The Video Game Critic's
Winter Game Review Special
If you're like me you enjoy playing video games "in season". It's simply more fun and immersive to play a winter-themed game when it's freezing outside and they're calling for snow. That's why I've put together this page. Here you'll find can't-miss recommendations for games you'll enjoy curling up with during the cold winter months.
Motorstorm: Arctic Edge (Sony,2009)|
System: Playstation 2
The tracks are easier to navigate and the controls are forgiving, minimizing the frustration factor. Your diverse vehicle selection includes buggies, motorbikes, muscle cars, trucks, and even snow plows! The bright courses wind through various Alaskan locations with icy cliffs, muddy valleys, huge banks, and expansive snowy tundra. If you're someone who appreciates games with wintry themes, Arctic Edge is a dream-come-true. The scenery is spectacular but never over-the-top, and realistic wooden structures reflect the native Eskimo culture. The tracks offer a slew of alternate paths, and well-placed ramps let you catch major air.
As with other Motorstorm titles, this one conveys the thrill of driving halfway-out-of-control as you careen down steep hills and weave through shadowy caves. You can apply the turbo liberally and push your vehicle to dangerous speeds. As you ascend the ranks in the "festival" mode, you'll not only participate in wild races but also addictive solo challenges.
Motorstorm's graphics are exceptionally good for a PS2 title, and those sun flares look sensational! The crashes aren't much to look at, but that's not a big loss. The split-screen mode works beautifully, and I love how it lets you toss a few CPU racers into the mix. Vibration feedback is also used to good effect. The guitar-heavy soundtrack can get on your nerves, but you can always turn that down via the options menu. Motorstorm: Arctic Edge is a must-have title for the cold winter months ahead. Highly underrated, this might even edge out its PS3 cousins!
Alpine Games (Duranik,2004)|
The controls are easy to grasp and a nice glossy manual serves as a handy reference. The opening event is Biathlon where you press buttons alternately to move your legs to cross-country ski. There are guide meters at the bottom but it's hard to take your eyes off the snowy scenery. This is one beautiful game.
Next up is "snowboard rush" where you find yourself weaving around flags in a halfpipe. Although they're color-coded I always get confused about what side I need to pass them on. Freestyle Aerials (or Hot Dog as they used to call it) involves shooting off a ramp and performing tricks in mid-air. It's pretty easy if you can get off the ramp cleanly.
Speed skating is another rhythm game, and I couldn't help but notice ads for the Jaguar and Lynx ad banners in the background. Slalom offers an overhead view with an arrow pointing you to the next flag. Not much to see in this one. Snowboard halfpipe lets you perform tricks by quickly entering directional commands.
The ski jump event provides a somewhat alarming first-person perspective as you speed down a ramp at breakneck speeds. Fortunately it's not hard to nail the landing. Bobsled can be a little tricky to figure out, but that's what the practice mode is for. Wrapping things up is figure skating where you press button combinations to perform tricks to the tune of Billy Joel's Piano Man.
You can run through all of these events in well under a half hour. I wish it were easier to rank in, but that's just part of the challenge. You do however get an overall score at the end, allowing you to measure your progress. Alpine Games might just be the best homebrew I've ever played. I can't think of a better game to curl up with while stuck at home on a snowy day.
Arctic Thunder (Midway,2002)|
You'll see awesome sights like a Russian sub breaking through the ice and a Frankenstein monster suspended from the ceiling of a haunted castle. Some stages are way over the top but there are also scenic locations like the Swiss Alps with its pristine white slopes and quaint villages. The tracks are wide and inviting and you're constantly noticing something new.
There's a nice sense of speed as well - even in the four-player split-screen mode. The controller vibration however tends to get a little out of hand. Arctic Thunder is fun but shallow. Instead of crashing into walls or trees you just carom off everything. Heat-seeking weapons wreak havoc but even when you blow up the game places you right back on the track - at full speed no less! In fact I'm not convinced there's any penalty for wiping out at all, and that takes a lot of tension out of the game. The developers went so overboard with power-ups you just tend to use them immediately just to make room for the next one.
