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A new, regular feature from our in-house games master, Gale Van Rye, who talks about memorable skiing and winter sports games. This week: 1080 Snowboarding (N64, 1998).
In 1998, the PlayStation and N64 were just hitting their stride. Games weren't just developed by a nerd alone in a bedroom anymore, instead they were made by big groups of nerds — in actual offices. And it wasn't just nerds playing the games either, but also normal human beings.
The PlayStation already boasted Cool Boarders by this point, the first half-playable, full-3D snowboarding game. However, a rushed development cycle to release before the winter meant although an impressive start, it suffered from a lot of gameplay frustrations. Enter Nintendo, struggling to bring in third party developers and needing to fill the winter sports gap for the N64, they decided to make 1080 themselves.
Nintendo were known for cutesy classics, not beautifully-rendered, realistic, extreme sports games with heavy soundtracks. Yet, 1080 stood over its peers for the entire remainder of its generation.
You remember the details — your baggy hoodie rippling in the wind, stretching out your hand to balance on the ice patch whilst the orange sun sets behind the looming peak in the distance. Nintendo paid attention to the feel and it paid off.
1080 was tough — there's no question about that — landing a trick took practice, whilst falls and crashes were punishing. Yet, the game was rewarding after you mounted the steep learning curve. As you got better, the carving felt better. Finding the best shortcut downhill, then pulling off a stalefish 1080 on the final jump and landing with perfection was well worth the blistered thumbs.
Backed by Tommy Hilfiger and Lamar in-game gear, Nintendo released 1080 Snowboarding in 1998 to consistently high critical acclaim. It became the benchmark for snowboarding games thereafter and whilst snowboarding games went on to become much prettier and much more successful, the right balance of controls and skill hasn't quite ever been matched.
A new, regular feature from our in-house games master, Gale Van Rye, who talks about memorable skiing and winter sports games. This week: Skiing (Atari 2600, 1980).
"Sacre bleu! And [sic] voilà! It's Skiing by Activision!" These were the words bumbling out of Claude LaFeet's mouth in 1980; his French accent as clumsy as a drunk putting their skis on for the last run down after après ski.
In those days we'd call it naff, thanks to Ronnie Barker (and later, Princess Anne), yet the game wasn't. In fact it was one of the earliest examples of the top-down skiing game style which would be emulated by other developers for the entire next decade. This was Skiing by Activision. "Pop ze cartridge into your Atari Video Computer System..."
The Atari 2600 is the definiton of a classic console. It looked so futuristic in 1977 with its wood veneer finish. It took gaming to the next level after Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey, featuring unforgettable games like Pitfall and Breakout. In fact, it was that Breakout which was famously worked on by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (with Jobs keeping from Woz the bonus payout from Atari!).
Activision's Skiing would come a few years later in 1980. Activision are a huge household name now, with series like Tony Hawk and Call of Duty under their belt. Back in those days though, there were no third party developers. Atari made games for the Atari console, not anybody else. Activision became the first to do it in 1980 and Skiing was one of the very first games they ever released.
Looking back now, it looks all so familiar. Yet it was fairly groundbreaking at the time. The left/right turning worked great on the Atari joystick and allowed last second adjustments just before you hit that tree. The formula would be used in many other games afterwards, including Horrace Goes Skiing (1982) and SkiFree (1991). Chris Pirih, developer of SkiFree would later admit: "[It] was itself inspired by an Activision game for the Atari 2600 console, which I enjoyed playing in my youth. I remember very little of the Activision game, but I think it looked pretty much like SkiFree".
In the same year Phillips would release the less well-remembered (but equally inspiringly named) Skiing on the Videopac (Odyssey 2 in the US). It played very similarly to Activision's Skiing, but lacked the same polish and variety, so as such never claimed itself as the orginal king of the ski games. As Claude would say: "So real you must have it!".
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
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