30-Minute Retro Reviews: Gradius, Ice Climber, and Ice Hockey!

In the very descriptively titled LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!, LittleMac puts in 30 minutes playing the NES and SNES games on Switch Online so that you can make more judicious decisions about how to spend your retro gaming time!

Whenever there’s a new batch of releases, we’ll cover those! Otherwise, we’re going back to the start and playing through every game in order. For at least thirty minutes. Yes, including Clu-Clu Land.

Don’t believe me when I say I have recently played these games for thirty minutes each? Well, I’m just going to need you to trust me, because I did not manage to do the recordings!

This week, we’re continuing with the original wave of SNES Online releases! Let’s dive in to:

  • Gradius
  • Ice Climber
  • Ice Hockey

Gradius (1986)
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

A spiritual sequel to Konami’s trailblazing Scramble, Gradius can be credited with sparking the side-scrolling space shooter craze of the late 80s: there are a lot of games from the era that look like Gradius!

Waves of enemy ships in formation. A couple of more free-flying enemies. A power-up on the screen. It’s a side-scrolling space shooter! Source: Moby Games

Gradius has simple presentation and simple controls. Players take control of the Vic Viper, a cool spaceship, and then try to blast their way through seven horizontally scrolling stages. Each stage has three legs: an “open space” leg of waves of enemy ships flying in formation, a “confined space” leg of tight navigation through tunnels/planetary surfaces/clusters of satellites, and then a climactic boss fight. There’s no in-between stage animations (or even title cards to announce the stage number): instead, the Vic Viper just keeps on flying after a boss fight, finding itself back in open space to confront a new wave of enemies. The controls are likewise simple: press A to shoot, and press B to activate a power-up.

It’s in the activation of power-ups that the game introduces a bit of complexity. You see, while the Vic Viper can receive six different power-ups (increased speed, a downward-firing missile, an upward-firing second shot, a rapid firing laser, a support vessel called an “option,” and a shield–memorize that order, because it will become important), there’s only one power-up item to be collected. All six power-ups are presented in boxes at the bottom of the screen. The first time the Vic Viper collects a power-up item, the Speed Up box is highlighted. Every power-up after that moves the highlight one box to the right. Pressing B activates the currently highlighted power-up, and the cycle resets. This introduces a fair bit of strategy to the shooting action, as the player must make constant risk-reward judgements to develop the most effective loadout (hold out in hope of getting that shield at the far right or improve your firing range by grabbing the missile and second shot? Speed up twice and then go for the laser? Try to get double options?).

. Later Gradius games have a higher rate of “cool” to “pretty standard” enemy and environment designs, but the asteroid belt of laser-spitting Moai is pretty memorable. Source: Moby Games

Besides that, there’s not a lot to say about Gradius: you make your way from left to right, navigating through bullet hell sequences and waves of enemies. There are some cool visuals along the way–the asteroid-mounted, laser-ring spraying Moai and some of the later bosses–but later Gradius games (and the body-horror inflected spinoff Life Force) would come up with cooler ones, and some of the early bosses are just extremely generic looking motherships that you wind up fighting more than once. The music is fine. The controls are tight. The game is a landmark in the development of its genre. Nowadays, though, you’ll probably get more out of later side-scrolling space shooters (Gradius or otherwise) that are able to draw on better underlying technology to create livelier visuals and deeper gameplay possibilities (for that matter, tracking down an arcade version of Gradius itself would probably be more rewarding).

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

I will probably play Gradius now and then when the space-shooter urge strikes me, up until Nintendo somehow gets Gradius III for the SNES Online or I otherwise get access to a later example of the genre.

Ice Climber (1984)
: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo

Ice Climber inverts the standard formula for a recognition pop in Smash Bros. Instead of walking into a room of friends party gaming, seeing Smash Bros. on the screen, and exclaiming “whoa! PRINCESS ZELDA is in a fighting game?!”, modern players are more likely to walk into a room to find one weird friend, alone, playing retro games in the dark, and exclaim “whoa! The Ice Climbers from Smash Bros. are in a regular Nintendo game?!” Despite being an arcade success, a NES launch title, and an IP Nintendo saw fit to revive for its flagship mascot fighter, Ice Climber has never seen a single follow-up: across nearly forty years, there have been eleven different ports of the arcade original and that’s it.

