SSX Tricky a snowboarder reflects

A lot of my spare time has been wasted annoying my sister by playing SSX Tricky on her Playstation 2. Thanks to this dedicated effort, I've been getting quite good at the game, though the final gold medal for showing off on the Alaska course still eludes me. I've yet to find another recent console game as compelling. All the other Playstation 2 games I've tried, quite simply, suck -- especially the cute ones. (Perhaps my sister just needs to get some more games. What would I enjoy buying her for Christmas?)

I haven't had this much fun playing an arcade game since Doom came out; I never understood the attractions of Tomb Raider -- as a game. So why is SSX Tricky so addictive? So, well, good? There are a number of possible reasons:

  • the richness of the game and its movements, which must come from being based on a real sport that brings a lot of worked-out realism and detail to the game. With existing moves and structure to emulate, there's no need to invent what must be merely fleshed out. This should be expected to hold for all sports simulations, but I find that sports based around teams or relying heavily on arm movements just don't transfer well to video games.

  • being based on a previous game (SSX) and being an iterative refinement with enhancements. Better the second time around; the choice of speed in racing or subtlety in tricking competitions really adds depth.

  • the time it takes to truly learn the nuances of each course and the multiple routes through them.

  • the multidimensional improvement of the characters over time as you progress and increase in experience and abilities. Okay, that's de rigeur for most games these days.

The real reason for returning to SSX Tricky is the interaction richness and control complexity of something that uses all but one button on the Dualshock II controller, and uses them well. The player control and feedback loop and the resulting sense of involvement are rich and satisfying -- something I can't say for similar games like Airblade or Wipeout 2047.

There are, however, things that could be improved in SSX Tricky. You have to wonder about perspective; the size of your boarder varies relative to rails, and doesn't seem to match up with what you see in playback. Your avatar can seem like a sprite that isn't always to scale with the vector backdrop it has been overlaid on, or with other characters.

You don't normally feel as though you're on a slope, because you have no sense of the horizontal, and though you can whip your board off at a moment's notice and throw it over your head during the big air of a physically-impossible Übertrick, you can't just step off it and lose points by trudging back uphill to do a trick you missed.

Collision detection could be better; it's far too easy to speed straight through raised rails or crash through horizontal platforms in your way, or to have your board intersect a rock, wall or line of cardboard-cutout spectators. At speed in racing, this is forgiveable; when showing off and doing tricks it's a lot more noticeable. You can't use an arm to fend off an approaching cliff, though once your character is experienced enough you can happily angle yourself and board straight down rock surfaces.

The bounding sphere that provides background scenery is far too small; on the practice slope, a high jump makes the mountain opposite appear to loom and bend over you. (This could be fixed by having a much larger sphere containing the sky, around a number of nested semi-transparent cylinders on which mountain surfaces are drawn, faking some degree of parallax.)

The trick books don't really reflect the range or richness of tricks; ideally you wouldn't even be able to do a trick until you'd first mastered by repetition all of the moves it depended on, and you'd unlock the Übertricks last of all. (New players could be started on partly-developed characters to work around beginner frustration here.)

Übertricks are überemphasised; I didn't even read the manual and discover how to do them until I'd finally started wondering how to achieve the seemingly-impossible scores needed for silver and gold trick medals.

Having trouble completing a trickbook because you accidentally keep doing tricks that should be harder and less accessible, like turning 1080° instead of 720°, is just annoying. It would be good to see the player abilities reflected on a fan graph with branching decision trees from the centre out; player at centre, Übertricks at perimeter, areas of completed tricks marked out around the player. A linear trickbook doesn't really cut it for showing you what you have and haven't tried, or for pointing out the family of movements you didn't even know you could explore.

The Untracked level, with its snowy trees reminiscent of Rodney Matthews artwork, isn't worth the effort to unlock. It's far more thrilling to go off-piste on Garibaldi, hear the birds chirping in the quiet, and have the ambient soundtrack kick in for a few precious seconds as you dream of getting airborne in Glider Rider.

