The Video Game Critic's
Winter Game Review Special

Updated 12/27/2007

If you're like me, you enjoy playing video games "in season". It's simply more fun and immersive to play a snowy game when the flakes are falling outside. That's why I've put together this page which recommends a few of the many games best played during the cold winter months.

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (Capcom,2007)
System: Xbox 360
Grade: B
screenshotI'm not sure what critics who panned Lost Planet were expecting, but this game delivered exactly what I was looking for: Large scale battles in expansive, snow-covered environments! The premise is familiar: Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, humans colonize bug-infested ice planet, boy is eaten by giant snow-worm. Playing the role of a soldier with only fragments of memory, you'll face off against snow pirates, mech robots, and enormous bugs with glowing orange "thermal cores". 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 difficult 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 multi-player, 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.

Cliffhanger (Sony,1993)
System: Super Nintendo
Grade: B-
screenshotCliffhanger is based on the "white-knuckle action movie" starring Sylvester Stallone. You play a mountain climber named Gabe out to save your friends from the clutches of the evil Qualen (John Lithgow). As you forge your way through side-scrolling stages you'll battle henchmen in snowy mountain environments. There are really only a handful of thugs, but they come in an array of colors. 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
Grade: A
screenshotQuite possibly the best sports game ever produced for the Atari 2600, this two-on-two game brilliantly captures the essence of hockey. As a kid, my father surprised me by bringing this one home one afternoon, and my best friend Andy and I played it constantly. Ice Hockey's graphics are clean and bright, with nicely animated, multi-colored players and a puck that's easy to follow. 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)
System: GameCube
Grade: B+
screenshotBefore reviewing 1080 Degree Avalanche, I played a few rounds of SSX3 to calibrate my snowboarding sensibilities. SSX has been the de facto standard snowboarding series for years, so comparisons to it are inescapable. But Avalanche offers a very different experience. 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
Grade: B+
screenshotBack in the day my friend Eric and I were so stoked about this game we took off the day it came out so we could head straight to the mall to pick it up. The clerk at EB Games asked his manager (who was shrinkwrapping games in plain sight) if we could have a free strategy guide. The response was, "Nah - save 'em for later." What a jerk! That clerk did end up giving us one to share, which was the least he could do considering we paid $75 each! We swung by McDonald's on the ride home and when we arrived back at my room Super Empire Strikes Back did not disappoint. 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 bumrushed 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)
System: Genesis
Grade: A
screenshotIn my humble opinion, NHL '94 was the absolute pinnacle of hockey video games. This edition introduced a number of new features including penalty shots, four-player support, and reverse-angle instant replays. But NHL 94's best addition is its "one-timer" shots (aka "quick-stick"), allowing a player to quickly redirect the puck into the net after receiving a pass. It really adds a whole new dimension to the offense. 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.

Darkwatch (Capcom,2005)
System: Xbox
Grade: B
screenshotAlthough Darkwatch boasts a western theme, this first-person shooter appealed to me more for its winter scenery and occult content. You play the part of Jericho, an outlaw who's slowly becoming a vampire after being attacked by a bloodsucker during a train robbery. Your goal is to hunt down the head vampire Lazarus, but first you'll need to blast hundreds of his skeletal minions back to hell. Darkwatch's graphics look terrific, especially in high definition. 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 acqure 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.

Skiing (Mattel,1980)
System: Intellivision
Grade: B+
screenshotSkiing does a great job of capturing the exhilaration of careening down the slopes halfway out-of-control. Evergreen trees lining the trail look nice against the white powder, and I love the satisfying "whoosh" sound as you round each gate. The top of the course features a scenic mountain backdrop and a bright red finish line awaits you at the bottom. 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)
System: NES
Grade: A
screenshotSome prefer Nintendo's Ice Hockey, but in my eyes Blades of Steel is the definitive hockey game for the NES. Its realistic graphics, digitized sound effects, and tight controls combine to make this the complete package. Like Nintendo's entry, Blades is played on a side-scrolling rink, but the arena is larger and more realistic. Before each contest the teams enter the rink and skate in circles to a disco theme. What is this, the Ice Follies? 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)
System: Playstation
Grade: B+
screenshotMy love of snow led me to purchase this game, and it paid off. Sled Storm is a realistic snowmobile racer with blizzard conditions, icy mountain scenery, and good multi-player support. The races deliver white-knuckle thrills as you bound over hills, careen through valleys, and sideswipe your opponents to gain position. A steady frame-rate keeps the action running smoothly - even on the four-player split screen! 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
Grade: A-
screenshotThis Olympic-style title is even better than Summer Games, thanks to its bright, wintery conditions. You can almost feel the chill in the air! Only four events are included, but they're all winners. The first is the biathlon, which is a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The key to this event is moving your skier's legs to the beat of the heart displayed in the lower corner. 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.