Crazy Climber Review: Underappreciated Innovator

Gameplay and animations from the 1980 arcade game, Crazy Climber, by Nichibutsu.  There is a gameplay clip and animations of the climber, helicopter, bird, face, and ape.

 Crazy Climber is not your typical gaming experience.  I can picture '80s gamers trying it for the first time in arcades, shaking the joysticks every which way and unable to figure out how to achieve even the most basic movements.  While there's only a handful of simple maneuvers you need to master to become good at the game, they probably won't be intuitive and the early going can be frustrating.  There are certainly popular arcade games that make use of complex button combinations -- fighting games, for example-- but even in Street Fighter II, I can mash buttons at the right times and still have a decent chance of winning my first fight.  A similar strategy in Crazy Climber won't get me past the first row of windows.  

With patience, however, the elegance and uniqueness of Crazy Climber really comes out.   There's a distinct satisfaction from learning to quickly manipulate the climber's movements.  The fact that you're directly controlling his arms provides an extra level of immersion that you won't get from the more abstract directional controls of most video games.  If something is about to hit me while I'm hanging from a skyscraper, it's not enough to just will my body in a particular direction, I have to perform a distinct set of movements with my arms to properly adjust my weight.  This complexity, in turn, underscores the precariousness of your situation when you're gripping desperately to the side of a building, dodging falling objects.

Even so, the game is forgiving in some respects.  Most obstacles, it turns out, can be managed by just hanging on tight, so if you're patient, you should be able to make your way up the tower even before you have complete mastery of the controls.  You will need to make extensive use of this fact in the second level, when you're being bombarded by falling objects between just two columns of windows.

Clip from the 1980 arcade game, Crazy Climber, by Nichibutsu, showing a climber having cans dropped on him.

Be careful, however, of staying in one place for too long.  Windows don't stay open forever.

And as you're taking this pummeling and worrying about whether a window is going to open onto your hand, the experience increasingly resembles what I imagine a person climbing a skyscraper would actually feel.  That's not to say that it's realistic -- the tower's residents show signs of psychopathy as they giddily try to commit a gruesome homicide with their houseplants and canned goods.  Rather, it feels more like a paranoid dream state, or perhaps something that satan would have conjured to torture a sinner with acute acrophobia.  The fact that it's cast in a child's cartoon world is all the more sinister.

When it was released by Nichibutsu in 1980, Crazy Climber had cutting edge graphics and an innovative control scheme, making for a unique challenge in contemporary arcades.  However, despite receiving acclaim from many critics, it has a fairly small footprint today, and that's a shame.  It's likely that the unconventional and non-intuitive controls scare away many gamers looking for instant gratification; in fact, it's somewhat understandable to expect something more than frustration from your first quarters in an arcade machine.  In 2020, however, you can play it as many times as you want on an emulator or on Nintendo Switch (via the Arcade Archives), without having to worry about keeping track of your spare change.  I recommend you do so.