The Limits of Nostalgia: Ice ClimberApril 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.
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“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.