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Dave’s Best of the The Best, 2000s edition:
This is an ongoing series of brief, retrospective capsules of the biggest, most hyped, beloved, terrible, wonderful, miserable, and all other types of hyperbolic adjectives that describe the games of the NES era (1984-) of gaming.
Few games, across all genres, had the impact that Tony Hawk’s Pro-Skater had on the first five years of the 2000’s. There were there obvious skateboard clones, but other extreme/action sports had games created to cash in on the craze. Some of these were among the worst ever made (Chris Edwards Aggressive Inline, SKATE, Grind Session) and maybe no genre produces more awful games than the snowboarding genre.
I remember when the original SSX came out I was so reluctant to play it, regardless of the reviews, because it just didn’t seem possible that a snowboarding game could be competently made, let alone fun. When I finally got around to playing the game, the controls were so reactive and natural, I was surprised this was a first try for the line. The trick system was fun, clever, and had a competent learning curve that rewarded skill and experience. The, after playing the Elysium Alps level, one of the single best race courses-of any game- I have ever played, I was sold on the title. SSX had some flaws (too short, not as focused in specifics) yet it was tremendous fun and one of the must own titles for the PS2.
When SSX 3 came out in 2003, it was after another very famous 3rd installment in video games from two years earlier: Grand Theft Auto 3. While we will get back to the GTA series at a later date, it’s very hard to downplay the effect Rockstar's sandbox style play had on the gaming world. For the narrow minded, they saw the game as a beacon of bad taste and violent tendencies in the next generation; even a high up at Nintendo remarked something along the lines of, “You’ll never see Mario kill a hooker.”
For those with a more industrious sensibility, their reaction was a positive, they realized anything could happen and worlds, well they still had boundaries, but for the first time, those boundaries looked a lot further in the distance. Great designers realized what a new freedom of possibilities meant and instead being limited to levels, courses, and maps, creators could now invent cities, oceans, and worlds.
SSX 3 was the sandbox version of a snowboarding game, and that was what made the game the best surfboarding game ever, and maybe even the best action sports game ever, topping even THPS 2 or 4. This was not just a racing game with preset courses and a menu system; this was a full blown, oh my god, living breathing mountain. A ride from the highest peak to the base of the mountain can take 30 minutes--- a half an hour on just exploring. This was the menu system (albeit there was still a start menu where shortcuts could be taken) but if the player wanted to get to a race, they had to navigate the trails and read the sign posts. Not only is this a wonderfully inventing and immersive way to get to levels (like Mario 64) but this is a virtual rendition of the actual experience of skiing or snowboarding; maps have to be read and one has to navigate to a run before they actually go down it. Aside from the not-based-in-reality physics, this was the first game to replicate the Ski/Snowboard experience.
I think the biggest issue that most action sports games face is the same that happens in racing games: they are too often one type of subset of the genre or the other; they are realistic or they are over the top; and whatever side the game excels in, it lacks in the other. Mario Kart is not as realistic as Gran Turismo, but Mario Kart is leaps and bounds more fun than Gran Turismo in multiplayer. And with the winter sports genre, the game is either trick heavy or it’s a racer. What is the better style of game? It’s all opinion, but in SSX there is no such issue, it’s technical and it has such a high “fun factor” it can easily suck in beginners. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet until SSX developers treated it as such, and in SSX 3, EA BIG found the perfect balance.
In order to move fast enough to compete in the races, the player needs to use their boost bar. In order to fill the boost bar, players can either punch out an opposing racer or get a power up (%10 of the time) or players can perform tricks. The game forces the player to perform tricks to race, and in order to build tricks and get to trick based sections of the mountain, a certain competency is needed as a racer. It’s a great learning curve, one that allows a player to go with their strengths but forces them to be become a rounded player in the process.
As perfectly as it strikes the balance between tricks and speed, that half and half is itself merely %50 of the equation. I mentioned GTA3 and sandbox games because the core of the gameplay in SSX 3 is exploration. Its one part perfectly tuned snowboard game, one part adventure. This game has so many hidden paths, Easter eggs, and bonus items it would take close to 100 hours to find them all. The heart of SSX 3, however, is where it should be, in the game play. The course designs are masterful, with thousand foot crevasses, wild winter snowstorms, looping backwoods trails, massive ramps exceeded only by cliffs, are so marvelous and so balanced, I am hard pressed to find a game where I sometimes enjoyed playing the game for the scenery itself. As in the balance attained with the style, SSX 3 is the more rewarding the better one gets as a player. Parts of the mountain open up, tricks are unlocked, new items can be purchased (via in game money, not online shops… how quaint, huh) as they become unlocked from skill competition. And the races are challenging, it takes a combination of luck and finesse to win some of the expert level races, and it feels like an earned achievement, not merely a stepping stone to the flashier sections.
SSX 3 is a game built from the ground up, both technically and from a creative design standpoint, and it feels like a complete work from a developer who finally realized where they could expand to and had the budget and backing to get it done. It’s like a TV series getting the creative peak of its writers and actors at the same time; it’s like the movie sequel that takes everything laid from the original and expands in such a way that it raises the bar for the genre, i.e. Spiderman 2 or Empire Strikes Back. This was a game that was so good people who couldn’t even imagine playing a snowboarding game were playing it over and over again.
My lasting impression of the game ties into my final impression when I moved on to another game; I remember when I finally had unlocked everything, found the side paths, tricks and hidden items, and no longer could do anything new within the game. I tried for a while to replicate the experience, but eventually I knew I had maxed out the game and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. While doing research for this piece, I started watching speed runs and point accumulation videos on Youtube, I am awash in nostalgia for the mountain itself, and am less impressed by the feats of the poster than I am of the work EA BIG put into their game. I miss playing this game, and I wish I could experience it for the first time again.
That is a true mark of a great game.