might now more readily associate with the Atari 2600, I just kind of took for granted that it was, you know, a good game. Maybe not Mario good, I guess, but good, whatever that even meant in the context of the early NES. Maybe “good” just meant that there was more to it than your average Atari game, that it did something that nothing in the previous generation could. I’d go to friends’ houses and ask to play it. Sometimes we’d play together. Sometimes I’d borrow it and play it with my brother on my own NES. It probably got just as many hours out of me as a modern blockbuster. And I can’t for the life of me fathom why.

Even as the “Nintendo Ambassador” crowd of games was announced, I found that still, I coveted Ice Climber, and it became one of my top two or three anticipated games when I found out I’d be getting 10 NES games on my 3DS at no charge. It had been forever since I played it, and the romantic notion of it still stuck in my head. Even as I knew I’d be playing for score, even as I knew there was no defined ending other than to start over again in a more difficult iteration of the first 32 levels, I wanted to play it and conquer it.

It turns out, nostalgia can only take a gaming experience so far.

My gaming habits have been largely tied to nostalgia essentially since I entered college. Some of the first NES emulators were just hitting the internet at that point, and the idea that I could play these games that I loved, not ported but utterly unchanged, was extremely appealing. I got to play games I never knew existed, I got to play games that I loved that I thought had disappeared to time. While I understood that the mechanics, music, and visuals of these games were primitive, I would still defend them anyway to those who might not have played them when they were, you know, new. Take away the modern-day expectations that we have for video game experiences, and there was true, unassailable quality to be found.

There’s a limit to that nostalgia, and it is Ice Climber. While it does properly invoke nostalgia for a time when my standards were low enough that I would enjoy any game set in front of me, it does not hold up as a gaming experience, either now or in the context of its contemporaries.

* * *

“Ambassadorship” is a new category that will concern itself with looks at the 20 games offered by the 3DS Ambassador program. As one of the lucky ones who ended up with these retro games, it’s a way to get me to play them (again) and look at the effect of time and nostalgia on some of the better games of their respective generations.



  1. oh man i’m looking forward to the rest of this series

  2. I did own Ice Climber for the NES. And, of the non-end-goal oriented Nintendo titles (you know, the end-goal style of games are SMB, Zelda, Metroid, Punch Out, etc., as opposed to Mario Bros., Popeye, Spyhunter, and the like–much more like endless arcade titles), Ice Climber is the game that I might rank as my favorite (that is, again, non end-goal title–Zelda might be my “true” favorite overall or simply SMB).

    When I started reading your article, I thought, “What is he playing Ice Climber on? An emulator?” Because I also thought, “Then, he’s playing alone. That must suck.” Then you mentioned the 3DS, and I still thought your experience must have been bad because you probably have to play solo?

    It may not be nostalgia blurring your memory of the title. Ice Climber is a pretty “meh” game solo. It really requires two players to be pleasurable. Nintendo is/was awfully good at creating co-op living room play experiences, and I think that this is one of those titles. Mario Kart, alone? Eh, I’ll pass. With two or more? I’m in.

    There’s a bit of Lego Star Wars in particular in the play of two player Ice Climber. Since you can kill your partner if you advance too quickly, a certain tension is created between players. This can lead to play like I know that my brother-in-law and his sister (my wife) would have had playing this growing up. He would have enjoyed the hell out of sadistically killing her every chance that he got. There is also the playstyle that my brother and I enjoyed, which was to really look out for one another and do your damnedest to keep your fellow climber alive (with the occasional shove over the edge thrown in just to keep things interesting).

    This may be a context thing and not just a historical one. Two player Ice Climber–a very good game. One player? I’ll see if there’s any I Love Lucy re-runs on.

  3. That’s a good point, and one I’m going to have to consider for the rest of the writeups in this series; these are emulated and played on the 3DS. Two-player play will be pretty much non-existent. You’re right, Ice Climber was a better game with two people.

    Still, I have a nagging feeling that the same problems would hold even if a second player was along to make things more interesting. The jumping mechanic is just…wrong, and the collision detection, well, it takes some getting used to at the very least. It could get every other thing right, but a game that relies on jumping that doesn’t offer pinpoint accuracy or a true sense of control? I have to pass.

    There’s certainly fun to be had in there, and I’m sure my wife or my brother and I could get an hour or two of entertainment out of it if I dug out the old NES and a couple of controllers. It might even make a decent drinking game for the college crowd, or at least inspire a dinner menu choice. Regardless, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recommend it after this play experience, co-op or otherwise.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. Hm. While I am happy and so glad to hear someone look at Ice Climbers (and other old titles) through an objective lens without any rosy coloring of nostalgia (frankly, I think many high-score-seeking, “arcade style” games are overrated)… I am concerned at the notion that a game would need a second player in order to be enjoyable. This is something I commonly hear about Bubble Bobble as well, but… to me, there is something inherently, cripplingly wrong with a video game if the single-player mode is not enjoyable. Perhaps I am unique.

  5. This fucking game is fucking awesome. Honestly, one of my favourites as a kid. Pushing your friend off a ledge was priceless.

  6. I think the thing that intrigues me the most about Ice Climbers is that the idea has tons of potential. It’s really unique and you don’t see many games like it, I can definitely see the novelty in it. I’d love a reboot on the WiiU that takes full advantage of the concept, with better physics, game feel and level design.

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