Although Atlus is undoubtedly best known for its expertise in the field of RPGs, the Shinjuku-based company does occasionally try its hand at other genres. One such example is Snowboard Kids, released on the Nintendo 64 back in 1998 in cooperation with Japanese development studio Racdym. Best summed up as Mario Kart on snowboards, it's a cartoony arcade racer complete with wacky power-ups, super-deformed characters, course hazards and large jumps.
Players can choose between five racers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, with whom to tear down any one of the six courses available at the start. Snowboard Kids controls like any typical snowboarding game, although the developers have still elected to include a tutorial, which is convenient for first-time players. The control stick steers your character left and right while, unsurprisingly, tighter cornering can be achieved by holding diagonally downwards. Pressing the A button causes the boarder to crouch and, upon release, leap into the air. However, while performing this action it’s not possible to steer, so it’s wise only to hold A upon approaching a ramp. Using the control stick while crouching will instead cause your snowboard kid of choice to execute either a spin or a flip manoeuvre upon taking to the air. This can be used in conjunction with any of the C buttons, which enable the player to perform a grab move while in mid-air. It’s a similar system to that later employed by EA in the SSX series, and it works well.
Successfully executing tricks earns gold coins which you can then exchange for items and power-ups by running into either red or blue stalls on the slopes. Coins can also be found lying loose on the track, waiting to be collected. Weapons purchased from the red stalls come in the form of different types of missiles, from bombs to snowballs, while items acquired from the blue stalls can be any number of things, such as a fan that will give you a speed boost or a rock to drop into the path of your rivals. Interestingly, a maximum of two items can be held at a time – one red and one blue. Red missile items can be fired by pressing the Z button while the blue power-ups are used by tapping B.
Snowboard Kids includes a total of three different game modes: Battle Race, Skill Game and Time Attack. Time Attack mode is fairly self-explanatory while Skill Game refers to little more than three different varieties of mini-game: Speed Game (exactly like Time Attack except there are speed-boosting fans dotted about the course), Shot Game (see how many snowmen you can hit with missiles on your way down the slope) and Trick Game (rack up points for doing tricks on a short, mode-specific level). Adding to the already limited appeal of this mode is the fact that Skill Game modes can only be played on the game's first three courses, or in the case of Trick Game, one solitary level. It's a baffling decision that only serves to limit the options of the player as well as the overall replay value of the title.
As a result, it’s Battle Race which without doubt attracts the most attention and serves as the main bulk of the game. Racing against three other opponents, it’s your objective to win a three lap race and bring home the gold on each of the courses. A neat idea is the inclusion of a chairlift at the bottom of each slope, which takes the racers back to the top of the course at the end of each lap (for those who were wondering how a lap system could work in a game where gravity is the main source of propulsion). The entrance to the chairlift is very narrow, which can lead to entertaining collisions and frantic hopping around as the racers often come together to enter the bottleneck at the end of each lap. By winning gold on each of the races, more courses can be unlocked and more advanced boards can also be purchased as you progress.
The game handles really well; it ticks all the boxes in terms of a simple, solid, fun experience with tight controls to boot. Pulling off tricks to earn coins feels very satisfying – particularly when you’ve just nailed a complex manoeuvre by the skin of your teeth, flying at top speed down a mountain, neck and neck with a rival. The tracks offer multiple routes and sneaky shortcuts, which is always a plus and only serves to add to the re-playability of the title. Players will return time and again if only to discover increasingly more devious hidden routes.
Additionally, as would be expected of any cartoony racer, the game provides the option for four players to battle it out in a multiplayer mode. Unsurprisingly, the frame rate takes a hit and the level of graphical detail suffers when playing with friends; however, the game still manages to run at a decent (if slightly jerky) speed and offers an entertaining party experience. Battling with three friends to be the first onto the chairlift at the end of each lap is always a good laugh, though we warn you that because of the level of chance involved here combined with the frantic and exciting nature of the competition, friendships can, and will, come to an end over this game!
If there are any complaints to be made about Snowboard Kids, it’s that races only feature your own character and three opponents when it would have been preferable to have six to eight racers in each contest. There are less than ten courses in the entire game as well, and while winning gold on each of them is no easy feat, experienced players will be able to beat Battle Race mode in only a few sittings. Skill Game and Time Attack don’t exactly offer any great lasting appeal, so once Battle Mode is cleared and all the boards have been purchased from the shop, there’s not much else to do.
There’s also no real way to block incoming missiles from opponents, which can be frustrating as you literally have to sit there and take the punishment. The game provides a warning that a weapon is incoming in the form of an exclamation mark beside your boarder’s head, but there’s not much point to this; unless you have the invisibility power-up or manage to blindly avoid an oncoming attack through sheer luck, you’ll take a hit. It can take quite a bit of time to get back up to speed and regain lost momentum in which time any rivals will have flown past.
Finally, although a nice idea in theory, the system of earning coins to purchase weapons always feels rather redundant after the first lap, by which time the player will almost certainly have performed enough tricks or picked up enough coins to be comfortably well-stocked for the rest of the race. It’s easy to get used to having a large amount of coins available at any given time, and any time the weapon shops knock you back on the first corner due to insufficient funds it comes as a genuine surprise, the shock of which can slow gameplay down a bit.
Visually, Snowboard Kids is an attractive game with vivid, colourful backdrops and varied course settings – snowboarding needn’t always take place on snowy mountains, you know! The textures are of a good standard while the character models themselves are satisfyingly detailed and chunky. Furthermore, the dreaded fog – a common blight upon many a Nintendo 64 game – is thankfully absent from Snowboard Kids, except for one course set in the middle of a blizzard in which the lack of visibility is part of the challenge. The game pays the price for the lack of distance-related fog, however, as there’s some noticeable pop-up in certain places. Some of the 2D scenery can also look slightly unsightly when close up as well. On the whole, however, Snowboard Kids is a nice looking title.
In terms of music and sound, Snowboard Kids features some memorable, instantly nostalgic and almost haunting melodies which certainly fit the overall charm of the game very well. It is worth noting, however, that the tunes can be a bit on the chirpy side, and some players may find them a bit too “bleepy,” for lack of a better word. With later races taking around nine minutes to finish, the soundtrack can start to grate ever so slightly in the closing stages. For the most part, however, Snowboard Kids’s music remains both pleasant and catchy. The sound effects their job nicely, and the vocal samples help to add even more character to a game already packed with charm.
With bold, colourful graphics, tons of charm, memorable tunes and, most importantly, tight gameplay, Snowboard Kids is worthy of a place in anyone’s collection. Atlus’s first foray into the world of snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 may not present a particularly lengthy challenge or deep experience, but it can always be relied upon to provide a quick blast of fun now and then, alone or with friends. While you won’t be playing for weeks or months on end, Snowboard Kids provides a viable alternative for those that have had enough of Mario Kart or Nintendo’s own sim-based ‘boarder 1080.