You enter initials for your best times in arcade mode and "points mode" lets you unlock tracks, vehicles, and characters. I became addicted to unlocking all the tracks because they are so fascinating. I should also mention the load times are remarkably short - almost instantaneous! Unfortunately, the game has a bug that causes the audio to cut out periodically. With little substance but plenty of instant gratification, Arctic Thunder is like the comfort food of winter games.
Aero the Acro-Bat 2 (Sunsoft,1994)|
The castle oozes atmosphere with cobwebs, shady corners, and stone windows. Unlike the original game there are no specific objectives - just make it to the exit. Using your drill attacks is more satisfying this time thanks to improved sound effects and less pesky enemies. Interesting new gizmos include bell chains to swing from and gears that fling you across the room. The varied music includes some of that trademark Genesis "rubber band funk".
Zone two is where the game really takes off. It almost feels like a bonus stage as you glide up and down hills on a snowboard, jumping ramps and soaring through the air while snagging goodies. That snowy mountain scenery is refreshing! The next stage is nearly as good, albeit a little slushier. This time Aero is trudging through snow caves while fighting little Russian dancers.
Additional stages include a psychedelic disco, an underground train, and a dungeon rendered in gorgeous blue and orange tones. A handy password feature is available via the options menu. Aero the Acro-Bat 2 doesn't come cheap, but if you enjoy Genesis platformers you may want to consider breaking your piggy bank for this one.
Cool Boarders 3 (989,1998)|
The refined graphics feature smooth, rounded hills, which are a welcome sight after carving the angular slopes of the first two Cool Boarder games. The characters are also less blocky and come in an assortment of fashionable models. While the back of the box mentions 34 courses, don't believe it. There are really only six locations, and there's little to see besides trees and mountains.
That's fine with me however, because I prefer natural beauty over artificial hazards. The trails are strewn with rocks to jump over, pipes to grind, and ugly, pixelated trees to swerve around. The final trail places you in a race against an avalanche, which is usually futile but always exciting.
Cool Boarder 3's control scheme has been overhauled to finally support analog steering, and the difference is dramatic. Thanks to the vibration feedback function, you can practically feel your board carving into the icy tundra. Navigating the courses is a pleasure and performing tricks seems effortless at times. The game seems to automatically reorient your character as he's about to land from a jump, which makes the game much easier.
The music consists of generic guitar noise, and you'll want to turn it down in favor of the excellent whooshing and crunching of snow. Bonus features include multi-angle replays and the ability to punch your opponents - always a plus. If you're a fan of snowboarding games, you owe it to yourself to track down this oldie-but-goodie.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Parker Bros,1982)|
System: Atari 2600
Your scanner indicates their position and should one of these hulking behemoths reach the right edge, the Rebel Alliance is toast. Fighting a walker is a high-tech game of cat-and-mouse. They can be destroyed by shooting one 48 times. That's right, I said 48 times. The walker's color reflects its level of damage, and the use of yellow and fuschia tends to undermine the sense of realism.
Every now and then a flashing pixel indicates a weak point, making it possible to destroy the walker with one well-placed shot. Unfortunately the spot only appears momentarily and is hard as [expletive] to hit. Walkers unleash laser blasts that are really hard to avoid. Fortunately you can land to repair your ship (twice per ship).
Should you manage to keep a ship intact for two minutes the rousing Star Wars theme kicks in and you're awarded with 20 seconds of invincibility (yeee-ha!). The game offers expert variations like "solid walkers" where you can't fly through the AT-ATs (although you can fly through their legs). The "smart bomb" variations cause AT-AT missiles to chase you around and it will drive you nuts.
