I’ve never been snowboarding in my life. I went skiing once about 8 years ago, but I was bad enough to prompt my instructor to label me “The Snow Caterpillar”. I never enjoyed myself and I’ve never been skiing since. Thankfully, the world of video games allows me to carve up fresh powder and pull off dizzying jumps from the comfort of my living room, without having to rent expensive equipment and risk frostbite of the nether regions (and there are no snooty instructors to name me after an insect). Despite my hatred of real-life winter sports, virtual snowboarding is heaps of fun, and one game in the early 2000s did it better than anyone. I’m strapping on my goggles and greasing up my board (those are snowboarding terms, right?) to revisit one of my favourite ever games: SSX 3.
The original SSX came out in 2000 and set a high bar for sports racing games: the action was fast and loud, the tracks were varied and challenging and the characters were vibrant and diverse. It was followed in 2001 by SSX Tricky, which added a few new tweaks to the already-excellent formula: the character roster was expanded to include a few new faces; they added a couple of new tracks and remixed a few old ones; and of course, they introduced über tricks, the physics-defying special moves you could unleash when you had performed enough regular tricks (which still looked very cool) to fill up your über meter. SSX Tricky was stupid amounts of fun, but while it was well-received, it was criticised by some as being too similar to its predecessor. It seems EA took this into consideration, because the series’ third installment took things in a revolutionary direction.
SSX 3 came out at a time when I was obsessed with gaming – back when video game magazines were still relevant, dial-up internet was still a thing (at least in my house) and MSN messenger was the primary mode of communication between teenagers. I was too lazy to get myself a paper round, so I would ask my long-suffering parents to buy me a new game every couple of months or so, which meant long stretches where I would fixate on the next game I wanted and drive myself nuts with anticipation. One of those games was SSX 3. I’d read articles about it during its development, staring at the same three or four screenshots for far too long, absorbing every last detail from the pages while I waited for the game to be released. It seemed impossible for it to be able to live up to my expectations, but I can remember loving the game when it came out: it was stunningly beautiful, it was open-world, and it was tremendous fun – and best of all, the über tricks had been ramped up to insane levels since the already-bombastic SSX Tricky.
Let’s start with that open world: right at the beginning of the game you’re dropped from a helicopter onto the top of a mountain, with very little instruction after that. You make your way down the slopes, doing the occasional trick or, like me, picking your jaw off the floor while gazing at the gorgeous landscape. The environment is impeccably designed: the routes down the peaks funnel you towards different destinations, but it doesn’t feel overly restrictive. You’re encouraged to compete in various competitions, but in between you’re free to shred, trick, and grind to your heart’s content (apologies for the cringe-worthy terminology – as I said earlier, I’ve never been snowboarding). The freedom to navigate a whole mountain elevates the game beyond others in the genre. Suddenly it’s not just about finishing first in a race or outscoring your opponents in a trick contest: you can traverse the slopes at your own pace, discovering hidden secrets and participating in light-hearted challenges, dipping back into the competition when it suits you.
“Conquer the Mountain” is the game’s version of a campaign mode: you pick a rider and pit yourself against the competitors, unlocking new tracks as you win to progress up the mountain. Each victory earns you money, which you can spend either on boosting your attributes or buying new gear. There’s an impressive focus on customisation, with a decent array of different looks for each character; it’s not nearly as deep as other games, but adds an endearing level of personalisation. The characters themselves are unfortunately hit-and-miss: in particular the new additions are forgettable at best and irritating at worst. There is some redemption in returning favourites like Moby and Psymon, but even they feel toned down compared to their SSX Tricky counterparts. I get that things need to feel more pragmatic in the context of the game’s setting, but it’s a shame to lose the wacky charm of SSX Tricky.
Luckily, the riders are far from the most important part of the game: the real characters are the race and freestyle courses. The breakneck race tracks get tougher as you progress up the mountain, and feature environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, and the freestyle events offer compelling variations on the “do as many ridiculous tricks as you can before time runs out” formula. The Slopestyle courses are works of art: sprawling pistes packed with jumps, rails and hidden paths, allowing for plenty of expression and challenging you to find a route that incorporates enough tricks to bag as many points as you can. The Big Air and Superpipe competitions are shorter, more contained experiences, with the focus squarely on cramming as many back flips, spins and grabs as possible into your limited time. While each track is superbly designed and a joy to traverse, it would have been nice to see a few more of them; progressing through the main game mode demands multiple attempts of each course, and the sheen wears off a little on the fifth or sixth run.
I think there’s an inevitable amount of repetition in any racing game, but the great ones play well enough that you keep coming back. To that point, riding in SSX 3 feels fantastic. The controls are tight and responsive, and gliding down the pistes just feels right – there’s a noticeable improvement in the fluidity of movement since SSX Tricky. In the tricks department things are much the same: the shoulder buttons still correspond to various board grabs you can make in mid-air, and you get points for successful landings. The wrinkle here is that you have a short timer in between tricks: if you pull off another move in time, you get a combo multiplier bonus added on to your score, which gives you a massive boost in competitions. The designers also made use of the right analog stick to introduce the “board press”: just click in the right thumbstick and your rider will perform the snowboarding equivalent of a wheelie, leaning back and popping the front of their board in the air. It’s a neat little addition that allows you to chain moves together in between jumps and build your multiplier bonus for ridiculous trick scores.
SSX 3 also features an in-game radio that plays while you’re crossing the slopes in between events, with the unfortunately-named DJ Atomika giving you updates on your progress in the competition and sharing the occasional piece of gossip from around the mountain. It’s all inane chatter, but it does create a welcome sense of immersion during your time with the game. What stands out even more is the soundtrack: the tracks and artists are typical of the early 2000s, but there are some legitimately good songs here from the likes of Basement Jaxx, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers. (Plus, I’m a sucker for some of the semi-emo, pop punk numbers: makes me feel like an angsty teen all over again.)
With most sports or racing games, true enjoyment comes from your unique experiences when playing. There’s no story to SSX 3, so you create your own: landing a complex, multi-grab trick just as you’re about to hit the snow to win a freestyle event; or holding back your boost until the last second to surge past an opponent at the finish line. SSX 3 offers plenty of these moments, in addition to being a beautifully constructed snowboarding sim. It’s truly stunning even today, on an old PS2: the snow glitters perfectly, and the vistas are legitimately breathtaking. It’s also terrific fun to play, and chaining together a series of gravity-bending tricks will always be immensely satisfying. I may be a Snow Caterpillar in real life, but as long as I’m enjoying myself this much in the virtual world, I couldn’t care less.