a review of SSX 3
a videogame developed by EA BIG
and published by electronic arts, inc.
for the microsoft xbox, the nintendo gameboy advance, the nintendo gamecube, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the tiger telematics gizmondo
text by Thomas Callahan
Racecourses are lumped together into “peaks”, then stitched between dead-end “slopestyle” and “superpipe” runs. Win exactly three races, one slopestyle competition and one superpipe event to achieve Peak Completion, and Unlock the next peak.
The upshot is that these courses are interconnected, albeit pretty artificially. It’s very important that you can finish barreling down a racecourse (participation is entirely optional) and carve directly into the next one without a loading screen, a signpost, or any sort of hiccup. When you Unlock Final Peak Three, you can drop in directly onto the precarious, finely pointed tip of Big Mountain and tumble downhill for 30 minutes without interruption. This shouldn’t be absolutely exceptional, but it is. Anyone who has pedantically compared Half-Life’s insistence on seamless videogaming and removal of uninteractive cutscenes to cinéma verité will surely scrounge up something of interest here.
Perhaps that came off as a bit harsh. SSX 3’s breathless, mountain-encompassing half-hour of continuous play really does feel as bold and absorbing an endeavor as any meticulously composed extended take. The game boots up with a lengthy series of logos (as per the norm with EA), has you wait around a moment before skipping the intro, and puts you through a sizable loading sequence before granting access to Big Mountain — the tradeoff being that it will never stop you pushing buttons again. Judging by the sporadic clicking of machinery in my GameCube, memory/RAM is hauled up during the occasional “base runs”, which serve as gateways to different Events. That these runs are fairly barren has something to do with disc-reading, I suppose. All the same, they keep up illusions far better than menus, meters or videoclips; though they are visibly contrived, at the very least they continue the constant engagement of my thumbs and reflexes.
On that note: SSX 3 is wonderfully satisfying in terms of tactile feedback. To pull off tricks, you must reach your hand over to your controller’s four-way “directional pad” (speaking in generalities here because this is a multi-console affair), tapping it in one of eight directions while, simultaneously, jamming down one, two or three of your controller’s “shoulder buttons”, midair. This kind of bracing, effortful clunkiness makes onscreen response all the more compelling — it’s the same principle that makes Nintendo 64 first-person shooters, with their stilted combination of genuine analog movement with purely digital C-Button “strafe” and “look up/down”, eminently enjoyable in a way weightless modern-day “dual-stick” setups are not.
Also contributing here is a kind of odd application of RPG mechanics. While you compete in events, or even while you pull off jumps and grabs in your spare time, you accumulate cash, and the money can be put towards Acceleration, or Edging, or Stability, or Toughness. Character attributes are rated on a scale of 11; you’ll pay through the nose. Odd because leveling-up is usually implemented as a substitute for actual, trial-and-error bred improvement in videogames: pattern recognition, pattern memorization, grasp of in-game physics . . . all the little factors which fall into place, ideally, as a game’s difficulty level ramps up. (Few recent games manage to coordinate this learning curve/tension ratio elegantly. Super Monkey Ball does, brilliantly, and I suppose Metroid Prime does too.) Such is not the case here: your numbers go up and your “real” skill level increases at the same time. The two are indistinguishable. You merely notice, faintly, that while you continue exploring the mountain, stumbling upon shortcuts and little rail-to-rail sequences, your snowboarder’s response to your button-pushing feels increasingly fluid, increasingly smooth. It happens gradually, under your nose. Jump from an 11/11 stats-maxed-out character to a new one, though, and you’ll feel it, you’ll feel sort of vaguely stuffty, that’s it.
(A quibble: the 2-player splitscreen mode forces you to use the same character profiles you use in the main mode, which means that — unless you have two people actively playing through the main, peak-unlocking Quest at the same time on the same disc, leveling up two characters at an equal rate — one player will control a responsive, graceful character, and the other will be stuck with some loose and dinky counterpart. This little oversight renders the multiplayer quite irrelevant.)
I’ve owned this game for about two years. Every month or so I put it on and attempt to make it down from the summit to the village without falling or slipping up. It’s amazing how much can go wrong in 30 minutes of unbroken concentration, and with enough repetition, it’s amazing how mindless the half-hour marathon becomes. Pure autopilot — yet it remains gripping simply for the kind of flow state it puts you in. Videogames are generally stressful experiences; this alone separates SSX 3, with its serene all-mountain glide, from most of my (unenviable) games collection. Add onto this a completely inoffensive, banal aesthetic: generic arcadey clutter is coupled with Big Mountain’s increasingly fractured courses, a soft-spoken DJ mutters about trail conditions. Hell, even if you do find this stuff aesthetically offensive, you can turn off the HUD and the arcade SFX and the DJ and his pop-punk, streamlining the interface to something as lonesome as you like.
There’s something to be said for convenient videogames, games you can glean a pleasant response out of without significant time input or emotional investment. A swift double-punch — economic inflation, coupled with mainstream reviews solemnly emphasizing, above all things, “replay value” — has lent sheer game length a new importance. Developers hasten to pad their games out, advertising raw hours on the back of their “box-art”. It’s, yeah, infantile and powerful as hell: filler is bang for your buck, because digestibility, before you know it, is digested. Still, you know. A certain degree of detachment here is worthwhile. Yes, industry-wide nostalgia-riding is relentless; yes, the medium’s narrative potential looks to remain unfulfilled for obvious logistic reasons; yes, videogames are, on average, deeply mediocre. But I don’t have the energy nor the idealism to get truly angry over this carnivalesque little market. Lucky exceptions, coincidences and successes pop up with enough frequency to make the console-owning experience worthwhile. SSX 3’s 30-minute full-mountain run is exceptionally good instant gratification. A neat, self-contained burst of escapism. I can casually speed down SSX 3‘s Big Mountain — or through chunks of Mega Man 2 or Super Mario Bros. 3 or Goldeneye 007 or other such rhythmically entrancing, expertly paced entertainment — when I want to punctuate my schedule with this specific, delightful sensation.