I'll stick with the default variation which is hard enough, thank you. What I like best about Empire Strikes Back is how it conveys the tension and suspense of a real invasion. I actually got a blister playing this game. It seems shallow on the surface but Empire delivers satisfying twitch gameplay and relentless challenge.
Polaris SnoCross (Vatical,2000)|
The visuals are much better than the Nintendo 64 version, with better-defined scenery and no noticeable draw-in. The music consists of understated electronic beats. Be selective when choosing your new snowmobile before each race. Go with the one with high top speed or else your three CPU competitors will crowd you out of the field. Fortunately they tend to wipe out on their own which helps level the playing field. Expect a lot of bouncing around as you bound over hills and jostle for position. The tracks are a bit on the long side but multiple paths keep things interesting.
The single-player tournament mode lets you unlock new tracks and a split-screen supports up to four players. The four-player mode is disappointing though because the first-person view makes it impossible to see your tricks. The night tracks feel like a missed opportunity. Instead of a village illuminated with holiday lights, it looks like someone just turned down the brightness on my TV. The game also seems a little buggy, locking up on one occasion. Polaris SnoCross has its problems but it's perfectly good for curling up on a cozy snowy night.
Thin Ice (INTV,1986)|
Thin Ice has a bit of a Qix flavor, offering an innovative mix of skill with strategy. Your main nemesis is a red seal who's constantly on your case. He'll bounce your tuxedo-ass right off the board if he touches you. To throw him off your trail, you'll need to swim through water or zig-zag around. Unfortunately, if there's one move the mushy Intellivision pad cannot do well, it's zig-zags! A small polar bear is also out to get you, but you can "freeze" him by pressing one of the side buttons. Be careful not to carve out too much of the ice, because then you'll be stuck with no way to sink the remaining penguins.
Thin Ice is loaded with personality and amusing details. Bright snowy mountain peaks can be seen in the background, along with little igloos that signify completed waves. Between stages your penguin clears the screen by riding a big red sled across it. The game has an impressive title screen and a pleasant harmonized soundtrack. I used Thin Ice at Video Game Mania 8, and though I wasn't sure how it would go over, everyone seemed to like it. If you're a collector of Intellivision games, this is a showcase title for your collection.
1080 Degree Snowboarding (Nintendo,1998)
System: Nintendo 64
The graphics are superb, with awesome mountain backdrops, icy ridges, and blowing snow that looks so real you can feel the chill! I actually had to wear a hat, ski pants, and ski boots just to review this game. Most of the six courses are fairly realistic, and even the more unusual courses never go completely over-the-top like those in SSX (Playstation 2, 2000). The trails are more narrow than other snowboarding games, but it's not a problem since the analog stick provides just the right degree of control. The sound of crisp snow crunching under your board is awesome, and I like the way snow flies as you slice through it.
One negative aspect of the game is the soundtrack, which dishes out some of the most repetitive crap I've ever heard in a video game. Also, I noticed that some characters have trouble nailing their landings even after performing simple tricks. Otherwise 1080 is a phenomenal title that's hard to put down. A nice two-player split screen mode is included and the cartridge automatically saves high scores. Before SSX came along, nothing could touch this.
Winter Challenge (Tynesoft,1988)|
System: Atari XEGS
After the obligatory opening "torch" screen you're prompted to enter the names for up to six players. You also have the option of selecting which of the five events you'd like to participate in. It's a great feature, because there's a good chance you'll hate at least one of them. You begin with downhill skiing which employs a behind-the-back view as you weave through trees and hop over logs.
The controls are intuitive but the scaling is rough, and during jumps it looks like you're barely lifting your feet! The key to the second event, ski jump, is to keep your skis parallel in the air so you can nail the landing. Your skier looks like a blue yeti, but I love the view of the trees and snowy village below. The biathlon event makes you wiggle the joystick to cross-country ski between screens, stopping periodically to shoot targets by guiding a wavering crosshair.
