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Recent indie darling Alto’s Adventure is a beautiful thing, but it has left me wondering – where did all the snowsports games go?

Editorial colleague Daniel New recently spent a week at the fantastic GDC 2015, and unsurprisingly, found himself with some great stories, a lot of swag, and a burning desire to write about his experiences. During the same week I spent my time north of the Arctic Circle in Finland. I therefore found myself with the following:

  1. A nasty chest infection from standing on a frozen lake, for three hours, in the middle of the night, at -10℃ plus wind-chill, waiting for the Northern Lights. I saw them, and it was exactly as everyone says – a once in a lifetime, magical experience – but now I cough like I have tuberculosis.
  2. A nasty whiplash injury from falling at the top of a turn in a half-pipe, then catching the toe of my ski on a buried fence post and doing a wicked flip while going off-piste the following day, before my neck had a chance to recover from the first foolish malady.
  3. A burning desire to write about very cold things – snowsports, Northern Lights, refrigerators, ice cream, and penguins – nothing is safe from my love of the cold for a few weeks, but we’ll start with snowsports as it probably makes the most sense.

The death of a genre

Between 1995 and 2005, around fifty snowboarding titles were released on the major platforms. In the following ten year period leading up to today, there have been fewer than a dozen. It’s not unheard of for genres to dry up or disappear altogether, but usually there’s something close to an explainable reason for it.

1080 Snowboarding

On-rails light-gun shooters for example lost out through the waning popularity of the arcade, and have been replaced wholesale by the more free and open modern first-person shooter – although many of them still feel a bit like Time Crisis with all the cut-scenes and quick-time events – that’s perhaps a rant for another day. Button-mashing athletics games like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and International Track and Field lost out to a revolutionary new control schema – motion control – when the Wii Remote (and to a lesser extent the Kinect sensor) totally revolutionised how we play certain sports games, and instantly rendered the button-masher obsolete.

On the face of it, snowsports games don’t seem to have been plagued with such obvious and apparent issues and yet here they are, on the wane all the same.

Deconstruction of cool

For the most part, snowsports titles have been all about the snowboarding. Skiing always found itself sorely underrepresented alongside its more youthful, supposedly cooler counterpart. There’s a discernable difference when you go to a ski resort, too. I’m personally a skier, and it feels like every single snowboarder is younger and trendier than I am. For the record, I’m absolutely fine with that. If skiing were a car, it would be a comfortable and elegant – but still screamingly fast – GT car. Snowboarding on the other hand is a Toyota Supra with two-tone paint and neon strips under the side skirts, and to each his own.

In the mid to late nineties titles like Cool Boarders on the Playstation and 1080° Snowboarding on the N64 were considered very cool indeed. They were combinations of downhill boarding through varied terrain (alpine villages, forests, and the obligatory snow park) with lots of things that could be used for “sick tricks” and “big air”. Some of the modes were races, which equate to the modern Winter Olympic event boardercross, with the rest more akin to slopestyle and halfpipe, where the objective is to score the highest points for the biggest tricks. When we’re talking about big tricks, there’s only one name that comes to mind.

Shaun White Snowboarding

Shaun White is the very definition of a modern sports superstar – unfathomably wealthy, double Olympic gold medallist, countless X-Games titles and records – he could have at least been unattractive, but he’s not. You could easily hate him, if he didn’t seem like a nice chap. When Shaun White Snowboarding was released in 2008 it seemed like the perfect storm of uber-cool sport and superstar protagonist – like the gaming world had found its next Madden or FIFA – but if Tiger Woods has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is a given (in sports or video game endorsements).

It might not have been apparent at the time that the Shaun White tie-in was something of a make or break moment for the snowboarding genre. Shaun White Snowboarding was a tale of two control mechanisms – when reviewed on Wii it received a high-seventies metacritic score, whereas it languished in the low sixties on all other platforms – something to do with the experience of playing with controller versus balance board. As a result it’s sequel was only released for the Wii, and with that the genre’s potential saviour disappeared down a blind alley. When no more sequels followed, and with no medals for White at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the idea fizzled and disappeared, along with the light-gun shooter and the button-mashing athletics game.

Alto’s Adevnture

Maybe it’s because I’m a skier (read: an adult) but I was getting a bit sick and tired of the in-your-face nature of snowboarding games anyway – all energy drinks, shouting and youth vernacular – and it might not be a bad thing that they’ve faded into obscurity, at least in their original form. We’ve got Alto’s Adventure now, and that is a truly new and beautiful way to enjoy the snowboarding experience. It’s simple and pure, something those loud and boorish oafs that came before it could never hope to understand, and the first time I’ve been excited by digital snowboarding in a very long time.

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