While Cave are most famous for the time they spent creating bullet-dodging simulators with an ever-increasing quotient of marketable female characters it’s always worth remembering that for a time they also dabbled in the most logical of side projects, 3D snowboarding games. It all started back in 1997 with Steep Slope Sliders (Saturn/arcade), a game with tie-dye loading screens and an aurally offensive (but appropriate) soundtrack that by and large reviewed well and deserved to do so. A couple of years passed, more shmups were worked on, and we arrive at Cave’s Capcom-published follow-up title Tricky Sliders (AKA: Trick’N Snowboarder) for the Playstation, most notable for finally putting to rest the age-old question “In a snowboarding race between Resident Evil 2’s main characters and a zombie cop, who would win?”. Tricky Sliders wasn’t as well received as its older Saturn stablemate, possibly because Playstation owners were already drowning in extreme sports titles that used the words “gnarly” and “radical” in an unironic manner.
Nevertheless Capcom felt that there was still some mileage to be had from their strange snowboarding partnership with Cave, which brings us at last to Snowboard Heaven, a Japan-only Playstation 2 title released in November 2000.
Snowboard Heaven follows the same not-quite-realistic-but-not-entirely-out-there design ethos found in Cave’s previous efforts, using fictional characters and courses in place of licensed boarders and locations. On paper this is absolutely fine as it gives them free reign to invent whoever and wherever the hell they like, unfortunately the company that gave us robo-girl fighter pilot assist-dolls from the future (DoDonPachi DaiOuJou/Dai Fukkatsu) seemed to be having an off day when they were making Snowboard Heaven, and the lot we’re lumbered with are all rather bland, possessing neither the wonderfully zany stereotyping of Sega’s Athlete Kings/Winter Heat sports games nor the relative realism of more serious snowboarding titles.
The good news is that at least there’s eight of them to choose from with a varied selection of boards each, although in an odd twist it’s the boarder that decides the speed/trick capabilities, not the snowboard, robbing the game of any potentially tactical “fast but difficult to control” v.s. “good for tricks but poor top speed” tweaks before the first race has even started.
There are two main modes of play – “Boardercross” and “Free Ride”. Boardercross is where the main meat of the game lies, pitting your chosen character against three others in a race to the finish line across a small selection of courses spread across the globe. Free Ride is essentially a practise mode, allowing you to select a course (including the half pipe and jump events) and have a ride alone with nothing but the timer for company. If that all sounds a bit lonely a split screen two player variant is also available for the less socially-challenged.
There aren’t that many courses to choose from but they do all have multiple routes and a lot of neat little interactive bits that encourage tricks, but as the only thing that decides if you win or lose a race is how fast you get to the bottom all these tantalising rails and opportunities to cheekily slide across car roofs soon turn in to nothing more than irritating obstacles as anything other than the fastest route is completely redundant.
That might be forgivable if races were tightly-fought affairs with lots of pushing and shoving on the way down but there’s very little direct racing against another opponent, and the lack of a map or any sort of marker means you only ever know your basic race position with no idea if you’re on the verge of taking the lead or being left for dust.
I’m a big fan of developers turning their hand to unexpected genres or experimenting with accepted genre rules, and I’d like to tell you that Snowboard Heaven falls into the same “Doesn’t quite work but is still really interesting” vein as Capcom’s Gun Survivor series – but I can’t. Snowboard Heaven is just an unremarkable game in a genre that had already served up some all-time classics by the time it came along, bringing no clever twists or ideas of its own.
Snowboard Heaven was the final title in Cave’s unexpected snowboarding trilogy – often gaming’s a better place when developers try something new, but after Steep Slope Sliders Cave really should have stuck with what they know.