The scenery really steals the show with spectacular mountain peaks, bridges over tranquil streams, and gorgeous lake views. Be sure to take your time during the shooting phases, because the penalties for missed shots are severe. The next event, slalom, is tough for novices because it moves so fast. Even if you can avoid crashing into a wall, it's hard to tell what side of the flags you're supposed to be on! I guess that's what the "retry" option is for! Like most events, slalom is fun once you get the hang of it.
That can't be said for the final event however. Bobsled is positively yawn-inducing! The course feels like it's 600 miles long, and just the thought of running three heats is nauseating! There's no closing ceremony to conclude the games, just a simple medal standings display. Winter Challenge could have used more polish, but it does live up to its name, and its nicely illustrated scenery gives the game added appeal.
Winter Heat (Sega,1997)|
Despite its age, Winter Heat stacks up to be the most enjoyable winter Olympics game ever made. There are eleven events, and only two buttons (speed and action) are required to play. The A and C buttons are both assigned to "speed", so you can tap them in tandem. Each event is preceded by some brief instructions, and the loading times are minimal. The events are so short, so it doesn't take long to play the entire circuit. Not only can you compete against up to six friends (via the multi-tap), but you can also play the game for high score.
The graphics are cheerful and bright, exuding a polished arcade look. The athletes include some huge Scandinavian dudes, but also some cute snow bunnies. The snow-covered trees and pixelated spectators look chunky, but the distant mountains look beautiful, and the look and feel of a frosty environment comes across well. Although the digital controls are somewhere harsh for events that require finesse, they are certainly responsive.
Events like the downhill and bobsled convey an exciting breakneck sense of speed. Several events allow two players to race at the same time, including speed skating, cross-country, and slalom. After the winner takes the podium, you're treated to highlights of his performance as the credits roll. High scores are saved automatically. Winter Heat is an outstanding Saturn title, and I really can't recommend this game enough to fans of winter sports.
Mogul Maniac (Amiga,1983)|
System: Atari 2600
You can really get into a rhythm swerving side-to-side, and I love the whooshing sound effects. You can adjust your speed to some degree by pressing the joystick forward or backward, but like real skiing, it's inexact. The nine courses each have their own gate configurations, number of gates, and maximum speed. The "bunny trail" variations are a snore, but the fast ones (like #6) are challenging enough.
There's little scenery except for a lonely gray mountain in the distance. Despite its name there are no moguls to be found, or maniacs for that matter (unless you count the person playing, in which case your point is well taken). I like Mogul Maniac but wish the programmers had taken the concept a little further. It would have been pretty neat if they had a separate "downhill" mode with trees instead of gates. There's not a whole lot to Mogul Maniac, but what it does it does well.
Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder (Activision,2001)|
System: Playstation 2
If you've played any snowboarding (or even skateboarding) games in the last ten years, you'll pick up on this immediately. The character selection includes a lot of big names, including a young, Opie-looking Shaun White. What's the deal with that goofy photo of Shaun Palmer?
I really enjoyed the game's realistic courses (including Aspen and Lake Tahoe) with plenty of ski lifts, snow-covered cabins, fallen trees, and maintenance facilities. You can even shatter glass and slide right through the lodge. I love the digitized scenery that fills the distance, but it could be sharper. The attention to detail is nice, like the way your windbreaker flutters in the wind and sparks fly when you grind.
The career mode presents you with a list of challenges that allow you to unlock new locations. Unfortunately, many objectives are ambiguous, and just unlocking the second course is a headache. One objective, "Bonk the gondola", isn't something I'd normally do, but if it means unlocking some of these awesome courses, count me in! I quickly became addicted to this game. The runs are short, so you keep hitting the retry option.
As for performing tricks, you can go crazy with the buttons in mid-air, as long as you leave yourself a second to land with your board pointed forward (no points for wiping out). One cheap but effective technique is to land with a grind whenever possible, since it automatically repositions your body perfectly.
