As you curl around a banked corner, the lip of a large ramp of snow appears in the distance and your mind begins to race at the possibilities for gnarliness that lie ahead. Slamming the boost and tucking your body forward, you scorch towards the precisely constructed mound, pre-winding your hands, arms and shoulders for maximum rotation upon lift off. As you get closer the brilliant white becomes horizontally streaked and blurred with red. The edge of the ramp screams ‘Jump!' And you obey. For a moment you are dancing in an ocean of blue nothingness, accompanied only by your board and the faint whistling of the wind.
This is SSX Tricky.
Released on November 30th in 2001 for the GameCube and other home systems of the time, this pseudo-sequel to the PlayStation 2 exclusive original is based on the snowboarding discipline known as Boardercross, created by Steve Rechtschaffner, the executive producer of the SSX series. With its roots in Motocross, Boardercross features multiple competitors on one course battling to the finish line, whereas competitive snowboarding traditionally focuses on time trials. Courses are also more elaborate, with gaps to cross and sharper turns to navigate; consequently these races are often high speed and full contact.
However, SSX Tricky is definitely an arcade orientated experience. While the DNA of the real life sport is present, its genes are woven with trick multipliers, speed boosts, wild personalities and wilder courses. Track design truly is unlike any other snowboarding title that came before. Multiple routes can be taken down the hill; some are short-cuts vital for first place finishes, some are more scenic and filled with big air opportunities for the trick focused Show Off Mode. Both racing and trick focused modes are simple affairs at their core. You're respectively challenged with either beating all competitors over three increasingly difficult races on the same track, or reaching a set number of points before reaching the finish.
Building upon this base is the inclusion of power-ups. In Show Off these consist of score multiplying Snow Flakes cunningly placed along risky but high scoring areas, coming in flavours or 2x, 3x and 5x multipliers. Grabbing these requires full mastery of the rider and board, as well as being intimately familiar with the courses. Understanding when and where big score opportunities will be coming up is crucial, as is settling into the very definite rhythm of each track. Misjudge a landing and you'll cripple your speed, potentially shutting off access to an area just up ahead that demands you approach it at full pelt. Consequently, you'll be forced to take an alternative route and must rapidly change your path down the slope, realigning yourself to the beats of this new heading.
This exercise in muscle memory has one big pay-off though, because when things are going without a hitch, your rider chaining together moves and lines elegantly, a prominently displayed score on the screen racks up into the tens of thousands per move. Going from a beginner player who can just about land on a rail and balance all the way down its length, to an expert who breezes down the mountain with grace, is a supremely rewarding journey.
Collectables in races come in the form of Speed Boosts that maintain top speed, plus Trick Boosts that can be immediately tricked from, greatly increasing your mid-air turn speed. Scrambling for these while surrounded by riders that are more than happy to Road Rash style punch you to the ground makes for high energy sequences. It's worth noting that riders tend to group together for the majority of the race, either hot on your heels or mere metres ahead, an artificial but subtle rubber banding that keeps races dynamic for players of all levels.
Progression through the Career mode unlocks skill points and new boards that boost your abilities in Edging, Speed, Stability and Tricks, adding a very light layer of strategy. Each of these skills becomes exceptionally important at higher levels of competition, with the need to balance skills accordingly. Each character is naturally proficient in specific areas, so determining your own personal play style and building upon these factors is of high priority to new players.
The biggest addition to the series in SSX Tricky is Uber tricks. Performing enough grabs, spins and grinds fills your boost meter to the brim and gives a short period of time for players to instigate one of these insane manoeuvres. These vary from the character removing themselves from the board's bindings, spinning it with one hand and returning to their original position, to physics-defying mega spins. Outlandish and impressive, they yield the most points and add one letter to a greyed out 'Tricky' word above your boost meter, completion of which bestows infinite turbo. Uber tricks would come to represent the general direction of the franchise; one of excess bordering on absurdity.
Besides the eye catching on-screen avatars, the true stars of the game are the courses on which they compete. Going back a couple of years before the inception of SSX (and with the exception of the super-deformed stylings of Snowboard Kids), snowboarding games largely featured realistic environs. Titles like Cool Boarders and the ESPN Winter X-Games series, released around the same time, have a colour palette revolving around whites and greys. Not so in SSX Tricky.
In addition to course layouts that are closer to interactive roller coasters than sterile mountainsides, each track has a striking theme and direction of colour. Mesablanca, set in the USA's dry and dusty South West is permeated with deep reds and oranges, the pinball inspired three lap oval that is Tokyo Megaplex is streaked with the neons of late night Shibuya. It's only Untracked, a wilderness bereft of human interference that lacks colour, a natural wonderland of virgin snow just waiting to be imprinted with a sweeping carve of a snowboard.
A de facto requirement for any extreme sports title is a perfectly pitched soundtrack to accompany proceedings. While series like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater are aimed squarely at punk and urban, SSX Tricky draws its sound from the artist that inspired its title: Run DMC. This game boasts a melting pot of high tempo electronica, old-skool hip-hop and rock, all mixed by an at-the-top-of-his-game Mix Master Mike and MC'd by human beatbox Rahzel. At the time it was different, fresh and an audiophile's dream come true. Rahzel's commentating, meanwhile, is enthusiastic for the player to succeed but critical when things go wrong. Your goal, to quote the man himself, is to “show them how great you are”.
Impressively, the soundtrack is dynamic, based on your performance and location on track. Screaming into first place brings a big and bold bass filled beat, while dropping to last rips it out. Hitting a short-cut triggers sound bites of schlocky fifties sci-fi movies played out to an eerily calm backing track. Action and audio curating itself in this fashion is still amazing to hear to this day; at the time, it was mind blowing.
Audio was such a big deal to EA that they took the still rare step of hiring a veritable legion of famous voice talent to provide vocals to the cast. Sadly, it's here that SSX Tricky has its major stumbling block. Promotional material and videos described characters as 'zany', and if that's not enough of an immediate warning sign, hiring Bif Naked to play a caffeine fuelled gothy punk certainly is. Macy Gray, David Arquette, Billy Zane and many more all turn in passionless performances that do nothing for the badly written script. One exception, however, is Jim Rose who plays Psymon, an unhinged metalhead. Drawing from his background as a freaky alternative circus performer, Psymon's intensely psychopathic portrayal is genuinely funny.
While the first SSX helped further usher in the sixth generation of consoles, SSX Tricky was the title that brought the EA Sports 'Big' label to the front and centre of the public eye. Hailed by critics and solidifying the artistic direction of the series to this day, Tricky was much copied but never bettered. The 'Big' initiative never really took off in the way EA was hoping though; the goodwill generated by the game didn't stop interest waning.
Now a new SSX is set for release on PS3 and 360 in the near future, and looks to redefine itself after later sequels lost their way. We'll soon see if they can recapture the powdery magic of this, the best loved entry in the series. For the time being though this title defines what SSX stood for and what it brought to the landscape at the time; an incredibly fun and slickly produced extreme sports game that still impresses today.