Snowboarding was big business in the mid to late 1990’s. The inaugural Winter X Games of 1997 brought this niche sport to the mainstream. Suddenly the slopes were not just the stomping ground of middle-class suburban accountants. They were being overrun by radical young dudes, carving up the snow and rewriting the alpine experience. As with any popular trend at the time video games companies wanted their share of the market.
The console wars of the mid-1990’s will stick in the memory of many gamers over a certain age. Just as it looked as if Atari had crashed out for good a new upstart emerged in the form of PlayStation. Nintendo, Sega and Sony were all set to duke it out to be supreme console champion. While this part of video game history is fascinating, it was not just the consoles themselves that were fighting it out. There were many little sub-plots scattered around and this feature is diving into one such battle. The battle to be King of the Mountain with each system’s flagship snowboard exclusive.
the birth of snowboarding games
Before the explosion in popularity of snowboarding there were very few snowboarding games released. Only Heavy Shreddin’ and Tommy Moe’s Winter Extreme are of note when looking back before the fifth generation of video games. With the release of Cool Boarders for the PlayStation in 1996, things really started to get going for the genre. 3D gaming concepts leant themselves well to creating quality snowboarding games. The ability to build bigger environments allowed gamers to get that big mountain feel and for the first time winter sports games were turning heads.
With competition in the console market fierce, first party firms were desperate for console exclusives. Having a killer game on one system can make the difference between winning and losing the race. PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Saturn would all see snowboard exclusives before the end of 1998. Each took different approaches, but all three had snowboarding games that stood out and could fight their corner. One thing to remember about the early days of snowboarding, and extreme sports games in general, is that there was no set formula to adhere to. These were the days before the mighty Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series really set the genre mould.
what makes a good snowboarding game?
Snowboarding, like other winter sports, has two main disciplines. The first is racing against other boarders and the other is grabbing big air to perform technical manoeuvres, or tricks. With both of these concepts needing to be implemented into any snowboard game worth its salt, developers had to get creative. Programming a fun racing game with technical tricks is tough and there are countless examples of snowboarding games that fail miserably.
Control systems for extreme sports games are what makes or breaks them. A poor or unintuitive control system will end any chance a snowboarding game had of impressing players. They require precise controls, not only to navigate the course, but to pull off big tricks. Snowboarding games by their very nature are very technical. Not all gamers get to grips with the intensity and hand eye coordination needed to excel. Similar to fighting games, snowboard games are easy to pick up and play but extremely hard to master.
Let’s take a look at three snowboarding games that really hit the mark while being exclusives for their respected consoles.
Cool Boarders 2 – PlayStation – August 1997
First out of the starting blocks was PlayStation with the 1996 release of Cool Boarders. This game was developed by Uep Systems and is somewhat of a prototype to its sequel. Cool Boarders 2, released the following year, builds on everything that makes the first a decent game. It also adds a whole host of extra content and unlockables. While the presentation is adequate, Cool Boarders 2 will not be winning any awards on the graphical front. There are clipping issues and a few instances of the draw distance creating problems with visibility. These setbacks do not spoil the gameplay though and actually add to the charm of this title. It definitely feels like an early PlayStation game.
so what is it all about?
Players are introduced to proceedings with a thumping intro with a thrashy soundtrack very much of its time. This game oozes attitude and will appeal to those accustomed to the PlayStation generation concept. The characters are fresh and each has a couple of outfits to choose from. Snowboard selection is varied with more added as you complete each challenge. Cool Boarders 2’s main element is the competition mode. Here the player must traverse nine race courses separated by Big Air jumps between each race. The big air contest gives each boarder a chance to score points that determine which position they start in the next race. Getting big points is vital to success, as starting last makes winning the race difficult.
As well as the competition, that has extra hard and mirror modes to conquer, Cool Boarders features score, trick and time challenges for each individual level. There is a boarder park and halfpipe to practice tricks and get to grips with the controls. And advanced players can tackle the difficult Master Air course that requires the player to complete 100 different tricks within the time limit. This game is tough, certainly not one for the casual gamer or those with a passing interest. But this should not put players off, Cool Boarders 2 is a solid, challenging game that rewards players who put the time in to master it.
The trick system is the most important part of any snowboarding game and Cool Boarders 2 has a deep one. Players line up their jumps before any trick area by holding the jump button. They are not able to turn while holding the jump button so it is vital the boarder is aimed correctly before performing the trick. Holding a direction on the d-pad will determine the trick spin, or rotation. And once jump is released the boarder will launch into the air. Different grab combos can be implemented while in rotation and this adds the depth to pulling off the bigger scoring tricks.
The trick system really makes the player feel as though they are combining maneuvers and stamping their own style. Deciding on which rotation, grab and angle to use requires quick thinking and great timing. It takes practice, lots of practice, to perform high scoring trick combos and players must learn each course to succeed.
The rewards for mastering the plethora of trick combinations and all the different courses is satisfying. Let down by its presentation at times. However, Cool Boarders 2 provides challenge, depth and personality to keep any snowboarding fan content.
