N64th Street

Snowboard Kids

Posted by: Kevin C. on: January 15, 2013

Atlus had a pretty rough go at the western market for years. They had a few solid releases here and there- Rockin’ Kats and the Strider clone Run Saber definitely come to mind- but they didn’t exactly hit stride in the west until at least 2005. Between Etrian Odyssey, Persona/Shin Megami Tensei (aka Megaten), and Demon’s Souls, they’ve officially gotten some serious name recognition among nerds. But in early 1998, they were about as much of a cultural institution as Jack Black was at roughly that exact same time.

119322-jack-bros-virtual-boy-screenshot-choose-your-favorite-jackAtlus’ mascot Jack Frost was somehow even less of a cultural institution in the West at the time, despite
his 1995 debut outside of Japan in the Virtual Boy maze ’em up, Jack Bros. I can’t imagine why.

Although today Atlus is more associated  with RPG’s than anything else, there’s been a surprising breadth of genres that they’ve either developed or published or both. Fighting, jigsaw puzzles, platformers, car sports , whatever that NES Karate Kid game would be defined as… overall, a fairly good mix for a company that primarily focuses on games featuring battling with or against famous demons. And occasionally Hitler. The quality of their non-RPG output has been usually universally considered to be specifically either very bad or rather good, if reviews are anything to go by. So Snowboard Kids has at least a 50% chance of being good, right?

introIt definitely has a 100% chance of having characters whose noses are either ball-shaped
or extremely phallic, if the title screen is any accurate indication.

Thankfully, it is! It’s snowboarding, and it features kids, so it’s undeniably a game that completely delivers on its title. Snowboarding as a sport was at its Winter X-games popularity height around the mid-90’s, and SK set out to capitalize on the craze much as 1080 Snowboarding and Twisted Edge did not long after. Unlike those two games, though, SK is much more cute, fun, and what we used to call Japanese-y than it is any sort of attempt at photorealistic. And that’s great, because I’m pretty sure it’s going to age much more gracefully than those two ever will. The characters still hold up today, and the courses are often equally as appealing. I’m not sure how appreciated any of it was at the time of the game’s release given that realistic graphics were often strongly favored in the West, but its simple and stylized aesthetics would likely be viewed through a totally different (and far more welcoming) set of standards today. Remember, this game was 5 years before people went crazy on Nintendo for daring to make the Zelda series look like a cartoon in Wind Waker, so there was still a long way to go in terms of  Western gamers (or Americans, at least) accepting things that weren’t  featuring only dudes with rendered scruffy beards and well-oiled muscle-y biceps.

shopThis may sound crazy in today’s more accepting and integrated society, but in 1997 the idea
of an obese dog being a shopkeeper was considered fairly implausible in the West,
despite being a relatively common occurrence elsewhere in the world.

So what of the game itself? If you’ve read absolutely anything in history ever written about this game, then you’ve probably seen it described as Mario Kart on snowboards. And the reason it gets repeated so often, shockingly, is because it’s exactly what the game is. The physics are loose, there’s tons of items flying about, and there’s a good number of hidden shortcuts.

item2The item picked up in the picture above supposed to be a frying pan, not a giant gold doubloon.

Which isn’t to say that it’s merely a shameless rip.  There are a few interesting changes, much like we saw in Penny Racers. In Snowboard Kids, you collect coins laying on the course as you slide down it, and you  can also collect them by doing tricks over jumps. Coins can be spent on purchasing better boards at the board shop, as well as other little bonuses. But there’s more! Coins are also used to actually purchase items on the course- 100 coins (which is actually one coin on the actual course, or a basic trick over a jump) buys you one random item, meaning you have a reason to possibly not just go for every item box you can. In another interesting twist have two slots of items, essentially one side for offensive and one side for defensive/personal. One for shells and one for mushrooms, to put things into a Mario Kart context. It works pretty well in practice,  and manages to avoid the overpowered item overload seen in more recent Mario Kart titles. It does have a superpower item, the frying pan seen above that flattens all of your opponents, and it’s often handed out to the dude in last place much like the lightning bolt in Kart. But it still manages to not be too awful, mostly as it isn’t going to result in an instant catapult to first place unless it’s a photo finish kind of situation.

frying2It still kind of looks more like a classy pie tin that a frying pan, honestly.

This is, in part, because the opponents generally don’t all cluster together. One of the big frustrations in certain other racing games (such as Road Rash) is that a large number of opponents would all be in a dead heat for first place- meaning that if you were in first but got attacked or otherwise slowed down while near the finish line, you would likely find yourself going from a first place finish to an 8th place finish in less than half a second. Snowboard Kids doesn’t have this infuriating problem, in part because there’s only 3 opponents and in part because the rubber banding is fairly forgiving. It’s still very difficult to place first on some of the later courses unless you get the aforementioned upgrades from coin collecting, and it seems that the game’s rubber banding only slows down the opponent that’s in the place ahead of you. In other words, you can be in third place trying to pass the guy in second; meanwhile the guy in first is tearing along the course at full speed, making it that much harder to catch up to him later. Since the game only does single races as opposed to Mario Kart style cups of  several races, I assume this challenge is very much deliberate since the game could otherwise be completed extremely quickly.

