Thursday, 6 January 2011

Frozen Winter Shit - A look back at SSX

As the weather grows even colder and more bleak than a BioWare sex scene, winter is well and truly upon us. The dense, sweaty musk that constitutes the bulk of the atmosphere in local game shops becomes almost as much of a respite from the bitter snowy conditions as it is a repellent to the senses; wayward mothers and clusters of grandparents blocking up the aisles whilst becoming infinitely puzzled over whether or not the Wii could actually fit inside one of the tiny point of sale display boxes on the shelves.

Snow has never held a vast appeal for me; it tends to arrive in my vicinity in nothing more than a light smattering. This, of course, usually happens to be precisely sufficient an amount to bring a halt to potentially entertaining events and make the streets mildly treacherous, whilst manifesting none of the fun, projectile-based qualities associated with the stuff. If there is one positive aspect of snow for me to draw on, it is without a doubt the fact that it never fails to put me in the mood to revisit an old friend – Snowboard Supercross, better known as SSX.

It was just over 10 years ago that my then oven-fresh PS2 came to me with the proposition: How did I feel about hanging out with some wildly-eccentric snowboard enthusiasts, exploring intense and exhilarating mountainside courses all over the world, and pulling off a few tricks and jumps? Oh, and grandmaster beatboxer Rahzel would be dropping by to curate the whole affair, sprinkling some light commentary onto proceedings.

For those of you unfamiliar with the games, SSX was the headlining franchise published under the 'EA Sports BIG' label, featuring games grounded in their real life sporting counterparts, but with a distinctively arcade twist. With SSX this twist came in the form of being able to soar hundreds of feet into the air and perform tricks that made Tony Hawk look like Tony Hawk: Shred. The first in the series hit during the PS2's infancy, and for many gamers like myself it genuinely captured a sense of what that generation of gaming would actually be able to offer us.

Tantalising previews featured screenshots and videos depicting huge and richly detailed courses lovingly carved out of colossal mountains, resplendent with fireworks and cheering crowds. It's fair to say that the tracks on display wouldn't have been out of place in the WipeOut series, but the sense of scale and complexity here wasn't quite like anything I'd witnessed on a console before. I was immediately hooked – Cool Boarders had made snowboarding vaguely appealing if not quite cool beforehand, but this took it to the next level. It was to my vast relief that the full game was as much fun to play and experience as it was to behold and admire from afar.

The key to the experience offered by the game was the sheer sense of speed it managed to convey; you weren't merely being propelled forwards because it was downhill, you were hurling yourself down sharp, vertical twists and corners, daring yourself to use the boost. Tracks were designed in such a way that you were confident the course would naturally deliver you to the finish line, but at the same time provided ample opportunity for you to challenge yourself and find the faster, more dangerous routes open to you.

With the aforementioned Rahzel on hand to offer the occasional invaluable insight (“You gotta trick to boost!”), SSX was more than well looked after in the sound department. Here was a soundtrack that can only be described as blissfully non-intrusive; ambient yet subtly effective – also, a collectors item, in the sense that this was an EA game that didn't feature tracks that might excite boardroom executives but didn't quite make it onto whichever American Pie film was being made at the time.

Everything about the game served to highlight the sensation of being 200ft in the air, upside down, with the sunlight caressing the peaks of distant mountains on the horizon, offering you a perfect split second of quiet reflection and contemplation. This direction is adequately captured by the way in which the accompanying music is skilfully dialled down accordingly to match your altitude and situation; those soft, energetic beats will kick back in as soon as you touch powder and stop holding your breath. Such clever juxtaposition with the frantic pace of your time spent on the ground meant that the whole experience was about as close as interactive entertainment could come to matching the real sensation of this winter wonderland. A bit like The Snowman if the little boy was Vin Diesel instead.

With SSX already such a competent entry in anyone’s burgeoning PS2 collection, few anticipated that things could improve so quickly. In 2001, EA evidently decided that as good as SSX was, it didn't have enough celebrity voice talent or Run DMC in it. Thus, SSX Tricky came to be, an odd sequel/remake hybrid that kept the core of the original intact with a few tweaks to certain aspects. As well as alterations to the courses, the cast of characters was shaken up, and each was given the supposed benefit of people like David Arquette, Lucy Liu and Macy Gray using their special celebrity voices. You'd be forgiven for failing to notice this, given the amount of dialogue typically heard in a play session amounts to 'Woooooooooooooooooo-YEAH!'.

The rivalry system was emphasised a little more, and new characters like monster-twat Psymon Stark were introduced, to ensure favourites like the tiny ball of sheer happiness that is Kaori had something to genuinely fear in his sinister cocaine eyes and Stella Artois vest. All in all, the roster now stood at a healthy 12, and in fairness each of them did an adequate job of offering unique personalities and characteristics, as opposed to 12 guys and girls from L.A in the latest ski suits and stylish hats. These glossy improvements to the game were mere icing, however, on the rich, moist cake that is the Uber Trick.

It was a delightfully simple concept, and one so suited to the mechanics and overall style of the game that it alone would have elevated Tricky far above it's prequel. By performing tricks and filling up the boost bar, you had the opportunity to pull off an Uber Trick; crank out 6 to spell out TRICKY and you're rewarded with infinite boost. If the previously existing tricks were exaggerated and implausible, then these were deep into Michael Bay territory. They ranged from tricks more associated with the skateboard to the downright ludicrous – the best part was that each character had their own unique uber Uber trick to witness. In fitting with the speed and accessibility of the gameplay, the tricks weren't physically difficult to initiate, but it was largely a case of 'Do I have sufficiently big air to swing the board around my neck like a helicopter before I land?'

Those of you reading this and tracking the history of SSX like an initially talented, exciting rock band who inevitably succumbed to numerous influences and issues before a lengthy period of inactivity and irrelevance, you might be interested to know that I consider this point to be the peak in the series. The combination of memorable characters and tightly designed, individual tracks meant that Tricky was as fun to play in solitude as it was with a buddy by your side - simple, offline gaming at its challenging and competitive best. Part 2 will concern itself with the direction SSX took in 2003, and muse upon why the fuck we're only just now hearing about a new instalment.

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