Mountain 1 shows the Ice Climber fundamentals: 8 levels of destructible ice bricks that need to be climbed. Nice, wide surfaces to land on. Few enemies. A chance to get used to the odd “very vertical, minimally horizontal” jump physics. It doesn’t take long (see below) for the level designs to get a lot less friendly. Source: Moby Games

The lack of sequels/spinoffs/reimaginings/etc. is all the stranger because Ice Climber, in addition to being successful in its day, is really fun! Across 32 stages, one or two players–simultaneously! No controller passing here!–attempt to climb up eight levels of icy mountain passage and then navigate their way up to the frozen peak, where they try to grab the talons of a condor who has stolen vegetables from their village. Along the way, the ice climbers must carve a path through the frozen floors above them, avoid an assortment of non-hostile polar creatures, and contend with moving platforms, slippery surfaces, and falling icicles.

The controls are simple enough: left and right on the d-pad handle motion, B swings a wooden mallet, and A initiates a jump that can destroy ice blocks from beneath (Popo and Nana have more respect for their own brains and knuckles than Mario, so they accomplish the block destruction by hoisting their mallets above their heads as they jump). Since the game is all about ascending vertically, the jumps get great height but can’t cover much horizontal distance: a significant part of the challenge of the game is working out the timing and momentum so that a jump takes you through a space you’ve hammered out in the level above and then over enough to come down and land on that level. Further navigational challenges are posed by ice blocks that are slippery (speaking mechanically, the slippery ice is more akin to a conveyor belt than an ice surface, as it draws the player steadily to the left regardless of their prior momentum) or indestructible. It doesn’t take long for the game to start throwing serious platforming challenges at you: note in the image below how Popo just had to ascend directly from level 2 to level 4, using a moving platform as a stage to first carve out a hole and then, on another pass, to climb through it (oh, and that abominable puffball will fill that hole back in if he gets there with the icicle he’s pushing!).

See what I mean? This is not too far past level 1, and we’re dealing with incomplete floors, falling icicles, tricky jumps from moving platforms, indestructible ice, and… well, the exact same number of the exact same type of enemy. Source: Moby Games

After each sequence of eight levels, players challenge a bonus level in the form of the mountain’s icy peak. Here, there are no destructible blocks and a (not at all generous) timer is introduced; on the plus side, failing the bonus climb simply sends you to the next level with no bonus points. Then, it’s time to climb another mountain. That’s it! That’s the game! Further options are limited: in addition to the simultaneous two-player, the game is generous enough to offer a level select from the title screen, ensuring that Dramus18 would’ve have kind things to say about Ice Climber had it somehow made the cut as the most important platformer of 1984/85! The graphics are simple and charming, and the soundtrack is superb, boasting three different jaunty, blues-inflected tunes.

The ultimate goal of each level is to reach the peak and grab on to this vegetable-stealing condor, but you actually collect all the stolen vegetables on the way and the condor itself isn’t holding on to any. By this point in the stage, it’s all about revenge for Popo and Nana. Source: Moby Games

I’m honestly surprised that Nintendo’s never seen fit to revisit Ice Climber even after Popo and Nana’s resurgence into gamers’ consciousness via Smash Bros. It’s a simple little arcade platformer that’s still fun today, and the fact that it draws much of its challenge (and humor) from the deliberately clumsy jump controls and the need for two players to somehow share a confined, slippery space as they climb makes me think this would be an excellent candidate for a four-player modern update. The co-op gameplay could be expanded to include new maneuvers (say, the ability to grab a partner’s hand and pull them up after a near-miss jump, or a limited-use grappling hook), and it’s also not hard to imagine a two-on-two (or more) competitive mode livening up gaming parties or Switch Online. Fortunately, while we wait for Nintendo to make my fevered ramblings a reality (and please, Nintendo: if you’re actually going to do that let’s start with new Lolo), we can have fun revisiting this not-quite-but-almost forgotten gem.

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

I will, and I really do recommend that you do, too! Much better if you’ve got a friend along for the ride!

Ice Hockey (1988)
: Nintendo R&D4 and Nintendo R&D2
Publisher: Nintendo

If you’ve been following this series diligently, you know that I’ve argued that early exemplars in different sports genres tend to establish a template for how that sport should play as a video game. We’ve also seen that the elements of the game beyond the bell-to-bell rules were only gradually and fitfully introduced (Tecmo Bowl and Super Soccer have named players with individual stats, but you can’t see those stats or make any trades, and their non-exhibition modes have more in common with the arcade mode in a fighting game than they do with actual sports seasons or tournaments). Ice Hockey, a mid-NES era Nintendo sports classic, takes only one fitful step towards simulating the off-ice challenges of running a hockey team, as players are confronted with the age-old question that keeps all hockey managers up at night: what’s the right balance of skinny, fat, and medium guys for my team?

