With the possible exception of Kirby, Nintendo has always been good at guiding its most treasured franchises into three dimensions. Think Mario, think Zelda, think Metroid. But despite a number of efforts on the N64 and GameCube, Nintendo is yet to guide one of its epoch-defining 3D titles to the next level. 1080: Avalanche is yet another example of this - a fine and enjoyable game that only excites in fits and starts, and brings almost nothing new to the slopes.
Need for speed
It does at least do something different to SSX and Amped. Whereas Amped 2 is pure technique and SSX 3 chose to marginalize racing in order to emphasise the series' fantastical and almost self-parodying acrobatics, 1080 sticks firmly with speed. It's obsessed with it. The game's 15 tracks are designed to make you go fast, even if you don't particularly want to, and the controls are also geared towards speed - with left trigger tucking you into a crouching position to achieve more speed at the expense of manoeuvrability. While there is a trick system (and a matching Trick Attack mode with three half-pipe/jump-oriented courses), any flips, spins and grabs you do perform elsewhere are usually all about helping to build up speed.
The main bulk of the game is given over to Match Race mode, a series of one-on-one races split into four, five and six-track championships, with an unlockable seven-track Extreme Challenge made up of mirrored courses from previous sections. If you've played any other snowboarding game, each of the three main championships will fall to your masterful thumbs pretty quickly and without your having to start over all that often (three continues, though it might sound a little miserly, turns out to be more than adequate). However there is more to it than just knowing when to turn. For a start, you also have to make sure you land optimally; angling the board with the thumbstick in mid-air and tugging the left trigger to bend your knees and land softly. Failure to do so will put you off balance and throw up a little 'wiggle meter', forcing you to twirl the analogue stick quickly to regain your composure.
You also have to contend with all sorts of obstacles, including the eponymous avalanches. Were this a Hollywood blockbuster, these would be considered the "money shots". On a handful of courses (usually the final you-against-the-clock decider tracks), an avalanche will kick off midway through and you'll have to race hell for leather to stay ahead of it, making as much use of the crouch position as possible and above all staying on your feet, as it's all too easy to be swept away to a Game Over. Persistence is rewarded though because the final Match Race level is just one long avalanche and it's the most spectacular and exciting two minutes of the game, as the frothing river of snow looming behind tickles your rider's ankles and threatens to overtake, little bubbles of powdery pressure throbbing incessantly as the screen does likewise. Compared to the TV adverts, SSX 3's "avalanches" are a bit of a damp squib, but 1080 does a better job even than EA's tireless marketing machine - in fact SSX 3's TV ads look more like this than the game it's actually selling.
Snow's in front
Most tracks don't have avalanches, sadly, but they do often have set-pieces, like a collapsing wooden bridge, blizzards, rockslides and other natural disasters, or the occasional unnatural alternative, including one of my favourites, the level where a diesel train comes off the rails, shaking the camera like a snow globe as the hot metal screeches in the snow and black smoke billows out of the wreckage to obscure your view.
The actual course design more than lives up to NST's set-pieces, too, branching off in all sorts of different directions both high and low, and never having to resort to SSX-style high-wire antics. There are some moments when you feel the developer is being needlessly harsh (a gap in a snowy overpass, for example, which shows up too quickly for you to dodge it the first time) or misleading (in another area, the map and the design offer no clue that you need to turn left through a train yard, so I had to learn the hard way), but generally when you get frustrated it's more to do with other elements of the game - like the AI and collision detection.
The elasticity of the AI riders definitely tweaked my shouting glands from time to time [he's not kidding - Mutton Ed], as opponents mysteriously caught up or seemed to slow down towards the end of a race, and coupled with some heinous collision detection they were on the business end of a profane outburst at least once per outing. Combined, the two problems just wreak havoc. You can't pause and restart Match Races without losing a continue, so if you do happen to jump at the wrong moment and bounce off a bounding box because you didn't expect to have to press L to grind for another fraction of a second, you just have to deal with it. Even if that means bobbling unceremoniously down a long stairway while your adversary grinds smoothly past on the offending bit of railing. You'll also quickly get used to your boarder refusing to get up quickly, or getting stuck standing still in the snow and refusing to right himself, or losing his balance without any warning. Obviously it costs you victories, and when it does it on track seven out of seven with your final continue you'll probably cry...
Jump nnn-- oh, actually, just back there
The fuzziness of the physics and collision detection is perhaps even more frustrating in other areas of the game - and it's more than a little ironic, I think, that having delivered a beautifully sharp graphics engine on a Nintendo platform, NST has decided to shift the fuzz over to the gameplay. Time Trial, for example, is more than the usual race against the clock and relies on precise snowboarding to collect five pieces of coin while you're racing. Completing a track with all five pieces is important because a) you can't turn back and you have to fetch them all again if you miss one, and b) enough whole coins unlocks faster and better boards. Finding each piece and then collecting them all in one run is enough of a challenge here without having to pause and restart an additional ten times per track because the fluffing game tripped you up and sent you off course...