The game lacks a breakneck sense of speed (due to its emphasis on tricks perhaps), but the two-player split-screen mode is surprisingly good. The abrasive soundtrack is typical of "extreme" games, but the "I hate everything" vibe can get a little old. Still, if you can deal with some obnoxious music and vaguely sexual objectives, you'll find Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder to be quite habit-forming.
Ski-Doo Snowmobile Challenge (Valcon,2009)|
System: Xbox 360
I like the sense of progression as you gradually unlock a list of courses spanning Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and the US. It's easy to upgrade your ride with winnings because the game doesn't confuse you with a lot of technical jargon. Just like real snowcross the first turn is pure chaos as players tend to collide with each other.
There's a lot of excitement but it's the amazing soundtrack that really elevates Ski-Doo to the next level. These alternate rock tracks are so good my friend Brent thought we were listening to the Foo Fighters for crying out loud. I love most of the songs but my favorites are "June" by Fight the Quiet and "Take Me Away" by Hello Operator.
One thing that trips up the fun are the stunt challenges. Performing stunts requires finger contortions and the bar for clearing these events is too high. It really doesn't pay to perform stunts during races because any adrenaline boost you earn will be used to plow into the nearest wall. Some of the courses run a bit too long which can cause the two-player split-screen mode to feel a little tedious. Oh well, at least you have those kick-ass tunes to keep your head bopping.
SSX On Tour (Electronic Arts,2005)|
Performing fancy tricks is frustrating until you learn to "wind up" spins and flips before you take off. You can't just initiate them in mid-air as in previous games. The instructions do a poor job of explaining this vital detail, but once you get it down, you'll be pulling off crazy tail-wag/sinful-indy/rubber-chicken-salad/meatball-spaghetti combos with ease. The controls are flawless, and the Gamecube's analog stick proves ideal for carving the slopes. Performing grinds is pretty much automatic, and I like how tapping B lets you recover from falls. I also like how your character makes an effort to reorient himself before landing a trick.
The single-player "tour" mode is madly addictive, and it's fun to climb the rankings after each win. Naturally, you can also race against a buddy via the split-screen. Like all other SSX games, the courses are loaded with obstacles, lights, fireworks, roller coaster-like rails, and strategically-placed ramps. While never boring, they do tend to be a bit "much". I would have preferred a few open, natural-looking trails.
SSX On Tour features a classic rock theme and menus that resemble doodles from an old high school notebook. The hard rock soundtrack sounds dated at times, but Def Leppard's "Let It Go" and Iron Maiden's "Run To The Hills" are standout tracks. All in all, SSX On Tour offers high-speed thrills that even the most casual gamers should appreciate.
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (Capcom,2007)|
System: Xbox 360
The graphics are sensational. The snowy terrain features fantastic city ruins, vast snowy plains, and majestic rivers of ice floes. Less impressive are the generic interior cave locations. Lost Planet is mainly a third-person shooter, with some weapons so large they need to be dragged along the ground! The rampaging bugs are awesome, and each variety exhibits a unique set of attacks. Some will attempt to steam-roll you, and others use their oversized front legs to pound you into oblivion. The glowing thermal cores give away their weak spots, but those spots aren't always easy to hit! Once dead, the bugs freeze solid, so your next shot shatters their carcass into a thousand pieces (sweet).
High-jumping mechs also play a role in the action, and you'll man them as often as you'll battle them. I love the vibration effects of these things stomping in the snow. Unfortunately, the controls for these mechanical beasts are less than responsive, which is frustrating when you're getting pounded non-stop by rockets. Much has been made of the game's explosion effects, and they are in fact probably the best I've seen. Still, all that smoke and fire tends to obfuscate your vision, making it difficult to tell what's going on.
Lost Planet incorporates a few other interesting elements like grappling hooks that pull you up to high ledges, and data posts that recharge your thermal energy and point you in the right direction. The main problem with the game is its wildly uneven difficulty. Some bosses are so relentlessly hard that you'll want to set the difficulty to easy just to avoid the inevitable frustration. It doesn't help that the collision detection is spotty when facing some of these behemoths.
