Steep Slope Sliders (1997, Cave for Saturn)
Steep Slope Sliders is one of my absolute favorite videogames for Sega Saturn, and easily my favorite snowboarding game. It just feels authentic. This is how the perfect snowy winter day feels, in its earth tones and blocky textures and puffy snow. And the board feels just right, as you twist and turn and dance down the side of a mountain. I have always had the impression that Cave’s programmers felt this sport in their bones, too. They understood the sub-culture, with its fusion of 1960s surf, 1970s skatepunk, 1980s techno, 1990s rave and trip-hop. They understood the teenage rebellion, the reckless thrill-seeking, the freedom of expression, the art. You’re Jackson Pollack riding the paintbrush down a mile-long canvas. All of these, they felt in their bones.
Best of all, Cave’s team understood the solitude of the sport. This game was always criticized for lacking a two-player mode where you could battle against a friend, or career mode where you compete for status, endorsements and your face on a Wheaties box. But that’s not the idea. In snowboarding, your only true friend and rival are the mountains themselves. It’s just you and nature and silence, and maybe that cassette tape copy of Bocanada playing in your Walkman.
Why are you here? What’s the point? You’re not here to compete in some professional circuit. You’re not here to compete for the Olympics. You’re not here to win competitions and endorsements and fame and glory. You’re here to live in the moment — “the felt presence of immediate experience.” You are here to surf the mountains, hills, forests and farms. You’re here to better yourself, to find that one perfect spot to make that perfect jump and score the perfect trick. There is always room for improvement, always another hill or rock that you can use to perform that stunt. That is why you exist.
Steep Slope Sliders is a videogame where you are dropped out of a moving helicopter onto mountains and are left to your own devices. Conratulations, kid, welcome to the world. Now do something with yourself before the trip ends.
Little details abound. See that screenshot above of the two teenagers whacking the metal sculpture with baseball bats? Hah! Take that, Nintendo. Another group of teens are seen playing basketball, while a couple skateboarders are riding around. I think I saw a young couple making out by a finish line. A dog chases you through his farm. Hot air balloons float by in the background. Snow blasts out from your board in thick patches.
The controls are what makes this game a classic. Jump, Grab, Flip, Turn. That’s it. Using the shoulder buttons to shift your weight and move the board allows for some highly fluid turns in tight spaces. You’ll quickly learn to add more moves to the longer jumps and learn how to improvise. It’s really a rough draft for Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which forever set the standard for all “extreme” sports videogames to follow.
The level designs are sensational mashups of varying environments and themes, in that classic arcade videogame fashion. There’s no logical reason why there should be a log cabin on the edge of a cliff, or why there should be a train in the middle of a mountain, or why a snowboarding run should suddenly dump into a highway. For that matter, why are you surfing over an endless asteroid belt or the Death Star Trench? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. The mountains in Steep Slope Sliders tower above you at menacing angles, and each helicopter drop is a rush. Cool Boarders and 1080 play like county fair rides, sanitary and safe and unbelievably gargle-blargle dull. Try riding through rocky terrain and crowded forests in pitch-black darkness. Try hitting that perfect jump when you can’t even see the bottom.
Best of all, I love Steep Slope Sliders because, at its heart, it’s an underdog and a misfit. It’s never interested in being a racing game, certainly not like its peers. It’s not even really interested in most arcade game conventions like level progressions and competitions and gold medals. It’s mostly interested in just surfing for fun, for its own sake. Well, that and ingesting Terence McKenna-levels of psychedelics while tripping on the sound test and contemplating the universe. Where else can you snowboard as an alien, two different spaceships, an oversized stick figure or a dog, then ride an intergalactic wire-frame half pipe or surf an asteroid belt that lies beyond the dark side of the moon?
P.S. Every once in a great while, I get a real hunger for playing Sega Saturn games. It’s fun to revisit old friends and discover new ones, like finding a new hidden park or patch of woods in your home town, or discovering a great restaurant that was located three blocks from your old high school. It also helps me to relax, which is critically important while working a highly stressful day job for a real estate management company that can only be charitably described as an organized crime syndicate without the guns. I’ve seen your future, America. You’re not going to like it. I’ll fire up the Saturn.