This game is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S! That’s the best way I can think to describe SBK: Snowboard Kids. It’s a kind of “Hollaback Girl” for video games: silly, grating, and irritatingly fun.
I must admit, I’m a complete snob. I can only consume so much media each year and so I have to deploy my mental and financial resources wisely. I’ve tried to expand my bandwidth, but have butted up against hard caps on my ability to consume more movies, games, books, and music. Despite Herculean efforts to convince my girlfriend to see a movie or play a game each and every night, my average consumption stays the same year after year. Most of my media consumption of late has been divided between movies and games. Movies have the advantage of being finite. I block out two hours, see a movie and I’m done. Because of this, I’m willing to see a schlocky movie simply to be entertained (more often than I’d like to admit). But games are tough. They take so much damn time and cost so much, that as much as I love them, I’m awfully choosy. For the time and cost it takes to play one game, I can see five movies. This allows me to mix B-movies in with those of the art house variety. And by sitting through popcorn movies, I better appreciate the depth of good movies. Conversely, my resource constraints make me very picky about games. My current routine for buying a game: read reviews and decide on game; go to store and look at package; curse store, developer, publisher, and capitalism for the $49.99 price tag; return home empty handed; read more reviews; compare scores on MetaCritic; question how I became so neurotic; eat sandwich; return to store; fetishize package; interrogate store clerk about how much he liked the game; leave, return, and purchase. You are likely thinking, “Well, he could play more games if he cut out several of those steps.” You would be right if human nature were mutable, which it isn’t (at least not in this review—learning may occur, but no personality traits will be overcome).
Because of my neurosis, I’d like to think that I only go in for games that are truly innovative, games that offer a fresh angle on play or indicate an interesting cultural phenomenon. Remember, I’ve only got time for the best. I resolutely turn up my nose at most of the games at my local GameStop. As we all know, truly innovative games are few and far between. When PopMatters sent me SBK for the Nintendo DS, I thought, “Well, it’s not my thing, but at least I get to play a game and cut out all of the kvetching.” My worry turned instead to the resulting review. Before I even had the game in my hands, I decided I would most likely have nothing to say about a game centered around snowboarding punks. An avowed skier, I can barely stand real snowboard culture, much less its electronic simulation. I imagined a review along the lines of “fine, but not my bag.” Then I got the game.
Next thing I know I’m standing around on street corners transfixed by my DS. I’m bumping into poles and strangers as I try to simultaneously snowboard through San Francisco and walk to work in New York. I even commit the sin of the newbie game player: I dodge while playing. In public, no less. Despite all of my better instincts, I’d say I am enthralled with SBK.
So what is it about this game that’s so enthralling? Well, it’s just fun. There’s not much more to my addiction or the game itself than that. After all the game is just a simple framework—a tried and true framework—the kart game. It’s a simple four person racing game, with the added ability to score points by doing tricks. The racing controls are finely tuned, allowing for excellent control over the board as you race. However, several game play elements mar the experience. During races you can shoot or be shot by your opponents. Each shot paralyzes the racer for a few moments. There seems to be little you can do to avoid being shot. And of course you’re most likely to be shot when you’re in the lead. I suppose this helps rubber band the game and keep the race close. But it’s often simply frustrating. You spend a lot of time getting knocked on your face and then hopping forward to get started again. The manual says you can do tricks to avoid shots, but I’ve never managed. During play it just feels random, like the game decided to slow you down for no reason. In some cases you can mitigate the effects of the attack and recover more quickly if you yell into the DS microphone. Now, as I said before, I often take my DS out in public and I’m not about to yell into it in front of a crowd of people—so game designers, I implore you, continue to explore cool new controls like voice control, but please include a setting that allows me to continue playing the game in public without looking like I’m touched.
Groups of races conclude with boss battles that have you racing after and shooting at a gigantic sledding robot. The in-game instructions are horribly oblique and I played the level at least a dozen times before I realized I just had to shoot the boss three consecutive times (dense as well as neurotic, you say—touché). Again, after I consulted the manual, all was clear. But I’m a firm believer that a game should teach players the goals in the game, not in the manual.
But what SBK gets very right is the feeling of speed. Maybe it’s staring intensely into that tiny screen or the finely tuned controls that allow me to lean and skid through turns, but the game evokes in me a definite feeling of kinesthesia. I sometimes have that horrible and thrilling sensation of falling through space as I speed down the race courses. The game tricks my mind into feeling something my body is not experiencing. And this little thrill keeps drawing me back into the game despite the gameplay flaws. As soon as I cross the finish line and the feeling of speed fades away, I have to head back to the starting line for another round. But I can already see that as soon as my mind refuses to be fooled, and I become numb to the kinesthesia, SBK and I will be done with each other.
SBK is that disposable, corny pop song you feel guilty loving. It hits one note so squarely and resoundingly well, that you want to hear it again and again. The hook catches in your brain. Is it innovative? I don’t really think so. And the nonsensical taunts the snowboard kids toss out hardly illuminate. But that’s okay. SBK doesn’t aim for those sorts of things; it aims to entertain. And I found myself perfectly willing to be entertained. I had become so obsessed with games displaying lofty intentions, that I almost forgot decent games could exist solely to be fun. The designers at Atlus didn’t forget. They know the best hook in their game and strum it just enough to produce some pleasant results.