Steep Slopes Sliders – Saturn – October 1997
Months after Cool Boarders 2, Steep Slope Sliders burst onto the Saturn. Developed by Cave, of shooter fame, this game feels more like a tech demo than a fully fledged title. That being said the presentation has that instantly recognisable Sega arcade feel. You can tell right away that Steep Slope Sliders belongs on the Saturn, and later Sega ST-V arcade hardware. The graphics are functional if a little bland in places, especially on the early courses. However, the engine is solid and this is the fastest game of the three games in this feature. The thrill of speeding down the mountain is exciting and the intuitive controls add to the intensity. The framerate is sustained throughout and their is great variety in the visual style of the boarders. The music and overall sound are mostly forgettable but not a concern as they serve their purpose. It is difficult to pin down if Cave were trying to capture a particular style but it has its charm.
so what is it all about?
Steep Slope Sliders is a simple game at heart. There are eleven courses in total, four being unlocked by beating high scores or fastest times. New boarders are unlocked in the same way and there are sixteen in total. The minimalist feel is excellent for those looking for a pick up and play arcade experience that is not overbearing. Players control the boarder using a combination of the d-pad and the L and R triggers to steer. The mechanic is different to other snowboarding games but feels natural and adds additional control for beating the fast sections of the courses. Once you have mastered each course and unlocked all the extras, the game is completed. There really is not much else to Steep Slope Sliders besides a hidden shooter mini-game.
This game will mostly appeal to gamers looking for a quick blast and some fun. It is a chilled out snowboarding game and is more akin to making art than providing a challenge. Once the nuances of the game start to unfold you can find some perfect lines and add your style to it. Players may find themselves creating masterpieces by first carving up the course and pulling some tricks, then heading to the studio to edit their footage. The replay editor function really stands out as you can direct replays, controlling angles and filters. It is a nice touch in an otherwise short game.
Simple is probably the biggest understatement you could make when describing the trick system. It is limited to say the least but not without its charm. While there are not many tricks to perform the system is responsive and combining flips with grabs feels great to pull off. This game would benefit from a few more moves to pull but the whole game suffers from lack of content. There are also very few opportunities to attempt tricks due to the blandness of the levels. Players need to learn the courses and get creative to carve out trick spaces. The trick system suits the arcade style of the overall gameplay.
This game will disappoint snowboarding fans looking for a long challenge, while pleasing arcade fans looking for excitement mixed with pick up an play action. It is a tale of what if for this title, maybe more development time may have helped but is certainly worth a play.
1080° Snowboarding – Nintendo 64 – February 1998
Hot on the heels of Steep Slope Sliders, 1080° Snowboarding was developed in house by Nintendo’s EAD division. The game was a new franchise for Nintendo and was one of the first attempts to bring more realism to their catalogue of mostly cute and colourful games. It showcased great graphics and snow effects with slick presentation. The intro is engaging with a rock guitar theme but lacks the in your face attitude seen in Cool Boarders 2. The developers took full advantage of the Nintendo 64’s additional memory to create realistic powder effects. There are few instances of slowdown however, mostly when lots of trees are on screen. This does not spoil the game though, as any slowdown only lasts a few seconds before getting back to normal. Players will get a real feel being on snow due to the responsive controls courtesy of the precise analogue stick.
so what is it all about?
1080° Snowboarding splits racing and trick scoring right down the middle. Players can choose to either compete in a race competition or aim for a high score in the trick mode. Courses are unlocked by completing the main racing mode of which there are three difficulties, each one adding an additional track. The races consist of the player versus one of the other boarders that they face one after the other. There is no advantage to pulling tricks during the races but the tracks are well laid out vary in style. Choosing the trick mode allows players to test their skills on any unlocked course. Points can be gained anywhere, unlike the designated trick areas of Cool Boarders 2, which takes the pressure off having to remember course layouts.
With only the additional halfpipe and big air areas content is a little thin on the ground here. But what this game lacks in content it makes up for in great racing and presentation. There are a handful of unlockable snowboards and characters to unlock that are superior to the standard ones. The boarders themselves have some personality and their own unique style to mix gameplay up. 1080° Snowboarding keeps things streamlined without fuss and is the perfect snowboarding game for casual players of the genre.
This an area where 1080° Snowboarding struggles. The trick system is very basic and once mastered offers very little in variety. Players hold the jump button to load up their trick and use the many ramps to launch themselves. Once airborne rotations or grabs can be performed although not at the same time. Perfect if you just want to able to perform basic maneuvers that require little learning but some skill to execute. Experienced players can aim to pull off the mighty 1080° rotation for maximum points while throwing in a grab or two afterwards. But that is about it, the trick system is shallow and easy to master. It amounts to stacking up tricks one after another making sure to finish each one before you land. It will not take a lot of practice to get to grips to with the tricks.
The simple nature of this game is a big plus while also being its biggest flaw. This should not put anyone off however, solid graphics, sound and responsive controls really make up for the lack of depth or content. Definitely the best snowboarding game on the Nintendo 64 with a decent two player mode to match. Every Nintendo 64 owner will get something from this title.
So who is King of the Mountain?
All three of these snowboarding exclusives have their charms and their problems. Cool Boarders is deep but buggy in places. It is a real challenge but may be hard for casual players. Steep Slope Sliders is half a game but a real thrill ride. It is very shallow in gameplay but offers an arcade experience. 1080° looks gorgeous but fails to combine all its elements. It is accessible to everyone but ends all too quick.
Whichever one players have as their favourite one thing is for sure. The height of the Snowboard craze lead to some unique snowboarding video games. These exclusives helped stoke the console war fires of the late 1990’s and each one deserves their place as flagship games of the genre.