Last week I looked at a pretty great handheld with a bunch of Atari 2600 games on it. Seeing how we’re in the midst of the holiday season, and snow is beginning to trickle down upon us I thought I’d go with a theme. A seasonal theme. So this week coming off of the Flashback portable I’m revisiting the glorious 2600 again to talk about Frostbite.
PROS: An excellent combination of puzzles, and platform jumping!
CONS: Sensitive controls.
POLAR BEAR: Frostbite’s lone boss isn’t the lovable Coca-Cola mascot you love.
Created by Steve Cartwright, Frostbite is one of the best Activision published Atari 2600 games you may have missed. So often when talking about Activision’s earliest games we remember the super hits. Pitfall!, River Raid, and Kaboom!. But a lot of other great games they put out in their heyday often get lost in the shuffle. Which is a shame, because Frostbite is not only one of the best Activision games, it’s one of the best games on the Atari 2600.
There are a lot of games on the console that can land in that pantheon. So why does Frostbite deserve to join them? What does this game do better than other games of the type? Frostbite takes one major cue from Q*Bert, and builds an entirely new concept around it. In that game you jump on the top surfaces of blocks to change their colors until they all match. But in this game you play as a builder named Frostbite Bailey. Frostbite Bailey needs to build an igloo to survive in. In order to do this you have to jump on ice floes as they float down an icy ocean current. When you land on one, a brick shows up on the shore, and the ice flow changes to a blue color.
Once every row of ice floes turns blue, they turn snow-white again, and you continue building your igloo by jumping on them. When the last jump is made, a door appears, and you can enter your igloo to end the level. While the concept sounds simple enough, you’ll find the game is anything but easy. Moreover, the better you become, the more difficult the hurdles that are thrown in front of you. Besides all of this, there is a thermometer that acts as a timer. If you can’t complete a level before the temperature hits zero, you’ll freeze to death. And you really do. The death animation shows your dead corpse turn blue in the icy tundra. There are a litany of ways to die in Frostbite. Miss a jump, and you’ll drown in a watery grave as your heart stops. Animals will pull you into the ocean to kill you. Or chase you down, and maul you.
The really nice thing is, you’re eased into the mechanics. The first level runs very slow, and you’ll only have the snow geese to contend with, while you jump around building your igloo. But each successive level adds more danger. First these dangers are minor. King crabs join the fray. Ice floes become rows of smaller chunks. But by the fourth level things start to kick into overdrive. Ice flows break apart or sink after so many seconds spent standing on them. Killer clams show up. The enemy attack patterns begin to change. The toughest addition is the polar bear who comes out of hibernation. From this point on, you’ll have a boss you cannot kill. All you can do is attempt to sneak into your igloo once it is built. If you get spotted at all by the bear, it will chase you down, and kill you off-screen.
But to balance these challenges are some nice scoring mechanisms. To start with, you’ll get points for jumping on ice floes. You get points for any degrees left on the temperature timer at the end of every round. Sometimes the game will throw you a bone by sending out a row of fish where you may normally see killer crabs, clams, and geese. These can be eaten for points. Every 5,000 points you score nets you a 1-Up. Fish also add a big risk/reward element. Do you go for the extra food points, or just try to get into your igloo before you freeze to death?
But even with the extra credits, you’re forced to do better. You’ll soon learn in later stages you have to make a lot of diagonal jumps. Because going directly up or down many times will land you right on a crab who will pull you into the ocean, and kill you by hypothermia. You’ll also need to master this if you have any hope of successfully avoiding polar bears. The polar bears love to stalk the doorway of your igloo once it’s been built, and you’ll need enough clearance to quickly get away, and into the igloo.
On top of all of this Frostbite triples the speed of the game every major score metric. You’ll first notice it if you can crack 10,000 points. But at every noteworthy score it gets faster, and faster. Back when the game was new, Activision gave high scorers one of their coveted patches if they could crack 40,000. With some practice, and determination this is achievable. What is really astonishing after playing the game, is discovering footage of players reaching scores in the hundreds of thousands of points.
But here’s the thing. Even though Frostbite may have released in the summer of 1983 it retains a level of addictive gameplay on par with mainstays like Tetris. Like any of your favorite games it has a great mix of elements that will keep you coming back once you’ve played it. It also has that classic Activision look. Simple graphics, yet somehow laced with enough detail that it looks a cut above most other games. Activision, and Imagic were wonderful in this regard. Frostbite is no exception. Bailey has some nice touches like his hair peeking out from under his hood, and all of the creatures have cool animations going on. There isn’t anything in the way of music, but the sound effects go along with everything nicely. Especially the gnashing teeth of the polar bear when he gets you.
If you collect for the VCS, Frostbite, like many Activision games should be on your buy list. It isn’t a very common game, but it isn’t outlandishly rare either. It’s one of the more affordable uncommon games too. If you don’t have an Atari 2600 on hand, there are a number of Activision 2600 collections that include the game. The Activision Anthology on the PC, and PS2 being one of the best. There is also a mobile version of the Activision Anthology, making Frostbite, and other titles playable on modern tablets, and phones. Of course nothing beats playing on the original hardware, but these are great alternatives.
Final Score: 9 out of 10