And where's the split-screen action? Sorry, but if you want to play multiplayer, you'll need to go on-line. Another issue is how you can only save after each mission. Call it frustrating, call it uneven, but you can't deny that Lost Planet is an exciting shooter. The non-stop action and sweeping musical score really got my blood pumping, and I couldn't wait to see what each new mission had in store.
System: Super Nintendo
The kicking and punching action is intense, and proper technique is required to properly dispose of gangs of converging thugs. You can block their attacks, but where is the throw move? It would have been nice to send these goons plunging to an icy death. Enemies blink and disappear when defeated, but sometimes they blink and then get back up in clear violation of video game ordinance. I hate it when they continue fighting with only a tiny sliver of life remaining. Die already!!
In addition to beating the living crap out of everybody Gabe must overcome perilous platform challenges. You'll jump between narrow ledges with gunmen situated on them. You'll hop across floating logs that only surface briefly. You'll scale the side of a mountain as riflemen shoot at you from point-blank range. But the toughest part of the game by far is the ridiculous run-from-the-avalanche stage. It wouldn't be so bad if Gabe didn't trip over every little twig. You'll need to memorize the stage to get through, and it'll cost you many lives in the process.
There are continues available, but they take you way back to the beginning of the stage. Cliffhanger makes up for its by-the-numbers gameplay with its attractive snowy mountain scenery. The icy cliffs, snow-encrusted trees, and mountain backdrops look bright and inviting.
This version looks sharper than the Genesis edition but plays slower. That's fine, because the slower pace actually helps you navigate some of the more hazardous areas. Maybe it's the nostalgia, but I find myself enjoying this game more and more each year. If nothing else, it's enjoyable to play on a snowy day.
Ice Hockey (Activision,1981)|
System: Atari 2600
The outstanding gameplay boasts non-stop action and pinpoint control. When in possession of the puck, it moves back and forth across your stick, and your timing determines the exact angle of your pass or shot. Playing off the boards is really the key to this game. Despite having only two players on each team, passing is surprisingly effective.
Player control switches automatically between your forward and goalie, and it always seems to occur at exactly the right moment. You can even get physical by swinging your stick wildly, knocking your opponent onto his backside! The computer is a worthy challenge, but nothing can beat this game's two-player action. Ice Hockey by Activision is not only a sports classic - it's even better than the real thing!
1080 Degree Avalanche (Nintendo,2003)|
The courses look more natural than the artificial wonders of SSX, and the gameplay is less complicated in general. For casual gamers, this may actually be a better choice. I personally love the understated natural beauty of these courses, with their powdery snow, scenic evergreens, and scurrying wildlife. Most are a joy to behold, although a few inexplicably have more mud and ice than snow (yuck).
The controls are simple as can be, although "rolling" the joystick to regain your balance seems oddly unintuitive. A more practical feature is how your character becomes transparent so your line-of-sight is never obstructed. I also like the slow-motion as you execute mad stunts in mid-air. As much as I love the racing aspect of Avalanche, I have to admit that the "tricks" element of the game is somewhat lacking. Another weakness is its music, which I recommend turning off in favor of the crisp sound effects of slicing through the icy tundra.
A terrific split screen mode allows up to four people to compete against each other, and it doesn't seem watered down at all. I only wish they would have incorporated a multi-round "championship" mode (a la Mario Kart). It's not the most ambitious snowboarding game ever made, but for those who prefer to keep it simple, 1080 Degree Avalanche is the perfect antidote to SSX.
Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (LucasArts,1993)|
System: Super Nintendo
We gazed wide-eyed at the beautiful snow-covered scenery while chomping on our Big Macs. There's something about snow in video games that looks so pure and appealing. Riding a Tauntaun through blizzard conditions was fun, but unlike the barren ice planet in the movie, this Hoth is teeming with life.
