Christmas has come and gone. We’re now into a shiny new year, and into the second month at that. However, it is still cold. Heck, depending on your locale, there could still be a serious amount of snow on the ground.
Snow, sports, and games are a natural combination. Over the years, we’ve carved up the snow across all the major platforms, using a multitude of apparel. Let’s take a quick look at the history of winter sports in gaming.
SkiFree is one of the first games I remember playing. Originally released in 1991 as part of Microsoft Entertainment Pack 3, SkiFree features a man, skiing down a slope adorned with colored slalom gates. You’re tasked with skiing through the slalom gates in the most efficient manner possible while attempting to escape the oncoming advances of the Abominable Snow Monster.
The game almost wasn’t. SkiFree began as a home education project for then-Microsoft programmer Chris Pirih. He was spotted playing it in the office, and was asked to include it in the upcoming entertainment package. Thankfully, Chris has repacked SkiFree to work with modern Win32 systems, meaning you can play without using an emulator, or installing Windows 3.1 in a virtual machine.
Winter Olympics: Lillehammer ’94
The official game of the XVII Olympic Winter Games remains an excellent representation of the premier winter sports event. Lillehammer ’94 featured on a huge range of devices from the period: PC, Amiga, Sega Genesis, Master System, and Game Gear, as well as the SNES and Game Boy. Furthermore, it comes with ten actual events to play through, across three game modes.
Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating. Lillehammer ’94 might not be the best representation out there, but it was certainly fun, if only for its quirks and amusing crash screens. The game is now considered abandonware, and can be downloaded and played for free.
1080° Snowboarding isn’t the beginning of winter sports in video games. There were several good games, but 1080° Snowboarding marked the beginning of something really exciting. 1080° Snowboarding makes amazing use of the N64’s 64-bit CPU, presenting one of the first snowboarding experiences where snow behaved like actual snow.
1080° Snowboarding represented a significant blow in the PlayStation vs Nintendo wars of the 90s. Don’t get me wrong: Cool Borders 2 and 3 were excellent titles, but 1080°’s streamlined racing and groundbreaking physics engine keep it just ahead of the PS1 titles.
Cool Borders 2
I have to pay a slight homage to this almost-equally amazing title. The levels were longer, with an extensive trick repository. Cool Borders 2 introduced trick-competitions with computer-controlled competitors, as well as customizable snowboards and more. However, the actual control of the snowboard had no relation to the snow — or so it felt — while 1080° Snowboarding had a newfound realism.
SnoCross falls outside the traditional bounds of winter sports. However, a sport it is, and it can be extremely competitive. And as with any great sport, there have been numerous attempts to recreate SnoCross energy, speed, and style in a video game. 1999 brought Sled Storm to our PS1s. As one of the first ever snowmobile racing games, it was extremely well-received, featuring unlockable riders and snowmobiles, as well as a litany of tricks to be performed mid-race.
Sled Storm performed well, prompting a follow up for the PS2, also called Sled Storm. However, it had morphed from its snowmobile racing origins into a face-paced, over-the-top racing game filled with power-up gimmicks. Obviously influenced by the success of the amazing SSX series, Sled Storm PS2 didn’t feel new, rather just an iteration of the same product done bigger and faster.
SSX Tricky and SSX 3
Go ahead, say I’ve copped out. The SSX series was amazing, all brilliant for different reasons. But choosing between these two was nigh impossible. SSX Tricky was amazing, introducing bombastic characters alongside a wonderful soundtrack complete with voice acting from Lucy Liu and Rahzel. Tricky really epitomized arcade snowboarding at the turn of the millennium.
Flash-forward two years, and you have SSX 3. SSX 3 was outrageously good fun, building on the success of Tricky and ultimately laying the foundation for open world games like Skate and Steep. SSX 3 arrived with improved graphics, another killer soundtrack, and a game world that seemed to continue forever. As well as this, SSX 3 introduced control over which “Uber” tricks your character would use, on top of other unlockable and customizable content.
Okay, I’m gushing, but at the time it really was an experience like no other!
I’d love to say Torino 2006 picked up where Lillehammer ’94 signed off, but I’d be lying. 12 years is a significant time, especially in gaming. Graphics, attention to detail, and importantly, the engine powering the game had all improved. The advances in technology are clear in other areas, too. You can play as one of 24 nations, across six venues modeled after their real-world counterparts. Furthermore, each event has its own commentary, available in a range of languages.
Stoked and Shaun White Snowboarding
Stoked had open-world, multi-mountain, multi-competitor trick competitions and real-world sponsors. Shaun White Snowboarding had snow that carved nicely, excellent animations that correlated to actual tricks (but still featured Tony Hawks 2-esque trick-combos), and a more evident focus on realism. However, despite what I’ve said, they weren’t polar opposites.
Shaun White Snowboarding was released to lukewarm reviews. It also earned some unwanted awards, such as the “Most Dubious Use of In-Game Advertising” after it excluded game-content from copies not bought in a Target store. Conversely, Stoked caught people by surprise. It eschewed the sometimes-over-the-top arcade style found in other extreme sports games, and added neat details like snow particle effects alongside challenging single-player events.
Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games
2009 really was a great time for winter sport games. Not only did we have Stoked and Shaun White Snowboarding, but Mario and Sonic teamed up to deliver a surprisingly engaging and entertaining game.
The mashup is actually IOC-sponsored, and features more than 10 individual events, as well as variations and “dream events.” The gameplay is as you might expect: full of power-ups, ridiculous stunts, and some insane level designs. However, don’t let that fool you. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games can be surprisingly competitive, and makes for a great multiplayer party game.
Steep is the latest and greatest entry to the world of winter sports video games. And what a beautiful experience it is. Playing on ultra, with my GTX 1070 (a little Christmas present to myself), is an utter delight. That said, you don’t need a top-tier GPU to enjoy Steep. It scales extremely well, and I had just as much fun blasting down the slopes using my GTX 660TI.
The onus is on player choice. You’ll be switching between snowboard, skis, wingsuit, or paraglide, competing in a persistent online version of The Alps. Furthermore, the range of activities is significant. Find your freestyle trick game is a little off? Do some wingsuit racing instead. Keep losing a race? Follow the “Mountain Storyline” instead. Each event comes with awards, as does each bone-crunching bail. Mastering the controls can be tricky, but the reward for persistence is significant.
In a word, Steep is cool.
There’s Snow Business
The list has a definite snowboarding slant. The mid-90s up to the current time have been dominated by snowboarding titles. Conversely, Steep has bucked the trend with an emphasis on player choice in a mesmerizing landscape that keeps you looking for the next hidden peak.
What are you favorite winter sport video game picks? What is missing from the list? Let us know your favorites below!