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What’s the best racing game in the N64? Mario Kart? F-Zero? Wipeout, even? No. The best racing game on the N64 was and always will be a relatively obscure cartoon snowboarder from the publisher of Dark Souls and Persona.
When I first discovered it via a TGS preview in an old issue of Super Play, Snowboard Kids didn’t sound great. It looked pretty and had a likable demeanor, but early word from the show floor was that it controlled like an absolute dog. In particular, one of those dogs that’s missing its back legs and has had them replaced with a set of wheels. And recently has misplaced one of the wheels.
Given that Snowboard Kids came out in late 1997, the criticism was one that was all too common and plausible. In that first year of the N64, developers were still getting to grips with that weird alien protrusion in the middle of the old pitchfork pad, and plenty of studios outside of Nintendo were making aright old pig’s ear of it. Damn shame, because in all other respects, Snowboard Kids looked brilliant. I was sad.
But then something fantastic happened. It turned out a few months later that Snowboard Kids was actually brilliant through and through. Its controls weren’t crap at all. In fact the thing was that they actually so good and so innovative that no-one knew how to use them properly at first. Rather than fluffing the job, developer Racdym had actually nailed analogue control better than anyone has or since in a game of this type. Rather than just pulling left and right–which doesn’t do much--you actually have to pull back on the stick to make tight turns, simulating the feel of angling a pivoting plank of wood rocketing down an icy slope. It’s tactile and instinctive as Hell.
In fact it’s so good a control scheme that it staggers me that no-one has lifted it for a downhill racing game since. I still to this day find myself surprised and confused when pulling SK’s trademark arcane wiggling provides me with a great deal of bugger all in my beloved SSX. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time for an overview.
Snowboard Kids is basically Mario Kart meets SSX. It has all the inventive, theme park track design of EA Big’s original set of slope sliders, as well as the chunky accessibility and gleeful, well-balanced weapon cruelty of MK. Oh, and an upbeat, synthy soundtrack to die for. One of the absolute best of the era in fact.
It’s a game with even less concession to reality than SSX. Where offencive play there is limited to the odd bump and push at close range, in Snowboard Kids the right pick-up will see you hurling ice to freeze your rivals on the spot. Or turning them into snowmen in order to lock their steering. Or attaching parachutes to them and sending them up into the air for a damnably frustrating, slow descent (brutal if used just as your target reaches a high jump). Or, most notoriously of all, you can hammer everyone on the track with a downpour of mental pans, known colloquially as The Spammer. No-one likes The Spammer. Except the person using The Spammer. They love The Spammer. Because it’s brilliant.
And as silly as these weapons sound, they’re all perfectly balanced and contain fathoms of tactical depth. The snowman, for instance, is useless on straights but savage when a banked turn will send your prey high up the wall for an unwanted half-pipe excursion. The freezing shot is brilliant for killing momentum at the edge of a do-or-die jump. Ditto The Spammer when an opponent is in mid-air over a deadly chasm. It’s no exaggeration to say that Snowboard Kids’ weapon set is better, smarter, and containing of far more spiteful creative potential than Mario Kart’s has ever been. Especially if you save something for the end of each lap.
Yeah, madly, brilliantly, Snowboard Kids has a lap system. You get to the bottom of the mountain, you surf into the ski lift, you go back up for another run. Entire races are won or lost at that ski lift entrance, and smart players will make their entire run with that battle in mind. Only one person can enter at a time, you see, and there’s a rigid time-lock between the gate closing and opening again.
The scuffle for first dibs is a brutal, respect-free brawl, which can be fantastically subverted by a smart player holding back and nullifying the combatants with a long-range volley of ordinance. You can easily make up three places just in the last few metres of a lap, and Snowboard Kids accommodates that recurring set-piece beautifully as a core element of its gameplay.
That’s Snowboard Kids all over. A game that looks like a simple cobbling together of stock ideas, but with on every level, from control to the whole damn game structure, doesn’t give a crap how you think things should work and makes up madder, better and far cleverer alternatives every step of the way.
Looking for stuff to play outside of the stuff we already tell you to play on a daily basis? You're in luck! Every Saturday we'll recommend an older game for you to check out, complete with a story on how we found the game and why we recommend you play it.