As one of the jewels of Nintendo's library, the Super Smash Bros. series is a standard-bearer. Alongside Mario Kart and many of the Mario sports games, Smash Bros. is an extremely fun game in its own right, but it also functions as a promotional hall of fame. These games are for the all-stars like Mario, Samus, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Fox McCloud, Yoshi, and Pikachu. Maybe throw some cult favorites in there too, like R.O.B. or the Wii Fitness lady.
But who, exactly, are the Ice Climbers? If you really want to know, you could go back and play their 1984 debut if you’re subscribed to the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
After they made their fighting game debut in 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, director Masahiro Sakurai admitted, “People often ask me, ‘Why did you choose the Ice Climbers?’” It’s a valid question. The ice climbers, Popo and Nana, became better known for their unique playstyle in Smash than anything they did before that.
Not many remember their 1984 original game, Ice Climber, which was first released on Nintendo’s short-lived VS. arcade cabinet system before getting transferred to the NES in 1985. But it’s a lot of fun and worth making the climb via Nintendo Switch Online.
Ice Climber has almost never been the subject of much focus. Even its creation, according to one of its two programmers, Kazuaki Morita, was a “warm-up on the NES” before getting into the much more exciting work of Super Mario Bros. But while Ice Climber is a simple game, its core gameplay mechanics make for an intriguing combination.
This trailer may be for the Wii U Virtual Console, but this same title is available on Nintendo Switch Online.
The point of the game, as one might imagine, is to move upwards through an icy mountain, from level to level. Ironically, there’s not much climbing to be done. Rather, Popo jumps from level to level, breaking through with his head.
Popo’s got a wooden mallet, but he’s not doing any climbing with it. It’s his weapon, which he uses to ward off Topis (cute snowman-type creatures) and birds. The Topis are easily scared off, but they come right back. If they encounter a hole in their ground/your ceiling, they’ll run away and come back with tools to repair it. There’s also falling ice to dodge, and quick-moving clouds to hop on.
The Topis present the game’s crucial strategic element. Making sure they run away at the right moment, and that Popo is not caught in their speedy retreat, can make or break a game. When all elements are in play, Ice Climber becomes a game of timing and patterns. It’s similar to the original Donkey Kong which came out only a few years earlier in 1981, or Intellivision’s 1982 game Beauty and The Beast. It’s a platformer in the old-school sense of moving from one platform to another.
It’s a fun game that, like any arcade game, takes no time at all to pick up. But when remaking the characters (co-op is available with Nana) for Melee, Sakura made sure to keep one element which must have been endlessly frustrating for players in 1984, which he described as a “slow horizontal movement speed in the air.” The Ice Climbers are terrible at jumping horizontally, only capable of slight movement to the left or right when in the air.
This further complicates the game, at times to the point of frustration. “If only they could jump like normal people!” you might find yourself saying. But the challenges of games like these can be found in their limitations, and Ice Climber remains a fun play for anyone looking to watch a few elements complicate themselves over time.