The years have been unkind to Q*Bert. Known in early 80s video arcades as a pyramid-conquering hero, the lovable foul-mouthed trunk-beast has now been relegated to a memory. Thankfully, Nitrome has not forgotten the little guy, and he finds a new home in their latest game, along with dozens of his weird nerfy brethren. The spring in his step is gone. He trudges now, with a resigned look in his eyes and a persistent sneeze. The land of Jack Frost is no place for a creature who is 50% nose.
Jack Frost, scowling star of the final game in Nitrome's informal 2007 winter trilogy (after Thin Ice and Snow Drift), is happiest when he is cold. Your job is to turn 40 levels of autumn-colored blocks and ladders into an arctic wonderland. Control Jack with the arrow keys: [up] to jump, [left] and [right] to walk, [up] and [down] to climb. Simply step on blocks or climb ladders to freeze them. (Don't be fooled by the help sign on the first level. You have to freeze all the floors AND the ladders to finish a level.) Q*Bert will try to stop you, along with about a dozen other types of critter, but you can fight most of them by bouncing on their heads to temporarily encase them in a solid cube of ice.
Park a friend on the WASD keys, and the two of you can spread wintry devastation simultaneously. The 2-player mode is staged on the same set of levels as 1-player is, and you both work towards the same goal, but there is a competition aspect to it. At the end of a level, whoever has turned more blocks to his/her own color wins the round, and the game keeps track of who is in the lead as you progress. Co-op play is rare in the video game world, and even rarer in free online games, so Nitrome gets major points for including this option.
Analysis: Jack Frost's sluggish pace and occasional collision bugs are the price of admission to a Nitrome party, but there's not much else to complain about. If the character sprites are small, it is only so that more of the level can be shown on screen at once. The chirpy music can be turned off if it isn't to your taste, and the graphics are up to Nitrome's usual high standard. I would have appreciated another background or two over the course of 40 levels, but Mat Annal's enemy designs are colorful and distinct, and there are tons of winning animation details. You have to love it when a tongue creature gets stuck on an icy patch or when a nose creature sneezes.
What really sells this game, though, is the interactivity. Jack can use frozen enemies as stepping stones to reach higher areas. When you change a block to ice, enemies will behave differently towards it. Some will skate on it, some will breathe fire to melt it, some will merely pause to sneeze and suck back up a booger. But they react to the change you've made, and that makes you feel like an active participant in the game world. Jack is more difficult to control on the ice, and while that can be frustrating (and confusing - isn't Jack made of ice already?), it eventually just becomes part of your strategy as you try to solve levels without backtracking over the slippery patches.
If only Mr. Frost would smile once in a while. That grimace seems permanent. Let's hope his game can get a smile out of you.
Jack Frost is also playable at MTV Arcade.
Note: The nod to Q*Bert is more than a throw-away gag - Nitrome is giving oblique credit to the block-changing mechanic that was popularized by Gottlieb's character back in the day.