Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be slaloming down the slopes of time with the cast of Snowboard Kids. All cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Where two dates or years are listed, the first is Japan and the second is North America.
Super Mario Kart’s launch on the Super Famicom and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1992 established the kart racer as a video game sub-genre more or less overnight. Its four-player sequel, Mario Kart 64 (1996/1997), was so successful that it provoked the rapid development of numerous competitors across all fifth-generation home consoles. Famous examples include Sonic R (1997), Diddy Kong Racing (1997), and Crash Team Racing (1999).
Around the same time, extreme sports were gaining popularity among young enthusiasts in the West. 1995 saw the first X Games in the United States, bringing these previously “underground” hobbies into the mainstream and accelerating the careers of first-class athletes like skateboarder Tony Hawk and BMX biker Dave Mirra. Within a few years, video game studios would seek to capitalize on this trend with titles like Cool Boarders (1996) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999). Snowboard Kids represents the fusion of these two concurrent design trends.
Snowboard Kids (1997/1998)
Atlus published Japanese developer Racdym’s Snowboard Kids for the Nintendo 64 in Japan on December 12, 1997 and in North America two months later; it was Racdym’s first title in North America. Players compete against up to three human or AI-controlled opponents as one of six heavily stylized avatars – Slash, Nancy, Jam, Linda, Tommy, and secret character Shinobin once he’s unlocked – across nine downhill slopes. Rather than being true to real-world snowboarding, the courses offer themed locations like a desert and abandoned highway in addition to traditional snowy mountains. Regardless of the setting, the player is sent back up to the top via chairlift at the end of each lap.
Gameplay is divided up into Battle Race, Skill Game, and Time Attack modes. The former is a straightforward four-person dash to the finish line, while Skill Game offers three rudimentary minigames playable on a limited number of courses. Time Attack serves as a race against oneself to achieve the fastest possible completion time.
As in Mario Kart 64, the player character can acquire power-ups to use at the click of a button; offensive options found in red crates include explosive bombs, ricocheting snowballs, and homing frying pans, while defensive options found in blue crates include the ability to turn invisible or send a ghost to possess an opponent. Gold coins collected throughout courses or accumulated through the performance of board grabs, character-specific tricks, and rail grinds allow the player to purchase these power-ups while in motion or purchase special boards at Mr. Dog’s shop between races. Board types alter character stats, increasing speed and airtime, and can be selected before a race to compensate for deficiencies or accentuate strengths.
A Japan-exclusive PlayStation port called Snowboard Kids Plus was released in January 1999. This version adds four characters – Nicole, Pamela, Ruby, and Kaede – as well as the ability to customize racers’ appearances, but runs less smoothly than its Nintendo 64 predecessor. Neither version has been re-released via emulation on more recent platforms.
Snowboard Kids 2 (1999)
Snowboard Kids 2 launched on the Nintendo 64 in Japan on February 19, 1999 as Ibefore making its way to North America the following month. All five main characters from Snowboard Kids return, though an updated art style means that they all look a bit different. Three additional characters – inventor Wendy, underworld demon Damien, and penguin Coach – are added to the starting roster, and shopkeeper Mr. Dog can now be unlocked as a bonus character for use in the multiplayer Battle Mode.
Story Mode, on the other hand, combines the previous game’s Battle Race and Skill Game modes into a series of challenges that depict the eponymous youngsters’ response to an invasion of Snow Town by the sinister yet comical newcomer Damien. Across nine new courses, including a castle and haunted house, players compete to win races and defeat oversized boss enemies like a snowman and dinosaur. Instead of accessing stages from a menu, Snow Town serves as a hub area for the player to explore between races; it’s hard not to wonder if these changes were influenced by similar gameplay elements in Rare’s popular Diddy Kong Racing (1997).
Snowboard Kids 2 was widely regarded as an improvement on its predecessor, refining the core mechanics while offering many more characters and stages. Poor sales ensured that it never received a second print run, however, making the game comparatively rare two decades hence. The PAL region version is particularly hard to come by, as it was only released in Australia.
Note: Cover art is sourced from the Game Grumps Wiki
SBK: Snowboard Kids (2005)
The series’ final entry was developed by Inglove, rather than Racdym, and was published by Atlus on the Nintendo DS in Japan and North America in November 2005; a European localization followed in April 2006. The art design has undergone a radical revision, replacing the chibi characters of Snowboard Kids and Snowboard Kids 2 with realistically proportioned avatars featuring an anime aesthetic crafted by Hidekazu Miyajima; Miyazami would later be credited as the main designer of Persona 4: Arena (2012). The returning Slash, Nancy, Jam, and Tommy are joined by new racers Brad and Koyuki as well as three unlockable bonus characters: penguin Max, Shin Megami Tensei’s Jack Frost, and an upgraded version of Jack Frost called Black Frost.
The streamlined presentation represents a fusion of both preceding games. Snowboard Kids 2’s explorable Snow Town hub is replaced with a menu system, but the single-player World Tour Mode sees players work their way through a series of challenges – including four-person races, boss battles and skill competitions – in the style of Snowboard Kids 2’s Story Mode. Unique hardware features made possible by the move to DS include wi-fi multiplayer, touchscreen-based tricks, and the ability to wake a character who’s been put to sleep by blowing into the microphone.
In contrast to Racdym-developed series entries, SBK: Snowboard Kids was a critical disappointment. It failed to iterate on the gameplay of its Nintendo 64 forebears while simultaneously stripping the art style that had made them so memorable. Bafflingly, it’s the only Snowboard Kids game to merit a re-release: iOS and Android mobile versions respectively launched in November 2011 and January 2012, though both have since been delisted from digital storefronts.
Snowboard Kids was a delightful cult classic that played to the Nintendo 64’s strengths as the first home console to feature four-person multiplayer without the aid of a peripheral device. Two years later, Snowboard Kids 2 improved on the formula with a wider variety of single-player challenges and an amusing narrative conveyed through brief cutscenes. Unfortunately, Inglove’s SBK: Snowboard Kids seems to have put an end to the exploits of Slash and friends for the time being. The popularity of kart racers in recent years may be setting the stage for a comeback, however, as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017) and Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled (2019) have been major critical and commercial successes. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the Snowboard Kids.
What do you think about Snowboard Kids? Which entry is your favorite? How do you think the series could distinguish itself from other kart racers in a new release? Which character is the silliest? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons like Celeste, Jarathen, Cheatachu, and Quinley Thorne make it possible to keep producing great content!
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #123: Drakengard / Nier – May 20
- #124: Valkyria Chronicles – June 3
- #125: Half-Life / Portal – June 17
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