Pipedream? The Tokyo Megaplex level is even less realistic, but it's much more fun. Now, a realistic dry ski slope with other skiers in the way might be better; overshoot the end of the course and wipe out when you bite asphalt in the car park.

Two-player racing? A four-player mode with two computer players onscreen as well might be more interesting to watch, but the low screen resolution is against this; you'd really want to network two Playstations. A way to do two-player competitive tricking is needed -- where doing tricks takes time or points from your opponent. Picture-in-picture display for one-player mode, showing a variety of camera views and replays of the action in the inset in realtime, would be far more entertaining.

You can't choose the time of day or season for boarding your favourite slope. Garibaldi at sunset? Merqury City at dawn? Alaska at night? (You know, the other six months of the year?) These should be just a choice of lighting and texturemaps away. I'd like to try racing in jet blackness, wearing a miner's lamp, or hurtling through crowds of bewildered novice skiiers, which is, after all, what snowboarders usually do. And you'd expect subsequent racing heats to be at different times of the day.

Running down a closed and empty course? Back in time on the naked mountain before the course was developed? Extreme variations? Imagine starting on top of the world, with only the hiss of your oxygen mask for company. You can't parachute off a high cliff (a la Cliffhanger) to do truly Big Air tricks, or experience snowboarding at speed just ahead of an oncoming computer-generated avalanche (a la xXx). As a game, SSX Tricky isn't realistic enough -- but it's not quite fantastic enough either.

On realism: you can, if you try, always locate the edges of the course and be punished by being wiped out just before you can enter the barren wastes of spriteland. Being Unmapped is probably the worst thing about Untracked, where finding the course edges is the only challenge available in a linear run that is essentially Unplanned. Ideally you would would never reach those edges, because you would begin at the apex of a fully-mapped-out cone.

Racing lacks intelligent opposition; the computer characters never use shortcuts, even after you have used them yourself. There aren't enough computer characters of mixed abilities, which would lead to more variations and more rounds to complete for each medal. Wiping out should be permanent, and you should learn whether you broke an arm or leg or worse. Restarting events makes it far too easy to win medals; if you abort you should be back to the first heat.

There are minor glitches, too -- compare the end of the Alaska course in racing and in showoff modes. There is poor interaction between trickbook interfaces, where you have to select the trickbook twice as you move between parts of the game. The spinning Tricky button is just a flipping bitmap with faked highlighting, when it could double as an artificial horizon -- a straight line across it would mean the camera view is horizontal, an oval that the camera is tilting. There are some really irritating typos in the backstories. And why does the DJ say 'player one' or 'player two' when there are perfectly good character names to use? My name is Elise, dammit!

Even given these slight irritations that long hours of play has made impossible not to notice, SSX Tricky is absorbing. It's good. If a sequel (SSX Extreme?) was produced, with more courses, characters and refined play, I'd promptly buy it and play it to death. And hey, I'd even let sis have a go if she wanted too.

Enough of this unavowed approbation of a commercial console game. What does Linux have to offer to compete with the consoles' SSX Tricky?

Well, there's the unavowedly commercial and unbearably cute Tux Racer, which has given me about one frame every two seconds under X on a Savage video card (which, admittedly, doesn't have accelerated OpenGL). Tux Racer lets me experience an unresponsive penguin and twee music, that, irritatingly, plays perfectly even as the game itself doesn't. (Unlike Maelstrom, where the rendering is fine but the sounds lag seconds behind what my Mac IIsi could generate.)

This is arguably not a fair comparison, since Tux Racer trades hardware assistance for portability, I can edit its options to make it ever-so-slightly-less unplayable, and I haven't even gotten the commercial demo to run to see if the commercial version is as wholly lame as its freeware counterpart. But why would you even want to run Tux Racer under Playstation Linux when you just play SSX instead? There's no contest. I just wish knocking down the penguins on the Aloha Ice Jam run was more fun.

SSX Tricky has sold me on snowboarding. Though I've only ever skiied around Lake Tahoe, I'm really going to have to get around to putting my best foot forward and trying the real thing.


Lloyd Wood (L.Wood@ee.surrey.ac.uk)
this page last updated 26 August 2003