The Greatest Hits line, which seems to have died off in recent years, has brought me some of the greatest gaming values of my life. Even for a high schooler, twenty bucks for one of the best games on the market was a totally affordable arrangement, allowing me to play many incredible titles I simply wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise due to cost. To me, this was what made the PlayStation 2 the best console ever made- there were hundreds of incredible games, they were affordable, and internet gaming culture had built up to the point that you knew what they were. One of the best surprises I had was dropping an Andrew Jackson on SSX3.
I played a little bit of SSX Tricky at a friend’s house months beforehand, and while it was okay, I wasn’t really that impressed. A trip to GameStop where I was determined to walk out with a new game ended with me grabbing SSX3, for lack of anything I was particularly excited for. Of all the whim purchases I ever made in that time of “not leaving without a game” ultimatums, this was the greatest success. I’ve come back to it numerous times in the last ten years, and it has lost none of the charm or satisfaction.
Perhaps the first open world sports game, SSX presented you with three peaks, each with a series of events on them, and the freedom to roam freely or jump in to organized races and trick events to earn money. Money gets you visual customization, as well as stat improvements like faster tricks, better acceleration, sharper cornering, and more. Though this added progression is a nice addition, it’s not a crutch- the core gameplay and level design drives your journey to conquer the mountain. Doing tricks builds your Uber meter, which when filled upgrades to Level 1, 2, and finally 3. Each level unlocks increasingly elaborate tricks, from simple 360s to physics defying moves where you flip and spin as your board orbits you like a satellite in fast-forward.
The trick meter doubles as fuel for your boost, both creating a fantastic “trick to go faster” gameplay loop, and also giving you a tough decision- boost now, or save the meter so that you can level up to better tricks that could give you even more boost? It seems like a simple call, but when you’re in second coming up to a big jump, you have to fight not to slam on that boost just to grab the lead before that big air. The core handling and physics of the game are solid and satisfying, but it’s the boost/trick dynamic that separates the men from the boys (or the women- there are quite a few playable girl characters in the game).
Boost doesn’t play into the trick events as much, where the focus instead becomes trying to link your tricks together without breaking your multiplier. Going for the biggest trick is not always the best call, as if you go for too long without performing a move, you’ll lose the big bonus you’ve been building. Grinds and other fairly minor scoring tricks become more important, as they can be used to keep the combo going for a very long time. At the end of the day, they aren’t as skill-based as the races, but the sheer satisfaction of flipping out (literally) with the over-the-top trick animations while building up a massive multiplier makes it an enjoyable side venture.
The mountain is covered in challenges and collectables, the EA licensed soundtrack is an enjoyable list of alternative rock, there are tons of costumes to unlock… secret characters, hidden shortcuts through the races, racer shittalk as they pass you, this game had it all. Still has it all- truly the total package. These days, it’s not the easiest game to get ahold of- while a PS2 or Xbox copy isn’t the rarest thing in the world, it’s never had any form of digital rerelease or HD upgrade. A graphical update be a bit much to ask, given the resources that would entail, but a PS2 Classic release on PSN would be a great way to bring this classic back. It’s a damn shame they haven’t done more with it.
What they did do, however, was attempt a series reboot in 2012 with a PS3/360 game simply titled SSX. Reviews were extremely positive, and some of my friends were quite jazzed about it. I can’t say for certain if it is really a great game, because to me, it was completely unplayable. The controls were so close to SSX3 to trigger my old instincts, but just different enough to punish me for trying to play it like 3. I bought it at release, and returned it the next day because it was just so unpleasant. To anyone without such a deep history with the series, though, it’s probably worth a shot.
The thing that SSX3 and the rest of its series does that has been lost, is that it is comfortable exaggerating to make things more accessible and fun. Modern sports games are so interested in realism and simulation, and for the super hardcore sports fans I’m sure that’s a good time, but normal gamers are left out in the cold. I haven’t enjoyed a dedicated sports game in years, and it’s not because of a lack of quality. Every other genre has room for simulation and arcade-style play, but sports games seem to have given up on simple satisfying play. The MLB has announced a new RBI Baseball, and it’s my hope that they’ll usher in a new arcade sport rush. I won’t hold my breath, though.