Mechanical Roots: Ice Cold Beer
Errbody inna arcade get tipsy!
This is a video game site, and you are a video game fan, but sometimes it’s important to look at games that have no video at all. These games appeal to players for the same reasons we pump thousands of dollars into our hobby and can give us great insight into some fundamentals of the latest modern console releases. Mechanical games are still around, mainly spitting out tickets at Chuck E. Cheese’s, but I want to explore some classics too. Whenever possible I plan to look at some of these games and discuss how they operate, why they’re fun, and if there’s a way to simulate playing them without too much trouble.
And what better way to christen something new than with some Ice Cold Beer?
I had heard of a game called Ice Cold Beer for years in various communities that discuss arcade machines. I just tacitly assumed that it was some other variant on Tapper – the classic bar tending video game where you have to keep up with customers’ drink orders and keep their returning empty glasses from smashing on the floor. As it turns out, the only thing the two games have in common is the beer aesthetic.
Ice Cold Beer was released in 1983 by Taito, who was mainly known at the time for starting the whole arcade craze with Space Invaders. Why they moved a bit backwards and created a purely mechanical game in the early ‘80s is a mystery to me, but it certainly made for an interesting game to play in a bar.
The cabinet contains a vertical board with numerous holes drilled in it, ostensibly to represent beer bubbles. Each hole is large enough for a steel marble to fall through, but some are larger than others. Most of the holes have no point value attached to them, but a few do. The lowest point holes are near the bottom, with values increasing higher up the board. There are also more and more non-scoring holes nearer the top to make things difficult.
The goal is to direct the steel marble up the holey wall and into a scoring hole. What makes this difficult (and fun) is the method of moving the ball up the board. You have two joysticks at your disposal, each one used to raise and lower one end of a metal bar that spans across the vertical board. Move the right joystick up and the right end of the bar moves up, move it down and the right end moves down, and so on. The metal bar can extend as needed to get some pretty precarious angles, and you’ll have to make use of this to some degree to start the ball rolling from one side to the other. It gets extremely tricky to start the ball moving to avoid certain holes and roll into the ones you want without zipping one way or the other too fast.
Getting it into the lower scoring holes takes a bit of practice, but getting through the extremely dense field of holes to get the higher scores seems near impossible for a beginner like me. It’s the sort of game where you can be calmly proceeding and doing well and then you suddenly panic and everything goes to hell. It has a good balanced feel of requiring skill and a bit of luck too. The perfect combo to keep drunkards rolling quarters into it so they can brag about a new high score.
I was able to squeeze in almost three games at the recent Texas Pinball Festival before people started lining up behind me. I was spending quite a bit of time with each ball, trying to perfect my technique and doing my best not to flip out and slant the bar at a crazy angle. I had several balls that flopped into the scoreless holes, but hit my peak when I sunk a two-pointer – which just encouraged me to go for the three-point hole next. I was really hoping to play again later, but word had spread that Ice Cold Beer was hidden in a back corner of the exhibit hall and it was slammed for the rest of the show. If this thing was in a bar near me, my friends* and I could have some serious trash-talk-inducing competitions late into the night.
Although I did spend some time in bars as a kid, I never came across one of these machines until now. That seems to be a typical experience since it appears to be a pretty uncommon machine. The International Arcade Museum ranks it as a 4/100 in terms of rarity (with a 1 being the rarest) and aurcade.net only has it listed in nine locations across the U.S. Being marketed to bar owners during a time when pinball and Pac-Man ruled the roost, it’s not too surprising that it didn’t really take off, which is really too bad. Another amusement company (ICE) released a remake about ten years ago, but it seems to be on the rare side as well.
I’m really glad I had the opportunity to give Ice Cold Beer a shot even if I didn’t have the recommended beverage along with me. Even though Ice Cold Beer is thirty years old, it provides the sort of fun challenge that doesn’t age. This is the sort of mechanical experience that can’t be ported to an iPhone. To get the true feel for the game, it needs to be played in a cabinet covered in simulated wood grain that can take a little drunken punches of rage punching. If you find yourself near one of the few locations that has a cabinet available, make sure you drop in a few quarters and see how you do.
* “My friends” may refer to a series of cold beers or to actual humans.