Why Don’t We Talk About the Ice Climbers?

Nana and Popo, The Ice Climbers

Two kids. One blue. One pink. Hammers in hand. And undoubtedly adorable. 

These are the Ice Climbers, Popo and Nana respectively, characters you’d perhaps recognize from the Super Smash Bros. series. 

They’ve been in every entry since Melee. They had their own stage, even. And yet, before that first appearance, I had no idea they even existed.

Indeed, I think few people knew who these two were. They’re a cute pair of unknown relations. Are they a couple? Childhood friends? Siblings? And where did they come from? Did these two kids just stumble out of the ether one day, and someone at Nintendo thought “Yeah, these two could kick some ass!

To start, let’s dive into their origins. As in, the origins of the characters themselves, not their in-game origins. There is little to no info out there about that. So today, let’s dive into the origins and history of the Ice Climbers characters and why they border on obscurity!

The Ice Climbers in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

The Game

To understand quite literally where the Ice Climbers came from, we have to go back to Japan in 1983.

This was perhaps one of the biggest years in Nintendo’s history. Thanks to arcade hits such as Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., the hundred-and-some-year-old Japanese playing card company had found huge success in the realm of video games. They even had a video game console out on store shelves: The Famicom.

White and red. Limited to RF out. Hard-wired controllers. You love to see it.

And two years later, it would be slightly retooled and redesigned into the system the West would come to know as the NES. Functionally the same to each other, the Famicom and later NES would become a global phenomenon – though that’s a story for another time.

A Famicom and Two Regional NES Consoles

Often times we hear about video game companies creating scaled-down arcade ports for home consoles.

But Nintendo was different. The developers there wanted to have Famicom versions of their games be nearly exactly like their arcade counterparts!

As such, they developed an arcade system that was basically just a Famicom shoved into a wooden box with some controls and a TV. This was the Nintendo VS. arcade system.

First launched in 1984, a lot of the games would either be ports from the Famicom or be created for the VS. system specifically and then directly ported to the Famicom at a later point.

Case and point: Ice Climber.

A Flyer for the Nintendo VS Arcade System

Ice Climber – the game, not the kids – was produced by Kenji Miki, who would later also produce NES Open Tournament Golf, and programmed by Kazuaki Morita, who would later do programming work on the original Super Mario Bros. Though that latter title would go on to become much more iconic, it still left an impact on Morita, with him seeing it as a warm-up for his later project. He would once say in an interview:

“The first game that I programmed, Ice Climber, was my warm-up on the NES, then I dove into the fascinating task of working on the code for Super Mario Bros.”

Ice Climber itself would see release first in the arcades in 1984 as a standalone standup VS. system unit. The Famicom release would follow shortly after and, as intended, they are incredibly similar.

Kazuaki Morita (Source: ZeldaUniverse)

The goal is simple. You play as a blue boy, Popo, and pink girl, Nana, as player one and player two respectively as you break blocks and vertically scale the mountain. Along the way, you’ve gotta try to beat a time limit and collect vegetables. There are also enemies such as polar bears and giant birds and, of course, the infamous Topi – who was a literal baby seal you got to club in some Japanese versions!

However, not all is well in Ice Climber.

The later Super Mario Bros. is known for its tight controls,  momentum-based jumps, and having a degree of control even when in the air.

Ice Climber, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. It’s stiff and jank.

Sometimes you’ll just phase through platforms you thought you were dead on with. Sometimes you’ll think you have a jump perfectly lined up only for the platform you gotta reach be surprisingly out of reach. And sometimes there’s random ice physics!

Yup, some stages make you stiffly slide around randomly. You’d think the Ice Climbers would have some proper winter boots, but apparently not.

Ice Climber for NES

While some versions of the game contain as few as 24 mountains to scale and some have up to 48, I always found myself clocking out after, at most, 10.

Most versions of the game are virtually identical, though. There’s a proper stage selection screen and an animated intro that, as far as I can tell, are only in the arcade and Famicom Disk System releases. Indeed, the Famicom Disk System release is pretty much arcade-perfect, save for a loading time here and there, thanks to the power of floppy disks.

The standard Famicom, international NES, and Game Boy Advance releases are all virtually identical, with that note applying to releases such as, say, the Wii Virtual Console. I do think it’s cool that the Game Boy Advance version got released both on a cartridge and as a set of e-Reader cards, though!

The two-player co-op mode is even preserved in the Game Boy Advance version thanks to the GBA Link Cable, allowing for two Game Boys to link up for some icy action!

Ice Climber for the GBA e-Reader

As far as overall quality goes, perhaps Damien McFerran from NintendoLife put it best in a look he did in 2007:

“As with many of the NES games we’ve seen so far on the VC, the suitability rests on two key factors — if you were a fan of the game back in the day then you will probably want to play this. If you weren’t, then we’d recommend that you try some of the other games out there before buying this.”


So let’s talk about these characters a bit. Perhaps problematically, their designs are based on the stereotypical traditional wear of Inuit people. Make of that what you will.

As we’ve established, blue is Popo, pink is Nana. But I’m more concerned with their relationship with each other. Are they related? Dating? Clones?

I know it’s kind of weird to feel so invested in a pair of pallets swaps, but, on the flip side, aren’t Mario and Luigi considered iconic? Just look at those original sprites! 

Mario and Luigi as they appeared in Super Mario Bros.

To help, let’s look through some primary sources.

What I really love about Nintendo is that a lot of their old game manuals are just archived online – for free! In particular, when the NES Classic Edition mini-console launched, digital manuals were put up to coincide with games contained on it. That included the NES release of Ice Climber.

