Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Have You Played: SSX Tricky

This article was done as part of The Yorker's Advent Calendar.

I don't like sport much. Or at all, really. Blame it on the cliché of being bad at football in primary school, getting stick for it, and the ensuing negative feedback loop resulting in me rather staying indoors reading, or maybe, shoving hot needles into my eyes, than running around on a muddy field.

That blind, irrational dislike of physical past times is reflected in my video game habits, too. I won't give FIFA the time of day, I still don't understand how we've managed to shift so many copies of Rugby World Cup 2011 at the GAME I part-time at, and the NBA has only ever been interesting if it precedes the word 'Street'.

But snowboarding? Snowboarding was cool Maybe it was the exotic factor, maybe it was the pictures and videos of people essentially flying through the air, or maybe it was just the cool reflective goggles that everyone wore, but I was totally into the idea of shredding and powder in junior school. I had Snowboard Kids for the N64, and although it was a great multiplayer title (that I may well gush about some other time), it wasn't capturing that level of sick air and kickin' rad attitude that I wanted. Then in 2001, my best friend had a copy of SSX Tricky for Playstation 2.

And swearing on the deity of your choice, it was awesome.

Aesthetically, the title oozed cool. The player characters were realistically proportioned, but the attention paid to how real life works stopped there. Every inch of every mountain slope in the game was designed to give you the biggest airtime, the fastest grinds, and the most ridiculous setpieces. The very first jump you encounter in the game is a massive free-fall off a cliff that would turn any mere mortal into a fine paste - but in SSX Tricky, you're controlling a snowboarding GOD.

Speaking of the people you're controlling, EA Sports BIG took the time to make them all solidly distinct. True, there's the designated eye-candy female lead, and a hyper-excitable Japanese girl, but taking on the slopes as the disco-obsessed Eddie, or chronically chill faux-hippy Brodi (my personal favourite) were far more interesting. As you played the game, you formed friendships and rivalries with the other racers, who trash-talk before and after matches to give way more character depth.

The sound design was also something special. While many of the songs were taken wholesale from the prequel, SSX, the game had a clever trick of fading the audio levels in and out as you went off jumps, leaving only the bass behind as you aimed for the stratosphere. Audio cues were synced up to the beat, so doing enough tricks to fill up your boost bar all the way layered in a riff from It's Tricky (SSX Tricky's theme song, natch) in a perfectly natural manner, signifying it was time to let loose an Uber Trick.

The Uber Trick is what elevates Tricky over its predecessor - the ability to let fly super stylish and entirely impossible stunts. Each character had five Uber Tricks at their disposal, along with a signature move unique to them. Working up to performing one of these, landing it, and watching all the points pile in was the game's main joy.

Though, that's not to say such payoffs were easily handed out. SSX Tricky was a hard game to master. The surreal architecture of the courses meant that you needed to know the levels well - very well - to have optimum routes for speed or score. Shortcuts were everywhere, surrounded by pits and hazards for a palpable risk/reward factor. Aside from that, knowing when you have the height and the time to land the bigger moves took practice and precision, which honestly, I'm still not very good at.

The imposing level design and somewhat complicated controls mean that SSX Tricky may be a mite too technical for some, and frustrating for people who want to be able to do the biggest and best stunts right from the get-go. But there were few games at the time that made you feel the thrill of the spectacle in every aspect of its design.

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