By now you should know a little about me. You should know that I’m a lifelong skateboarder and that nothing makes me happier (or annoys me more) than when video games overlap with my extreme sport(s) of choice. So it should come as no surprise when I declare this definitive statement: Snowboarding video games undoubtedly, definitively, and absolutely rule.
I get unreasonably excited when a new snowboarding game is out, and this excitement even beats out my joy when new skateboarding games are shown. This is because I hold skateboarding so close to my heart and hate whenever it is done wrong by way of video games. Snowboarding is very fun, but I hold no real emotional attachment to it. I’ve been snowboarding many times, I’m pretty good at it, I enjoy going off jumps/hitting rails, but it is just a fun way to spend a few days. For some, it is a lifestyle. For me, it is just an energizing drop in the bucket. So I don’t really care if snowboarding games portray the sport realistically or not. Just let me tear ass down a snow-blanketed mountain, hit jumps at unreasonable heights, and I’ll be a happy camper (or boarder, I guess).
My early childhood years were full of snowboarding games—from 1080 Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 to Amped on the Xbox 360, there always seemed to be one or more current games to choose from. And then there was the SSX series which dominated the scene in the early 2000s. I loved SSX but, like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, part of what made that series fun came at the detriment of the specific mode of the sport itself. For me, it leaned too far into arcadiness. When looking at THPS, that over-the-top nature got in the way of the simple beauty of a skateboard trick. It is why watching Nyjah skate is boring. I’d rather see someone battle for a nollie noseslide on a ledge than land a varial heel crooked grind down a huge kinked rail. A similar logic can be applied to snowboarding. SSX asks us to score high and to go big (literally, get big air) when the most appealing aspects of snowboarding (to me) are how it grounds us to the earth, and not how it pulls us from and above it. That is why I played more 1080 Snowboarding than other snowboarding games as a kid. It let me just carve down slopes across various beautiful snowscapes, and the abstraction of Nintendo 64 graphics let me use my imagination to fill in all the gaps. It is funny how when it comes to extreme sports, I’d much prefer simulation over overstimulation, with the one outlier being just how much I actually do love the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series.
Time passes. We’re deep into the Xbox 360 lifecycle now. The reboot of SSX just came out. Lots of people did not like that game, but I loved it. I loved it more than any other SSX game and I still feel that way. It is the Fast Five of the SSX series insofar as it is dumb as shit and takes the series dream logic and unreality to newfound heights where I can’t get annoyed at the arcade nature of it. I have to just embrace the fact that the game now asks me to incorporate a wingsuit into my trick combos as I snowboard while an avalanche closes in on me. The game’s opening tutorial involves the player learning the game’s controls and basic movements while in freefall after a HALO jump that ends with a fast-paced trick run down a mountain. There are boss battles in this game. And those bosses are literally just big, fucked up mountains. It rules. There is space for a game like this and I wish they’d make another. With the excess of the SSX reboot came my desire to play a genuine snowboarding/snow-sports sim, though. Getting there took some time, but Steep eventually released in 2016 and it gave me everything I wanted. But before we dive into steep, let us take a journey through a simple question: Why snowboarding games?
Like skateboarding games, especially the Skate series and Skater XL, snowboarding games allow us to approach familiar landscapes with a different lens. They ask us to seek the unfamiliar. A knocked-down tree is no longer a hindrance in our path, but now an obstacle to grind or jump over. Places stop being places and instead become canvases for artistic expression through self-perseverance and pain all brought on by the addicting concoction of a piece of shaped wood, gravity, momentum, and speed. It is as simple as that. But what makes snowboarding games stand out in ways that skateboarding games don’t, at least for me, is that they ground us to nature in similar ways that skateboarding grounds us to the urban sprawl. It’s just us and the mountains. High altitudes and thin air.
Now, back to Steep. Steep is everything I could ask for in a snowboarding (and extreme winter sports) game wrapped in a confusing, sprawling package. Playing the game with the HUD on is an exercise in frustration as every inch of the map is littered with challenges, tags, waypoints, and the like. I don’t care about any of that. The progression and challenges mean nothing to me. I get why they’re there and they are probably fun, but it is just not what I come to this game for. But once you turn the HUD off and ignore how it tries to funnel your experience, Steep really opens up. You aren’t a superhero and you can only take so much g-force before your player-character crumbles under the violent effects of gravity. The various mountain ranges, mountain towns, and snow courses in Steep are all genuinely beautiful and the intimate detail makes the space feel truly natural, lived in when it needs to be, and untouched by humankind when it should be. Players can ski, snowboard, base jump, wingsuit and more. There are extreme thrills to be had that feel grounded in reality, and a lot of the fun comes through threading the needle through pockets of trees or rockfaces while your snowboard cuts a path through the once untouched, no longer serene snow. But a big part of the joy and beauty of Steep comes through its mundanity and slowness. You can fast travel but it is a lot nicer to just unclip your snowboard from your boots, throw it over your shoulder and walk up and down the mountains, through valleys and towns, as it lets you slowly but surely get to know the landscape in a way that is rare for a AAA game—especially a Ubisoft game. And the snowboarding and skiing, especially, feel absolutely wonderful. Getting air feels weighty and honest while rotating for a 180 or 360 feels as stressful as it does in real life. You have to consider the blind spots that come into play, especially in 360s and 540s, and you have to be aware of your inertia. Most of my bails come through over-rotations. It is also a small thing, but grinding on rails in Steep is legitimately one of the most satisfying experiences in games, much like it is in Skater XL. But weirdly enough, I think Steep would be even better if it was simpler and more paired down. It is an Ubisoft game so it can’t be either of those things and it never really had a chance to be. That is why I am particularly excited for Shredders.
Shredders was first shown at Xbox’s E3 Showcase in early June with a tentative release window of this year. Like Skater XL, it is being developed by a small team (who are very passionate about snowboarding and actively do it) with an emphasis on a pretty realistic approach to the sport. This announcement, while brief, was arguably the most exciting thing at E3 for me. If you know me, then that shouldn’t come as a surprise. And through watching some dev diaries, I’ve only grown even more excited. The core convention is as such: one analog stick for the board and one analog stick for the body. This approach will seemingly give players something that extreme sports video games have always lacked—a personal style. I can do kickflips in Skater XL all day long but they’ll never look like the kickflips I do in real life. That is because we only control the board in that game (and in most skateboarding games). The opportunity to have an analog stick dedicated to the player's body means that they can, hypothetically, situate themselves in much the same way they would in real life. Flow with grace or be rigid and stomp every air or rail trick. Just the idea of this is enough for me to want to give this game a go (and it is expanded on in this dev diary here). The smaller team and scope of the game means that it will be a paired down, different experience compared to Steep. I’m making this comparison solely to speak to the fact that Shredders, as of now, is what I wish Steep was, and that I am glad Shredders is a game I’ll be able to play someday. The last thing I want from an extreme sports game is for it to tell me what to do. I just want it to provide semi-realistic physics, a compelling control scheme, and landscapes/obstacles for me to digitally express myself in sports I’ve done in real life for almost two decades. The southeast isn’t known for its snowy peaks so a good, simple snowboarding sim also has the power to act as an outlet for a sport I only get to go out and do every few years. Skater XL is my “it is raining so I can’t actually go skate today” game and I hope Shredders becomes my “snowboarding trips are pricey as hell so this will do for now” game. If you can’t tell by now, yes, I am really looking forward to it.