Also challenging is the fact that snowboarding fast is a product of momentum and gravity, and if you get knocked down onto a non-downhill surface, you’re basically screwed until you get to a slope. Computer opponents don’t really have this problem, though, as seen here:

slowbo2It seems unfair how much faster my opponent was able to get up and speed ahead than I could,
but I suppose it’s possible he used Crisco instead of board wax before this race through a theme park.

Challenge like this will likely continue to be a running theme during this project- the deliberate padding out of games that are otherwise short with questionably fair levels of challenge, in order to both keep people from beating games they’ve only rented and in order to make you (or your parents) feel better about the entertainment value of a $60 purchase. Although not a new practice, this was definitely around the time when both RPGs and non-RPGs alike were getting much longer and much more complex than they had been in the previous console generations. After games like Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII, players began to expect games to have 30+ hours of gameplay in its single player, regardless of if it made sense. For one example, I seem to remember a total shitstorm about Parasite Eve being a Square game that only took about 10 hours to complete; completely ignoring the fact that it honestly might have suffered from being much longer than it already was. Nowadays, online multiplayer tends to be an acceptable excuse for brevity in single player, but it certainly wasn’t back in the days when AOL was still a relevant internet service.

sphin2xI think this is my favorite appearance of a Sphinx so far, though.
I need to start keeping track of these desert level prerequisites.

Despite this somewhat lopsided challenge, I still found myself playing courses over and over to try and beat the system. This is in part because the courses were just so darn appealing- it’s not just the generic ski resorts of most snowboarding games. There are those, of course, but there’s also such as a nifty desert level, a grass level, an amusement park, and one that goes through an ancient Japanese village. Because of the game’s sillier undertones, none of these feel the least bit weird or thematically inappropriate in context. And since they’re so unique within the snowboarding genre, it’s easy to look past the fact that Egypt-y desert levels and flowery grass levels are the just about the most generic themes possible other than snow itself. That’s not to say that they simply coast on their novelty- they’re still well put together, full of nifty setpieces, and rarely contain too many cheap sections such as easy-to-fall-off edges or unpredictable course hazards. I have a feeling that this kind of thoughtful design is going to be not nearly as common in other N64 snowboarding titles that I’ve yet to play, but who knows! Maybe they’ll be just as much of a pleasant surprise.

japan2Missing this out-of-nowhere turn and smashing into the unsuspecting audience
as a result probably won’t be such a pleasant surprise, however, at least for them.

In fact, “pleasantly surprising” is probably the best way to succinctly describe Snowboard Kids.  Its fun gameplay, appealing theme and style, and generally good course design make it an easy recommend despite being slightly more expensive than most other games (especially snowboarding ones) on the system. It also manages to strike the rare balance of being somewhat unfair in its challenge, but rarely so much so that it puts off the player. All in all, it’s one of the most unexpectedly good games I’ve played for this project to date, and definitely worth checking out for snowboarding fans and fans of non-realistic racing games alike.

Squeeze It or Freeze It?
 Squeeze it and keep it warm if you want a fun, unrealistic snowboarder that’s a bit more charming than, say, SSX.
Freeze it and toss it down a snowy hill if you can’t stand bright colors, or get angry even just thinking about using snowboards on grass.

BONUS TIME:

As any longtime gamer knows, Japanese games had a pretty rocky history in the 80s and 90s in terms of the quality of their English translation and localization. After the success of games like Final Fantasy VII, we began to see more Japanese companies finally having enough money to afford giving their titles a good translation and localization for Western audiences. But it wasn’t until after a breakout hit like FFVII, itself suffering from a fairly awful translation, that they could afford it. Atlus had no such hits up to this point, and thus Snowboard Kids is still worlds away from the sublime translation we expect today from Atlus; such as the ones seen in the more recent entries in the Persona series. No, like many small/medium-ish Japanese developers, they could generally only afford a translation that ranked somewhere between “abhorrent” and “below mediocre.”

Since Snowboard Kids isn’t an RPG, its amount of text is relatively minimal. As a result, it’s actually textually decent… in the game’s menu, at least. Once you get into the game’s courses, you’ll start to see a whole bunch of this:

snobowsnobow

Snobow. Snobow everywhere. Snobow Kids is the Japanese name of the game. This obviously means that while they translated the script, they didn’t actually  localize any of the graphics outside of the background in the menu. Since it’s purely aesthetic, it’s hard to care too much. But it’s something you’ll be seeing a LOT of in this game, not just once or twice; arguably, you’ll see it more often than almost any of the other text in the game.  As a result, it’s hard to deny that it’s a bit jarring. Also, although I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of the Megaten series in general, I have a pretty soft spot for Persona titles other than the first. So, I tried to do some digging in Snowboard Kids to see if Atlus slipped in any references. One that seemed obvious was the inclusion of Jack Frost, given he is Atlus’ mascot and all. However, while he is sort of included, it’s simply as the name of a generic blue snowboard design with a tiny snowman on one side and “Snobow Kids” on the other.

jackfroCan you spot the dude from the first picture in this article on this board?

I loaded up the Japanese rom in an emulator to see if perhaps the tiny snowman was in fact regular ol’ Jack Frost in that territory, but no! It reads “Ao yukidaruma,” or “blue snowman”. Aside from that, I couldn’t find anything that was undeniably a reference to other titles in the Atlas oeuvre. But perhaps one of the other board designs are? Take a look:

Anyone? Dead Zone seems likely since it’s so out of place, but I can find nothing to back that up.

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