You're relentlessly bum-rushed by warthogs, dive-bombed by birds, and stalked by probe droids. Porcupines shoot needles and plants release poisonous spores. Ice shards sprout beneath your feet and electric eels leap out of the water to get you. Everything wants you dead in the worst way, and it takes several whacks of your lightsaber to kill anything. Meanwhile you're sliding on narrow icy platforms over spike-lined pits! The designers threw in everything but the kitchen sink, so the rampant slowdown should come as no surprise.
Still, Empire manages to be a lot of fun thanks to Luke's awesome spinning attack and a generous number of health/power-up icons. Unlike the first game, Luke has the power to block with his lightsaber and employ force powers. The controls are responsive but expect cheap hits, regenerating foes, and blind leaps of faith.
The graphics are first-rate and you have to love subtle details like Luke's hair blowing in the wind. The sweeping orchestrated score adds gravitas, as do the crystal-clear voice samples (particularly Darth Vader's "Impressive!"). The entire first half of the game is set on Hoth, and the 3D stage where you take down AT-AT walkers with tow cables truly pushes the limits of 16-bit power. Later you explore the swampy jungles of Dagobah and the cloud city of Bespin with its gorgeous pastel-red skyline.
Encounters with Boba Fett will thrill Star Wars fans, and the climactic battle between Luke and Vader will have your heart racing! The six-letter password system is easy to use and a top-10 rankings screen makes it fun to play for high score. Super Empire Strike Back is clearly over the top at times, but you can't deny the greatness of this epic title.
NHL '94 (Electronic Arts,1993)|
Other bells and whistles include a season mode, statistic tracking, and player cards. The game is fully customizable, and I'd advise you to turn those penalties off! NHL 94 doesn't have any fighting or blood, but that's okay, because they would only interrupt the flow of the action.
Interesting animations include a little boy in the front row of the crowd who occasionally walks up to the glass. When a player turns a hat trick, yellow hats are thrown onto the ice, although this looks so sloppy that I initially thought it was a glitch in the game! NHL '94 has held up well over the years, and I'd take the Pepsi Challenge between this and a modern hockey game any day of the week.
The action is fast and fluid, and the degree of detail in the scenery is commendable. One of the early stages takes place in a graveyard outside of a church, and it looks magnificent under the eerie moonlight. As you journey through trains, graveyards, mineshafts, and snow-covered forts, you'll blast rampaging skeletal warriors, undead cowboy sharpshooters, and levitating barmaids with glowing red eyes and hoop skirts. These chicks look especially creepy as they swoop down from above and unleash bloodcurdling screams.
Darkwatch is brimming with style, which compensates for its by-the-numbers gameplay. The weapon selection is pretty standard, but at least the crossbow is unique, firing exploding arrows! I love how the skeletal creeps panic when they realize they have one of these things embedded in their chest. You can blast off the limbs of approaching creatures, and it's especially satisfying to detonate the explosive barrels they like to carry around. Throughout the game you'll toss dynamite, man turrets, and drive a jeep mounted with twin gatling guns. During horseback stages you can turn 360-degrees to attack demonic horsemen.
At certain points in the game you're prompted to make a moral decision, and this affects what powers you'll acquire and what enemies you'll face. Another neat feature is your "blood vision", which highlights enemies and items of interest. This is initiated by pushing in the right thumbstick, and I often triggered it accidentally during the more frenetic parts of the game. Darkwatch is generally entertaining, but some stages are better than others. You can get lost in the pitch-black mineshafts, and the aptly named "torture maze" truly lives up to its name.
The four-player split screen game is a nice bonus, but for some reason the two-player split screen doesn't include a scanner, and that stinks when you consider how huge these battlefields are. At its core, Darkwatch may be just another first-person shooter, but it has a certain polish and style few can match.
