Tucked away in a corner at Logan Arcade in Chicago is a slightly beat-up, fairly unassuming arcade cabinet with a strange name: Ice Cold Beer. First released in 1983 by Japanese firm Taito — a company best known for unleashing Space Invaders on the world — Ice Cold Beer is a seemingly simple mechanical game. To win, you have to balance a rolling ball on a platform and try to climb as high as possible without falling into one of the many holes on the board. It’s a devilishly hard game, presumably designed to suck quarters from the inebriated at pubs.
It never went on to become a huge hit, but for game designer Greg Wohlwend, Ice Cold Beer proved inspirational. So much so that he, along with a small team, set about taking the core mechanic and expanding on it for the new video game Tumbleseed. “We’ve got to be true to the source material,” says Wohlwend of the development process, “out of love and respect for this awesome game that not a lot of people know about.”
Tumbleseed launches today on a range of platforms, including PC, Mac, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. In addition to Wohlwend — who is responsible for creating the art for hit mobile titles Threes and Ridiculous Fishing — the game was developed by Benedict Fritz, Joel Corelitz, Jenna Blazevich, and David Laskey. For the small team, a loose collective known as Aeiowu, there were a number of reasons why they wanted to create something new inspired by Ice Cold Beer.
For one, it’s a relatively obscure title, which offered the chance to introduce the intense climbing / rolling gameplay to an entirely new audience. More exciting was the sheer amount of potential to expand upon the physical game with a digital one. “There are endless possibilities with a video game,” says Wohlwend. “You can add enemies, behaviors, nearly anything is possible with a video game version of this. That’s the thing that makes your heart beat fast [as a designer].”
It didn’t take long to get started. The initial prototype was built in an evening, and featured procedurally generated holes that were different each time you played. The problem was where to go from there. “There are so many ways to take this, and nobody has really done this,” explains Wohlwend. “So that’s exciting, but you also have no reference to build off of. You have to learn all of the lessons of the game: what’s fun about Ice Cold Beer? The rolling is not really what’s fun. What’s fun is the indirect control, the pathfinding, and getting to one place. There are these simple rules that we had to hammer into our brains.”
The team tried a variety of themes and game types to expand on the Ice Cold Beer formula. At one point the game played like a top-down Legend of Zelda adventure, starring a rolling ball instead of a green-clad hero. Later it was a sci-fi dungeon-crawler about a planet rolling through space, searching for a black hole to take it back home. “We would put all of these masks on top of Ice Cold Beer,” says Wohlwend, “and so many of them wouldn’t fit.”
In addition to struggling with the sheer amount of possibilities, there was also the issue of replicating one of the core aspects of the physical game. Wohlwend describes it as a sense of wabi-sabi — the Japanese concept that there’s a beauty in the imperfect. “I can imagine that a fresh [Ice Cold Beer] machine, one that’s been perfectly leveled and balanced, and there are no dents in the glass or pock marks in the wood; that would be somewhat boring” he says. “Versus a 40-year-old cabinet that is in your local arcade bar, that’s sort of broken. But you have to learn that cabinet. You have to learn that in this spot there’s stickiness, and over here is super slick. You get an intimate relationship with the board the longer you play one machine. In a digital game you’re just never going to get that.”
Instead of trying to directly copy that feeling, the team set about adding a flavor that would be unique to Tumbleseed — one only possible in a video game. Like Ice Cold Beer, Tumbleseed is about rolling and climbing. You indirectly move a round little character that looks like an eyeball, moving up a mountain by balancing it on a platform. You’ll need to avoid holes and enemies, but the experience has also been augmented by seeds that let you unlock new abilities. There’s a bouncy spring to reach new areas and a pointed spear for attacking foes. Eventually you’ll get access to bombs and the ability to summon rain clouds.
Tumbleseed is also an incredibly challenging game. The indirect control scheme takes time to get used to, and I found myself dying frequently when I first started. It’s a level of difficulty that seems to run counter to the cute, colorful graphics and soothing soundtrack — but Wohlwend says that the music and visuals serve an important purpose. “We want to promote the idea that you should be patient, and you can relax,” he says. “The more relaxed you are, the easier it’ll be to get into this important flow state.” Once you get into that frame of mind, Tumbleseed is incredibly engrossing. It’s especially great on Switch — the system’s little-used HD rumble provides a tactile sensation that almost makes it feel like you’re controlling a physical object.
The game has been in development for more than two years, and over that time Wohlwend says he’s grown to appreciate Ice Cold Beer even more than he originally did when the project first started. “We had to always go back to the textbook and learn the hard-fought lessons of what truly makes this game great,” he says. There are also a few ways that Tumbleseed improves on its inspiration — something Wohlwend recently realized when he went back to the arcade to play a few rounds.
“I was hoping to go play it,” he says, “but it was broken.”