Pixel Boarder

Stunt snowboarding in a pixel diorama. 100% analog physics-based control. State of the art retro graphics.

Steep Slope Sliders is one of those Sega Saturn gems which pretty much always gets overlooked during "best Saturn games" type topics. Developed by Cave -- yes, the same Cave best known for its shooters -- Steep Slope Sliders is a terrific downhill snowboarding game with (for the time) great graphics, excellent course design, and a varied techno soundtrack. Although Pixel Boarder would never be mistaken for the Saturn title, it too is a downhill snowboarding game featuring an extensive techno soundtrack and drawing from a similar palette. Those superficial shared traits aside, they are vastly different games but both fun and worth trying out at the least.

Pixel Friends' Pixel Boarder offers 20 short courses in which the player must snowboard down a track lined with ramps, gaps, and guard rails to reach the finish line. The trick here is that Pixel Board doesn't control as one would expect it to -- each analog stick controls an arm, and manipulating the arms will make the boarder squat, jump, and flip. Sticking landings and maintaining balance requires knowing how to shift the rider's weight and the angle of the board by positioning the arms and control the character's body. The pixel boarder feels very much like a marionette going down the slopes, and while it's a bit awkward at first and never quite feels natural, it can be handled with some practice and gives the game a unique and enjoyable playstyle of its own. Although Pixel Boarder's controls are easy to grasp, the resulting gameplay isn't as intuitive as it may appear. A gentle difficulty curve helps keeps things managably paced (courses are grouped according to difficulty), but the game can seem cruel to those who struggle with its novel movements to make it to the finish line in one piece let alone without stalling along the track. Earning points by risking lengthy flips and managing to stick the landing has its thrills, and the occasional rocket boost gives the gameplay a kick, allowing the game to include more varied slopes which would be impossible to traverse within the game's downhill snowboarding physics engine where reliance on gravity's momentum alone would shackle any thought of featuring inclines and such.

The name is a bit of a misnomer as Pixel Board is a 3-D side scrolling game. Although the player and scenery "sprites" look blocky and the mountain texture does its best to fit in, the hill is a polygon structure with the snowboarder sliding down a flat plane in a 3-D world, what some people refer to as "2.5-D." Pixel Boarder offers four filters from 32-bit to 4-bit which do nothing but ugly up the graphics some, making an excusably simplistic indie game look terribly worse and faked. The 32-bit setting may not carry the same "retro" weight as the 16-, 8-, and 4-bit ones, but it looks much better from the course to the background imagery. Adding a layer of distortion is not 8-bit, and while the game's sense of style is appealing, the visual degradation settings are ugly and unnecessary. Keeping the slopes 32-bit clean highlight the pixel boarder better and give the game a solid look whereas the 4-bit setting is just nasty to witness and dishonest to its name.

While the filters come across as misplaced themeatic embellishments, the 15 chiptune songs present in Pixel Boarder are great stuff all around and do a far better job in keeping with the game's "retro" theme. Players can hit the Back button at any time to randomly advance to another song at any time. While this can be a mild nuisance when wanting to listen to a specific song as some tracks just seem to pop up in the rotation more than others -- it took 39 shuffles to listen to all available songs -- I get more annoyed how the tracks reset with each level (the levels are hardly long enough to fully enjoy any song). Youdo's "Sunshine On Your Face" which acts as the title song of sorts just grabs players with its cheerful, upbeat arrangement, and other great selections such as CCIVORY's "My Love" make for excellent listening while flipping down the courses. Each track begins with the player creating a boarder from two dozen available heads, a bit more body types, and selecting a board color. Once the player is ready, and options to retry and view a replay are displayed once the snowboarder crosses the finish line or wipes out. Replays can be rewound and fastforwarded at will, named and saved for later viewing at any time via an option on the title screen. Further options to customize the game's controls are available from the options menu as well with three different stiffness settings and the ability to turn off the upright assist. From the soundtrack to its better than expected option set including a well designed tutorial, great care has obviously gone into making Pixel Boarder the best game it can be.

Pixel Boarder is an excellent title, easy to get into and fun to play. Local leaderboards should allow for some competition for the best tricks and course runs, and the replays (complete with controller input display) do well to preserve those high scoring runs and awesome crashes. Although players will blow by the first few courses, later ones will test their ability to maintain balance over all of the bumps and jumps let alone racking up a nice trick score. Pixel Boarder is well worth its entry fee, a fast and fun snowboarding title which should appeal to fans of arcade-style games including those physics-backed trick racing titles such as Trials HD.

★★★★☆
July 29, 2010
January 10, 2010 | 80 points
Developer | Video | Download

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