A new, regular feature from our in-house games master, Gale Van Rye, who talks about memorable skiing and winter sports games. This week: Slalom (Arcade, 1986 | Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987).
"The heating's broke — use this" Mum said, holding out an extra blanket. I scowled and let her drop it at my bedside. She'd just interrupted my best run yet through Snowy Hill. I skimmed a mogul off-balance and collided with a tree; the worn, sweat-covered pad slumped down into my lap and I reached for the blanket. It was Christmas '91, four years after the release of Rare's Slalom — and yet it didn't feel old or dated — it felt fresh, fast and fun.
Rareware would later go on to be the famed pixel perfectionists behind Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye. This was their first NES game, yet it played like they were aging pros. It pushed the limit of the NES to the edge, their coding trickery producing the kind of the 3D effects that would not look out of place on Nintendo's follow-up console, the SNES.
It was quick, too. And not just in the computing sense, but in the way that it immediately immersed you from the second your left thumb pressed Up on the d-pad and you ramped up the pace. The slopes either side of you would zip by as you carved the mountain, with the pixilated backdrop range swaying gently in distance. It was that quality of immersion that kept you hooked. Time after time you'd come back, convincing yourself that this time you'll land every jump and add digits to your highscore.
Perhaps it was the satisfaction of whizzing off a mogul, pulling back a trick and then landing gracefully whilst still flying along at full speed that was the biggest pull. Or perhaps it was that despite crashing into the snow after clashing with a sledder, the delay before being back up to top speed isn't long enough to frustrate you into quitting.
It sounds like rose-tinted nostalgia, yet, it still stands proud today. I found myself immediately obsessed again and surprisingly impressed by its ability to captivate me. Since the release of the iPhone, the bedroom programmers are king again. Short, fun games that aren't graphically-obsessed are the ones making all the money. Slalom would hook you in an instant were it on the App Store.
I couldn't go without mentioning the music, either. In those days every bit of data was essential and music had to be crammed in. The skill was to compose something short but that could repeat for long periods of time without sounding annoying. You get sick of repetitive blips and beeps eventually, but Slalom's music was pleasing on the ear, suited the gameplay and helped to draw you in.
Perhaps Slalom's downfall was the inability to save your scores on the NES. It meant lots of scribbling down scores on some paper next to the console. Naturally, you'd need an independent verifier to confirm the score at the time of completion to prevent arguments, as in those days cheating was rife. I still can't help but think of Slalom at Christmas time. Now, where's that blanket?
Images via nestimes.net