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Spotlight: Hit the Ice

Being a child of divorce is like living two secret lives. I don't know if any of you out there can relate, but I learned to live as a double agent by the age of five. It doesn't take many arguments to learn that taking sides is the only way to live civilly.

"Yeah, Mom, Dad is a loser, isn't he? Yes, we're still hanging out on Wednesday."

"You're right, Dad, Mom's smoking habit makes her evil. No, I still don't want to live with you."

In an odd way, this double life extended to gaming too. Back home with Mom, my Genesis kept me company. I still know Sonic 2 like the back of my hand, which is to say, kind of vaguely. I don't spend much time staring at my hands these days. At Dad's, though, I had a Turbo Grafx 16. Yes sir, I was one of the approximately sixteen people in America who actually played Bonk's Adventure rather than merely reading the crappy advertisements in Spider-Man. I had quite a collection of bizarre little games which, as anyone familiar with the TG16's lineup can tell you, isn't an accomplishment as much as it is a matter of circumstance.

One of my favorites was a quirky little Japanese experiment that somehow crossed American soil. Namco(t)'s Final Lap Twin defined its own genre, the racing RPG, and did so in such a bizarre way that it set new standards in self-fulfilling obscurity. It played for all the world like a substandard RPG of the time; shops sold you equipment necessary to advance, friendly residents gave vague one-liners that helped absolutely no one, and venturing out of town was a fool's gamble that paid off in random attacks.

Except...they weren't attacks at all. They were challenges. Racing challenges. Challenges you could not refuse. Wandering maniacs demanded on-the-spot drag racing, making tracks materialize from absolutely nowhere and forcing you into a short, one-lap sprint. The winner walked away with a menial amount of cash. The loser was instantly transported back home, which was slightly more than frustrating once you'd wandered off on a quest to the next town.

I'd read about Hit the Ice before the prototype cartridge made its way from Spain, of all places, to my home in Vegas. Electronic Gaming Monthly had a few preview shots, clearly showing that the NES port had gone far beyond the popular arcade game by introducing an RPG element. I knew what to expect. I'd been down this vaguely experimental path before. I figured I'd be playing Final Lap Twin again.

I was right.

-By Frank Cifaldi

I don't mean to imply that reliving Final Lap Twin is necessarily a bad thing. Far be it from me to criticize a game I mindlessly spent a hearty portion of a year with. It...had its charms, and in the right mindset it's easily one of the more entertaining ways for a high school kid to ignore homework. Good? Not really. Bad? Nah. Disappointing? Absolutely. And Hit the Ice follows in its footsteps rather meticulously.

Hit the Ice, in its optional (and preferable) Quest Mode, begins with a mustachioed coach figure lifting your competitive spirits in ways that only a soulless videogame character of the time could.

"It make [sic] me proud to see you do the absolute best for your team," he begins, looking vaguely reminiscent of a food and beverage manager I used to know at Wendy's. He goes on to explain that his dream has always been to win the Video Hockey League Championship, and that doing so involves strengthening your skills against others before challenging the opposing league contenders in their home stadiums.

"And don't forget," he emphasises, "to eat those hamburgers with the special beef to help fortify your body." Valuable life advice, that.

Navigation is much like any standard RPG of the day. A tiny, iconic figure - in this case, a hockey player waddling around in full uniform - explores the land from an extreme bird's eye angle and enters buildings that appear to be only slightly larger than himself. Only three structures can be entered: homes, shops, and stadiums.

Entering a home will put you face-to-face with its resident. There are many residents in the town, but only seven character sprites for them, which range from a caricature of Belgian comics star Tintin, a real-life muppet, a very round old man suffering from Alzheimer's, and four extremely attractive and realistically drawn young women, all of whom share the same face which, with a bit of imagination, kind of looks like Adolf Hitler.

The roles of the residents are simple. They will either give you money, take money from you, or spout out one of the three or four scripted hints. None of which, of course, are of any use whatsoever.

"As Power increases, more and more special actions appear."

Thanks, kid.

There is one exception to the roles of the residents. An old man, fittingly referred to by the other residents as "an old man," has a "life-saving inner tube," which aids travelling hockey teams by enabling them to cross the nameless town's massive lakes.

There is a price to pay for this, the only nonpurchasable item in the game. As the more gossipy folks will tell you, the old man "really likes apples." A lucky break, considering apples are one of about three commodities sold throughout the entire town. Feed him enough (ten or so),and the inner-tube is yours, allowing you to conquer the seas and discover...well, not much. There are a couple of useless houses, and a shop that sells powerup items at a discount. Otherwise, there isn't much reward in repeatedly stocking up on apples and visiting the old man, as the random attacks can easily make this simple act take upwards of an hour.

And then there are the stadiums. In all, six stadiums litter the town; your home (which varies depending on which team you choose) and those of the other five major teams. Simply walk into an opposing stadium to challenge its team to a match. Defeat all of them to win the VHL world championship title and be rewarded with a less-than-stellar ending. Simple as that.

Matches themselves, despite being the central focus of the game, aren't particularly exciting. In concept, they're faithful to the original; two-on-two (plus goalies), quick, and with a focus on violence. If you purchase a P-drink from one of the town's shops, it will sit waiting on the sidelines. Drink it, and your player's speed and power increase, giving you an easy advantage when necessary.

And it's really not necessary at all. On my last playthrough, I was able to completely dominate and beat Hit the Ice in maybe an hour and a half. While there are many opportunities to increase your experience points and become a better player throughout the game, be it by challenging other teams or by eating the aforementioned hamburgers, doing so is less than rewarding. The game simply is not challenging.

So what are we left with? An experiment, to be sure, interesting not for its game play experience as much as its value as an historical relic. And, as such, games such as Hit the Ice can not be judged, for doing so would be something more than hypocritical. After all, it's not as if Taito actually marketed this game.

Enjoy it for what it is. Learn from it. And for god's sake, don't marry in haste. Your kids might grow up to do something crazy like, say, write about videogames that don't exist.


Download Hit the Ice here.
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