There's a certain scale of game obscurity that becomes more and more apparent as one collects. There's not obscure at all, like the trail of games released by the AAA every year such as Call Of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Super Mario, and so on. There's the slightly more obscure games that a good size of people know about, but you wouldn't expect Joe Wattsagaem off the street to know it, which is your Chrono Triggers, Super Meat Boys, and Yakuzas. Then you have the obscure that only the certified hardcore game fans know about, being your Gunstar Heroes, Grim Fandango's, and Shenmue's. Finally, there's the lower pits of total obscurity that don't even have enough dedicated fans to warrant a Reddit community, which is where you will find games like Bombastic, Neo Turf Masters, and Panic!. Today's game sits in the bedrock bottom of that pit. It's an utterly unique action puzzle game that still brings me back to my 3DO every so often, which is more than I can say for games like Psychic Detective or The Need For Speed. Yet it barely registers as a blip in the general gaming communities eyes. I've seen a few things talking about how it's generally good, but nobody mentions how good. I get the impressions it's "Just Okay", like Guardian War or Baldies or any of the other generally decent games in the bottom pits of obscurity. But I'd like to state I think it's a lot better than that. Reading a review from the time of release doesn't help since it was perfectly acceptable to state that a game didn't have strong visuals, and thus, you were damned from the get go. So as a super post release review, I can judge the game based on it's actual merits. And what good merits they are.
Icebreaker is a generally complicated puzzle shooter to explain, but not to comprehend. You control a white pyramid turned over on its side with the ability to shoot fire balls. The goal is to eradicate all of the other pyramids on the field. Now, the game has a long list of colorful and well implemented enemy pyramids, which I will refer too as mids, with their own properties, but to keep things shorter than a thesaurus, I'll just explain the four basic enemies. Blue, red, and green are the stationary ones. To destroy blue ones, you must ram through them, but they won't be affected by shots. To destroy Red ones, you must shoot them, but touching them results in death. Green ones can't be destroyed by the player at all, but only by moving mids such as the fourth basic one, yellow. Yellow mids constantly move towards you from the outside of the field, and once they touch you, you die. They can be killed by a shot, but they will constantly respawn back at the edge of the map until they are the last ones left. Those are all just the basic types and generally how you play the game, but the introduces plenty of different colors and stage hazards that make each one of the 150 stages feel unique and challenging. The first 30 stages serve as a tutorial, with cutscenes introducing the new mid of the stage, and an ending of sorts once you once you beat all 30. This is the closest thing the game has to a story mode, but like Splatoon, it's just sort of there for you to get into the meat of the game, which is levels 31-150. One design choice I really like is you can play any stage on any difficulty at any time. Start with level 150 if you like, but you probably will want to collapse in frustration. I will be the first to admit that no, I have not beaten all the stages, but I have at least tried all of them. and beaten more than 100, so I generally know what I'm getting into which each stage. That's not to say it's predictable or repetitive. The game can very easily still surprise you with how it places all of it's elements together, between stages or even difficulty modes. If you decide to get Icebreaker and you get comfortable with it, try the first stage again on Insane difficulty. You should get a laugh.
There's a hefty amount of content for a 1995 console release. Besides the level grid, there is a proper tutorial with it's own set of stages that teaches you the game step by step. There's also a demo mode to watch the AI play a stage so maybe you can pick up some tips if you find yourself struggling. You can hit the random button from the main menu and just start a random stage on a random difficulty, which feeds into that pick up and play sort of feel so few games were doing at the time. It's an overall nice package that should keep you busy for a while. The big problems from the game come from its asthetic. I wouldn't call the presentation bad, but there are a lot of bits and pieces that come across as generic. The sound effects sound pretty stock, and I'm pretty sure the music was taken from a 80's Walmart training video. Some of these backgrounds also look like the graphic artist snuck in a few desktop wallpapers into the project folder. It's not offensive, but it just looses a bit of identity. I know the idea was to make the experience seem sort of trippy, but this is Windows 95's image search for "trippy", and not somebody's creative design coming to life on screen.
I think it's the one thing that may have held this game back. Even in the mid 90's, something could get away with looking a bit graphically lacking if the art direction looks more interesting. And that rings true even moreso today. Maybe we can dig Andrew Looney out of the depths of whatever bedrock mine he's been hiding in and can get this game remade on modern systems. Because I think it deserves another chance. I can look over stock graphic and boring audio for a solid core game, and I can think of few more solid 3DO games deserving of another chance than this one. PC or 3DO, it's definitely worth playing just to see something different. You have never really played anything quite like Icebreaker, and I neither have I. Except for maybe Icebreaker 2, but that's best milked for another review.
FINAL VERIDCT: Worth digging out
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Icebreaker is a fascinating mix of strategy and shooting that's surprisingly complex.
(Nick Miller is a video game historian and collector based in Cincinnati. You can reach him at [email protected])