SSX Blur has the best snow ever. It’s a wintry playground with a new and better distraction around every corner, tucked in tunnels through rumbling glaciers and in the cotton-draped branches of the trees. A world that looks this soft and inviting just begs to be explored. And the way you make your mark on this gleaming white paradise is so satisfyingly ingenious, reality – or, at least, lesser snowboarding games – is always going to come a distant second.
It’s all about swooshing through the powder with elegant swoops of the nunchuk, and gripping for dear life while you try to hold it steady as you rattle across a sheet of bare ice. It’s about launching off a small, blind bump and seeing the world drop away on the other side while you paint tricks in the air with the remote.
This has long been an excellent game series, but Blur makes it seem as if SSX has been waiting for something like the Wii controller to let it really spread its wings. Freed from the constraints of analog sticks, it has a looser, more organic feel than you’ll get from any previous SSX. When the game involves carving across curves of snow that can’t be navigated in a straight line, this is clearly a good thing.
Staying in a straight line is a challenge when you don’t have a central point of reference for the controller. This could be a problem when you’re doing a trick that requires careful balance, like sliding across a thin pipe suspended high in the air, so there’s a touch of joystick thrown in for good measure. Exactly how much is up to you - there’s a slider that governs the balance between stick and nunchuk - so you can tailor it to your own preference.
At the default setting, the stick is used to make minor adjustments to your balance, so you don’t have to rely on trying to guess where the neutral point is on the nunchuk. At the most extreme setting, the stick does all the work and the nunchuk’s motion sensor is disabled. Try it after getting used to the new controls and it doesn’t feel right at all.
So you’re gliding elegantly down the mountain, swanky new steering controls learned, trailing a rooster tail of coldness, when you notice a ramp placed temptingly in the middle of the track. This is when you find another set of controls that bears little resemblance to its joypad-bound forebears.
After getting airborne with an upward jab of the nunchuk or a tap on the Wii remote’s A button, the remote starts recognizing gestures for SSX Blur’s tricks. Swiping it in any direction makes your rider spin and flip accordingly. Press Z and swish the nunchuk, too - you’ll do a neat little grab for some extra points. Build up enough points to fill your groove meter, which is so important that it takes up a huge portion of the right of the screen, and you can do huge über tricks, involving more complex gestures.
The easiest gesture is a rough circle with the remote, which you can do without really thinking about it. The hardest ones use both hands and are like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.
Über tricks are worth zillions of points, so you’ll need to master them if you want to win the game’s slope-style events, which are like downhill races with added stunts thrown in. However, the groove meter is as large, intrusive and un-turnoffable as it is because it also serves as a turbo gauge - you can sacrifice it at any time for a screen-blurring burst of ultra speed. And because it just drains away if you ride for a while without doing decent tricks, you might as well use it, either for a gigantic score or a fast time.
While the groove meter is a new and integral part of the SSX experience, the bulk of the game is actually taken from previous versions. It’s set over three peaks, which eventually combine to form one huge mountain that you can ride from top to bottom. Each peak has branching routes with multiple potential finishing points, and you find the actual races, challenges and tournaments by searching for them on a rambling freeride.
Some parts are clearly signposted, whereas others are harder to spot. Most things that you’ve found can be accessed by pausing the game and warping directly to them via the menu, but there’s always the possibility of missing out on something if you play it that way.
Freeride is also a great way to explore the courses at your own pace, because you travel through the same patches of mountainside used for all the main events. Plus, if you do decide to have a go at one of the mini challenges you encounter - which involve things like getting 55 seconds of air time in a two minute downhill run, or jumping through a certain number of hoops - you get placed back where you were afterwards, ready for some more exploration.
The most substantial challenges are long tournaments that mix and match different types of gameplay - slopestyle, race, slalom and big air. You have to complete these to unlock the best stuff, such as peaks two and three.
Actually, that “complete X to unlock Y” business is our biggest beef with the game. It’s an outdated and annoying system that shouldn’t be part of a game with such a progressive and wonderful control method. When you start out, you have nothing - no gear, a handful of über tricks, only one peak to ride. There’s a huge amount of collecting, exploring and challenging to be done before the game starts to open up, but if you switch to one of the better characters you’ve just unlocked, you have to start all over.
Another complaint is that there isn’t enough feedback in the tournaments to let you know what’s going on and what’s expected of you - the results screens obviously aren’t simplistic enough for fools like us. Oh, and there’s a jump on the Spring Break course we keep messing up so badly that we always land facing uphill. Improving our skills may be the only solution, unless it’s actually just a shoddy piece of track design.
However, SSX Blur is a full-on beast of a game on Wii, and for that we’re prepared to pass over such minor quibbles. Sure, it’s made of spare parts from dead SSX games, and if you’ve played a lot of them in the past then you might be more familiar than you’d want to be with the courses, but we’re glad they did it to this series and not Need for Speed.
With a control system that’s not merely a novelty but is genuinely superb, and unquestionably a more enjoyable way of doing things, there’s still going to be something to interest SSX veterans. Even if you’ve maxed out the older games, you’ll be starting again at the bottom of the learning curve when it comes to new things like the über tricks.
And for everyone else, it’s an excellent combination of races, tricks and exploration that you could lose yourself in for weeks.