Yes, Ice Hockey apes Baseball, Soccer, and Volleyball by offering no modes of play beyond exhibition games. What it does bring to the table is the opportunity to adjust the composition of your five-player team (goalie included: we’re down a man as a technical concession!), with actual strategic and mechanical implications for the gameplay experience. There are three types of players (the aforementioned skinny, medium, and fat guys), who each bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Skinny guys move fast and are better stickhandlers (in the context of this game, that means they win more faceoffs), but have weak shots and are easily knocked over by other players. Fat guys are slow and not great with the stick, but they hit hard whether they’re aiming at the puck or another player. Medium guys have the advantage of lacking the weaknesses of the others and the disadvantage of lacking their strengths. Before the puck drops, players are making significant decisions that will impact how they approach the game. It’s a great leap forward at the same time that it’s a very small step!

A fat guy with a powerful shot on goal! Source: Moby Games

The controls follow the same pattern of being technically very simple while adding a fair bit of additional depth to the play experience. Prior to a face-off, both players can use the D-Pad and A & B buttons to change the formation of their team. On offence, A passes and B shoots, but there’s a neat little wrinkle: tapping those buttons will cause your player to fake a pass or a shot, and the button must be held down and released to actually pass or shoot (how long you hold that button affects how hard you hit the puck, too!). If challenged for control of the puck, tapping A rapidly resists the opponent’s effort. On defense, tapping A jockeys for control of the puck and B switches active control to the player nearest the puck; how rapidly the player taps A influences whether they are able to floor the other player with a body check or (if both players are just too good at tapping A quickly) drop the gloves and start brawling. Sadly, the goalie must also be controlled manually with the same D-Pad inputs that move the player, but at least we’re dealing with hockey nets instead of association football nets!

Exhibition games can be played between the player and the computer, or between two players, selecting from a roster of six national teams (computer-controlled teams have pre-set rosters: the “main character” USA team is, of course, all mediums, while the fearsome Soviets bring three fat guys and one medium to the ice). Period length and game speed can both be adjusted. In addition to the fundamentals of hockey (face-offs, three timed periods, trying to score goals), the game enforces the rules for icing (for non-sports folks: a team on defense can’t just wildly fire the puck to the other end of the ice and then chase after it to get on offense) and a child’s understanding of penalties for fighting. This isn’t quite fellow NES hockey classic Blades of Steel, where fights are formalized as a boxing mini-game, but the same “only the loser of the fight gets penalized” rule holds, so don’t let up on your A tapping when a brawl breaks out!

It’s every hockey coach’s greatest challenge to send out a team with just the right mix of player sizes. Source: Moby Games

At the end of the day, Ice Hockey, like most early sports games, lives and dies on how fun it is to play exhibition games over and over with no sense of progression. The good news is that it’s very fun! The action is very fast-paced, the simple team customization options add some strategic depth, and the simple addition of shot/pass fakes deepens the tactical and mechanical challenge involved in getting a shot on goal. Better still, even against a computer player, I’ve never really found a weak spot in the goaltending that allows for reliable scoring (Super Soccer, to give one later and more technically-advanced example, will pretty consistently give up a goal if you just take a straight shot at the edge of the net). There’s no easy way to win a game in Ice Hockey: you’ve got to figure out the team makeup that works best for your style, figure out how to deal with the opponent’s team makeup, and then play the game well and look for openings. It’s like playing a sport!

Ice Hockey uses three Zambonis at once to make sure that the ice gets buffed efficiently, but… that’s not real ice, so the option was surely there to just leave the sequence out if you’re concerned that it takes too long, right? Source: Moby Games

I’ll close with a few odds and ends. First, it’s utterly charming that Nintendo designed a game that’s so simple and yet devoted some programming, art, and music work to creating a post-second-period Zamboni interlude (the big spenders in this international hockey league run three Zambonis at a time!). Second, a simple code (hold A & B on both controllers as you press Start on the title screen) allows you to play with no goaltenders. Finally, the same input on the team select screen initiates “frictionless puck” mode, which is just as wacky as it sounds. I assume that both of those modes in tandem make for some hilariously high-scoring, low-agency games!

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

This is a “now and then” game for me, because I’m not a big hockey guy, but when I do play hockey games I want to play one of the three NES standouts (in descending order, I’d rank the NES hockey podium as Go Go! Nekketsu Hockey Club: Slip-and-Slide Madness, Ice Hockey, and Blades of Steel). If I can ever find a friend who wants to hang out and play retro sports games, this would be near the top of the playlist.

And that’s it for this edition! I’m not sure where we’re going next, because there are a lot of options now, but I’m sure it’ll be exciting!

If you want to see how the magic happens for these columns, check me out on Twitch at twitch.tv/58DreamStreet!