Gate Challenge also suffers, because even more so than Time Trial it's a question of precision. You're only going to win a track trophy if you slide between every gate on a course without missing any, and this often means taking an unconventional or challenging route. Again, fuzzy engine behaviour can add plenty of restarts to an already difficult task, and as you'll have played most of the tracks thoroughly in Match Race mode anyway, you start to lose the will to continue. The promise of a few novelty snowboards like Mr. Beaks (a penguin) and a NES pad will only take you so far before you decide to stop cursing a videogame and watch the football or play something else instead. NST has done itself no favours by ignoring these little niggles.
Fortunately the Trick Attack mode doesn't suffer as much, but then the trick system is little more than a solid and generic offering that will leave fans of any other extreme sports title cold. You jump with A (holding it for a second or so to charge up a little circular meter) then grab with X, Y, B and a direction, spin by holding R and turning (which makes the fabled 1080 rather easier than it was on the N64), and you can of course flip by angling the analogue stick and string moves into a combo by letting go and grabbing the next move as your character starts to flash. Unfortunately though, while SSX has trick levelling, uber tricks and the like, 1080 just has the basic grabs, holds and flips, rendering Trick Attack rather boring by comparison.
However if there's one area of the game it's very difficult to fault, it's the visuals. Still shots simply don't do the effects justice - whether it's coats and hoods flapping frantically in the icy wind, a million-and-one different shades of snow, icy reflections cutting through powder, dirt caked in glaciers, the many different snow and sleet effects, the billowing smoke, the all-round texture quality, the draw distance or, lest we forget, the mesmerising spectacle of an avalanche.
All this detail means the game spends most of its time at 30fps rather than 60, but it's only when it dips below the 30 that you start to frown a little, so it's fortunate that this is a rather rare occurrence. Truly though, 1080: Avalanche is one of the best looking snowboarding titles ever. Remember how I got very excited faced with blizzard-like conditions in SSX 3? Every track in 1080 has an individual moment that inspires that sort of reaction [usually involving whooping like an orgasmic cheerleader on amphetamine - concerned Ed], and often more than one [usually louder - Ed]. The sense of speed is vital too, and when you're racing down a particularly fluid bit of track it really is quite magic - so fast in places that it reminded me of the criminally underrated PC title Ballistic...
Elsewhere sadly the presentation wanders a bit. The menus are nice (particularly the clipboard/paper options screen, which is definitely a highlight for arty types), but they can also be a bit slow to respond, and though this may be Nintendo's first licensed soundtrack, we'd advise them to keep it quiet next time - this one is just rubbish, full of nothing tracks with a music video for the most significant one a bizarre inclusion, particularly given how rubbish it is (and I offer fans of Cauterize's "Choke" no apologies here - it's just a crap song!) Oh how I pined for SSX 3 on the Xbox with my custom soundtrack. A pair of new Ben Folds EPs turned up in the post today to sooth my aching eardrums (already scarred this week by Links 2004), but I can hardly give 1080: Avalanche points on account of the postman. Anyway, he didn't wait around long enough for me to answer the door this morning, so I still have to go down to the depot tomorrow for the other junk - bastard!
1080 minutes? One-eighty should do it...
The biggest question mark of all though surely has to rest next to longevity. Far more significant than niggling flaws and a rubbish soundtrack is the fact that I polished off the three main Match Race cups, most of the Time Trials (to unlock the better boards), the final Extreme Challenge and most of the Gate Challenges, not to mention completing each Trick Attack course to a decent standard, well within one five-hour sitting. Since then I've dabbled in the multiplayer a little and I know there's potential to go back and fill the remaining gaps (because that's what I ended up doing when I came back to it today), but I honestly feel like I've had my fill. I've unlocked enough novelties to be happy with it and there isn't really much compelling me to return - LAN mode is nigh on useless and I've got far better multiplayer GameCube games staring at me as I type.
What I suppose I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't go around thinking the weight of the niggles mentioned above have forced 1080: Avalanche off the main slope and into the score band below - because while it lasts 1080 is easily the best snowboard racing game I've played. But ultimately the good bits are over far too soon, it's too frustrating from then on and overall it's just not entertaining enough to get away with recycling itself five years later. Some games are, some games just aren't. It's fun, but it feels like a secondary chunk of a decent all-round snowboarding game like SSX 3 - great news if you're filthy rich and fancy five hours of fun followed by virtually nothing (at least until you feel compelled to dig it out and show off the avalanches to your mates or have the luxury of a LAN set-up), but for the rest of us it's probably nothing more than a decent rental.