Version tested: DS
What I have learned is: Mario Kart is really, incredibly good. And further, I don't know why. Mario Kart has unfair deaths, where despite your superb racing technique, and complete trouncing of the AI drivers, a giant blue turtle can still knock you off the track one inch from the finish line, robbing you of your hard-earned victory. You throw your arms up in disgust, swear the paint from the walls, and most likely call Princess Peach a bitch. Then you play again.
Mario Kart never gives you the drops you want, but always seems to give the enemy something cool like the shrinky lightning, while you get lumped with a solitary bloody banana skin again. A banana skin you'll inevitably skid on yourself in a lap's time. But you keep on playing.
It cheats and robs you at every turn, but you take it - you keep taking it, going back for more. How on Earth?! It's a mystery I'd be fired for acknowledging were this a review of Mario Kart. Fortunately this is a review of Snowboard Kids, and Snowboard Kids cheats and robs you at every turn, and sucks for it.
This is in no small part due to its clunky controls and primitive atmosphere. The norm for the game is a standard downhill race, against three AI opponents, with varying goals. It might be as simple as coming first, or it could be achieving a certain score. Scores are accumulated through performing tricks, which are an oddly throwaway inclusion in a race, properly executed on the occasional launch-ramps. These are a case of button mashing a la Tony Hawk, to make yourself do all sorts of entertaining spins and twists. Should you have enough lift and speed, special tricks are unleashed on the touch screen (the game up until now played with d-pad, buttons and shoulders), where jabbing at highlighted areas in the correct order will cause ludicrously complex stunts to be pulled off. Getting the hang of these opens a curtain, letting in some rays of hope - it's fun to flip about, catching some air. And perhaps were that it, the game would be a playable little thing, no great shakes, but inoffensive enough. However, that's not it.
There's the Mario Kart-esque attacks. An immediately obviously very stupid idea. And they're so poorly integrated that they destroy everything in their path. GIANT red boxes float above the track, not collected, but impossibly boarded through, in a deeply tacky way. They dispense an attack, to accompany the innate ability your character has previously selected. It might be a giant weight that smooshes the person in front, or something that sends them to sleep (where you must then "shout" into (read: tap your finger on) the mic to wake up your character), or encase them in ice (mash all the buttons to free yourself), or fog their vision ("blow" into the mic), and so on. But each is grossly unfair, never fun to be the victim of, and just very tedious.
Why are they so bad? Because they're not game. They're prevention of game. There's one exception: ‘Confusion', which reverses your controls. Great! That's game! That's an additional challenge, rather than the thing simply punishing you with last place for having been skilled enough to be in first place. There's also a poor sense of race against the AI. Where Mario Kart always maintains the feeling of a threat from behind, or a contest ahead, SBK just feels as though it's failing or cheating.
Playing through the main arc of missions, I came upon a most peculiar level. A ‘Boss Fight'. My race is not against my regular shouty-voiced J-yoof opponents, but some sort of giant snowman on skis. Fairly-does. I'm told I must finish with more than 2500 points. I see that I have three speed-up boosts at my disposal, and that my score is counting down from 25,000, but can still be boosted by successfully conducting tricks. A little strange. So I race it, and I keep losing because it's cheating. It magically flies ahead at super speed whenever I get in front. Why would it do that?!
It turns out that I'm meant to blow the snowman up. Oh, obviously. Because the start and finish line, and race course between the two, are obviously purely decorative. And "Finish with more than 2500" is a clear instruction that I should not be racing, but instead throwing the occasionally available snowballs at my racing opponent. How idiotic of me. And yes, it does explain it in the manual, but it's still really stupid, and a clear demonstration of the game's inherent failure to be what it's meant to be, constantly distracted by trying to include every variable it appears to think is required.
(Oddly, the characters you play shout Japanese at you all the way. Who knows what they might be hollering. I imagine it's, "Sick moves, daddio," or whatever the young people say. Also, quite pleasingly, the shouted "SNOWBOARD KIDS!" during the main menu sounds more like it's yelling, "NO MORE KIDS!")
There are innumerable unlockables, bought with points scored, and a bunch of ‘kids' to play as. You can buy new boards, or new attacks, should you be the sort that needs to accumulate every item within a game. There's also a couple of extra modes of play, but these are no more than singling out the Slalom levels (sadly these are just time-trials, and not slalom at all), and the ghastly ‘Boss Fights'. Versus mode lets you play against three other real life human beings, with a cut-down version for single card play. Certainly racing real people adds the advantage of attacks being more personal, but the inherent unfairness of the design cannot be overridden.
Ultimately SBK relies on one thing alone: is it any good at arcade snowboarding. And the answer is, well, it's 6/10 good at that. And then the ridiculous attacks appear, freeze you, stun you, then squish you in the middle of the only really good bit - doing some tricks - and ensure it can never have more than 4.
4 / 10