Long before the Wii balance board was a mere gestation of an idea in a future Nintendo employee of the month’s mind, the gaming community has been enjoying extreme sports games of all shapes and sizes. One of the most popular of this breed was EA’s SSX series, released under the EA Sports BIG label.
SSX combined downhill snowboarding with competitive racing and focused on the trick-based side of things. The formula was simple, but addictive, and the game, and its sequels are still held in high regard. But something was missing – the snowboard.
Now that Nintendo’s Wii has arrived, and has spawned the impressive balance board, the platform has become the perfect home for the genre, and the latest title to venture onto the digital powder-filled slopes is Namco’s Family Ski & Snowboard, sequel to the original Family Ski.
Okay, so the name hardly fills you with anticipation, but this is the Wii, so we’ve come to expect this sugar-coated, family-friendly kind of thing. The ultra deformed – so much so that they boarder on scary, large-headed characters will also no doubt repulse many gamers. This is a shame, though, as under the Wii’s OTT childlike presentation lies a surprisingly enjoyable trip to the piste.
Before you can get going in the virtual resort, your first task is to create and customise your snowbound avatar. You can opt for one of the game’s ugly preset characters, or you can utilise one of your Miis, which we suspect most players will do. You then need to choose whether you wish to take to the slopes on skis or snowboard (although you can change this whenever you like later on). It should also be noted that you don’t actually need a balance board to play the game, and a Wiimote and nunchuck can be used on their own. Of course, to get the most out of the game you’ll need the board.
With your character created, you’re then free to choose your own path. You can enter the resort, and explore it as you see fit in an open-ended world, you can compete in competitive races, enter trick challenges and more. The first stop most players will need to make, though, will be the school mode.
This mode makes up the tutorial for the game, and contains a mass of different tasks designed to help you get used to the controls. Everything from turning and speeding up, to safe landings and more advanced topics such as tricks are covered. Each contains a demonstration, followed by a practical test. Pass this test, and you’ll be prepared for the main game.
These training sections do help players get used to the controls, but can also be very confusing. Safe landings, for example, state you have to bend your knees just before you land. I did this, and my character landed perfectly well and I was able to continue skiing, only to be blasted with an onscreen ‘failed’ message. Why? I couldn’t really say. Maybe it just didn’t like my outfit.
Some control methods also don’t suit their equipment. For example, the method of speed skiing (crouch down and turn the Wiimote and nunchuck to the side to simulate ski sticks) doesn’t fit in with the snowboard option, but is still included in the training if you choose the board.
Overall though, the controls are pretty solid, and using either Wiimote and nunchuck alone, or both in tandem with the balance board works well enough. The ski mode is far easier than the board though, so newcomers would do well to stick to these at first.
Once you’re finished getting to grips with the controls, you can get into the meat of the game, and explore the resort, which is split into several areas, with a collection of courses. Some courses are straightforward, speed slopes, while others are more obstacle-filled, for hitting impressive tricks. Others contain many bends and sharp turns, and challenge your balance and control ability.
As you explore the resort, you’ll be able to speak to various people who will sometimes offer you side missions. These include grabbing a number of items while skiing or boarding down a course, letting someone take a picture of you, among other distractions. You can also, in the course of your wandering, discover hidden courses, which will unlock achievements.
This exploration is a great mode to start with, as you can get to grips with each slope before you try to win any races or complete challenges. Exploring can be a bit of a slog however, as you’re always on your board or skis. An option to get off your chosen equipment and walk would have been welcome, especially when trying to make your way around a common area full of people. Instead you’ll find yourself awkwardly shuffling around, hitting fences and those you’re trying to talk to.
Other resort goers also cause issues while swooping down the slopes. As you ski around, there are tons of NPCs also going about their business. This is fine, and it makes racing down slopes a little more interesting, requiring some dodging and jumping to avoid them. However, often these characters do tend to get in the way, especially those who, for some reason, sit still right in the middle of a slope. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the first place of rest that would occur to me, mainly due to the chance of getting impaled in the head by a ski. But hey, I’m freaky like that.
Don’t let these niggles put you off completely, though. Once you’ve mastered the tricky controls (after all, skiing and snowboarding aren’t exactly easy, are they?) the actual racing and trick elements of the game become very enjoyable, especially when you play the game with others (up to four people can play, but only three if a balance board is used), and there’s plenty of content here to keep you busy for some time.
I quite liked Family Ski & Snowboard, despite my initial reservations of it being an overly simplistic, ‘casual’ title. Get past the usual Ninty schmaltz, and you’ll find an enjoyable, if not flawless game that comes into its own in multiplayer, even if there’s nothing really in the way of innovation.