The steering controls are nearly effortless as you lean from side-to-side while trying to control your momentum. Making contact with a gate will slow you down and penalize your time. Occasionally you'll need to jump over a rocky ridge using the lower side buttons, and it's exciting when you barely clear the rocks. The upper buttons allow for tight turns but I feel like it's more important to keep my fingers on the jumping controls. Due to lousy controller design you can really only commit to one or the other.
In addition to the downhill course there's the slalom which requires a more deliberate approach as you weave through tightly-spaced gates. The value you enter for slope (1-16) is critical as it determines how fast you can go. I recommend 8 as it's fast enough that you'll never get stuck in a rut. Your score is the best of three runs and it's fun to shave seconds off your best time. I just wish you didn't have to hit the reset button to play again! Other than that annoying oversight Skiing is a fun, well designed game. Boots and goggles are optional but recommended for realism.
Blades of Steel (Konami,1988)|
The large players look surprisingly realistic and it's easy to determine which player you control because he flashes brightly. Passing and shooting are responsive and intuitive, and finding an open man in front of the net is key to scoring. Unlike Nintendo's Ice Hockey, your selected defensive player changes automatically, which is very convenient. Battling for the puck often leads to fist fights presented with a special close-up view. These battles let you pummel your opponent by mashing buttons, and the loser is left on his rump as the winner speeds away with the puck. Penalty shots also occur, and these are also impressively depicted with dramatic close-ups.
Blades of Steel's gameplay is fast and intense, but like real hockey, scoring can be like pulling teeth. Digitized sound effects include grunts and referee voices, but I could do without that annoying whistling that accompanies the crowd noise. The limited play-by-play is mainly limited to "makes the pass!" every time you pass the puck. In the tournament mode, I was shocked to see ads for other Konami games ("All your friends will want it!"). There's even a shooter mini-game. Blades of Steel has it all. Not only is it one of the best titles for the NES, but it's one of the best hockey games of all time.
Sled Storm (Electronic Arts,1999)|
The controls are simple but you have the ability to lean into your turns. Catching air and performing tricks lets you rack up points for upgrades, but sometimes it's not worth the risk of a wreck. I love how the sleds bounce softly over the slopes and kick up snow behind them. The courses are ideal in length and come in two flavors: snocross and open mountain. The snocross tracks are closed motorcross-style courses with banked turns and bumpy sections.
I prefer the mountain tracks that wind through scenic forests and along harrowing cliffs. Ramps and hidden shortcuts are abundant and add replay value. You can destroy obstacles like fences and snowmen for points, and I earned 7500 points for running over a rabbit (and yes, I feel bad about that). The steering feels about right and sliding along icy patches is especially fun.
The single-player championship is addictive, and I like how CPU racers tend to wipe out, giving you a chance to come from behind. That's important considering you need to finish first to advance. The soundtrack is dominated by Rob Zombie's blaring "Dragula", but it could be worse, right? Not really! It seems like every "extreme" game of the late 1990's had to license that annoying song. Still, this game is one of the best of its kind. Whether playing alone or against friends, Sled Storm provides ageless competitive winter racing action.
Winter Games (Atari/Epyx,1987)|
System: Atari 7800
The scenery is a winter wonderland of snow-covered evergreens, and the controls are nice and simple. On the downside however, the event runs a bit too long, to the point of feeling repetitive. Next up is speed skating, which is the only event that lets you go head-to-head against a friend. You'll need to move the joystick rhythmically to your skater's strides to reach maximum velocity.
The ski jump event is arguably the best of the bunch. As you take off and soar through the air, you need to constantly correct the position of your body to maintain balance and nail the landing. Points are awarded for both distance and style. The final event is the bobsled, and there really isn't much to it. You basically just steer in the opposite direction of turns to prevent the sled from tipping over. There's no closing ceremonies to wrap things up, and that's a shame because otherwise this is a stellar effort.
Winter photo courtesy of Upslash.com