The whole manual is here, including the space left for player notes at the end! However, though the manual writers cared enough to differentiate the type of clouds you’ll see, there is zero background info on Nana and Popo.

The PDF of the original Ice Climber Manual from the Nintendo Website

If we turn to Super Smash Bros. Melee – the Climbers’ first 3D appearance – there are hints that these two are in some sort of romantic relationship. When they high-five in the opening cutscene, a little heart appears – but that could be interpreted as a more general sign of affection than a romantic one.

What is more interesting is when we look at the event matches. There’s one featuring the Ice Climbers that, in the English release, is merely called “Ice Breaker.” But, in Japan, the name apparently translates to “Those Who Interfere With People’s Romances.”

However, despite it appearing as if someone at Nintendo wanted to imply they were dating, that did not end up being the official stance.

Doubt was first put on this in Nintendo Power issue 152, where they were referred to as siblings – though this was later said to be the result of a mistranslation. However, the “lovers” theory was fully put to rest later on in an interview with Super Smash Bros. series creator Masahiro Sakurai.

Masahiro Sakurai (Source: IMDB)

One of the most coveted parts of Super Smash Bros. is the Smash Bros. Dojo. This was basically a website that’s purpose was to drip feed info about new releases to us hungry fans – even those of us who, for all intents and purposes, should not be allowed near a fighting game.

I remember only really being huge into staying up into the early hours of the morning in hopes of a new character reveal when Super Smash Bros. Brawl was in the works, but such a site did exist for Melee! In Japan, this was called Smabura-Ken – a name that literally translates to Smash Bros. Fist. And, in a translation of an interview with Masahiro Sakurai from 2001, he just happened to cover the Ice Climbers and their relationship!

Here’s what he had to say, according to a fan translation from 2015:

“Popo and Nana are a childhood friends-like boy-and-girl pair. The “more than friends, but less than lovers” kind.”

This stance was also later reaffirmed in a few different materials relating to Brawl as well. As such, it is safe to assume that this is Nintendo’s official stance.

In short: Do they have a relationship? Kind of.

There are people that are somehow inseparable as childhood friends. Indeed, if you’d didn’t know any better, you’d say they appear like siblings.

And that’s what we have here.

And really, that’s precious.

Nana, Climber of Ice


I started this piece by stating that the Ice Climbers border on obscurity. And from the scant information I’ve found – I really had to dig for those interview quotes – that is certainly evident. However, that’s not to say they have not had any impact or legacy on gaming as we know it.

To start, they are certainly unique fighters in Super Smash Bros., seeing as you control both climbers at once. However, I really don’t feel like I’m good enough at Smash Bros. to actually discuss game mechanics.

I do think their stage is really unique, though! This is Icicle Mountain, and while it is s little awkward to fight on, the constant vertical scrolling definitely makes it stand out

Rather infamously, despite being playable in Melee and Brawl, they were unplayable in the 3DS and Wii U releases of Super Smash Bros. Many folks were baffled by this decision, with some fans turning to outright outrage!

A Change.org petition demanding the Ice Climbers be brought to Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U

Sakurai himself would later speak about their removal. Here is what he said in a translation of an interview from Famitsu magazine, dated October 2014:

“Even if I cram in as many fighters as I can, there are some people who are focused on the few who didn’t make it back. Among them are the Ice Climbers, who were playable during development on the Wii U. However, moving the two as a pair required significant processing power. The 3DS was already being pushed to its limit, and I couldn’t get them to work no matter how hard I tried, so I gave up on them. The other fighters had to be whittled and pared down until I could get them to work, so it was simply unavoidable.”

To the delight of at least 88 Change.org supporters, Nana and Popo did make a return in the most recent Super Smash Bros. entry, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for Nintendo Switch.

I guess you can’t say “everyone is here” without including, well, everyone. 

But Popo and Nana really don’t appear much anywhere else throughout Nintendo’s long lineage of titles. A cameo in WarioWare here. A Super Mario Maker costume there. A neat background in Tetris DS here. An Ice Climbers-inspired parka in a few Kirby games there.

An Arcade Poster for Ice Climber

That’s it! Every single appearance they’ve had, not counting some odd computer ports of the original Ice Climber that only came out in Japan.

And that’s a shame. Though the arcade and NES game are, to be frank, underwhelming and nothing special, the characters are cute and charming and maybe a game that has them play a bit more similar to their Smash Bros. counterparts could be a lot of fun!

It worked for other series from Nintendo’s past, most notably Kid Icarus.

I say that full well knowing Kid Icarus: Uprising is probably partially responsible for why I have wrist problems in my mid-20s.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is best enjoyed with a wrist brace on hand!

Realistically, I wish I could say there is a chance of a new standalone game happening for the Ice Climbers. However, it just does not seem to be in the cards.

If characters such as Waluigi only exist to be pulled out every time a new Mario Sports game is made, then the Ice Climbers are basically just there to be pulled out to help pump up the Super Smash Bros. character roster. That is not a knock against them as fighters or as character designs, it just seems to be the most likely case here.

To end off, I leave you with a short quote from that same 2014 interview with Masahiro Sakurai:

“Characters and series that have no plans for future releases, or a low possibility of future releases, inevitably will be considered lower priority.”


About Jamie Christensen 19 Articles
Jamie Christensen is a writer, content creator, and social media marketing nerd currently residing in Victoria, British Columbia. He’s written about people, technology, and the environment, along with creating the online documentary series “The Art of Failure”. Feel free to check him out on Twitter and on YouTube!

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