I’m learning a lot of things during the current heatwave. I’ve learned that the fear of global warming adds a piquant quality to my usual anxieties. I’ve learned that my neck apparently contains twice the amount of sweat glands as the rest of my body combined. I also learned that playing videogames set in cold, snowy, Arctic locations does nothing to trick my brain into thinking I’m cold but what the hell, I’ve played them now so I might as well try to get an article out of it. So, here’s Sammy’s 1995 arcade slip-n-slide-em-up Extreme Downhill!
It’s difficult to see but there’s a skier behind that desert chrome logo and, yes, the extreme downhill of the title refers to downhill skiing. Which feels a bit like a tautology to me, surely all skiing is downhill? I know there’s cross-country skiing and biathlon, but I would contend that when you’re not going downhill you aren’t skiing, you’re walking with planks of wood tied to your feet, like that time I tried to run across the local fishing lake.
Semantics aside, skiing is what we’ve got. The crisp mountain air, the sibilant whisper of skis carving through powder, the figure-hugging lycra that will be forever entwined with memories of Ned Flanders’ arse; Extreme Downhill is one-hundred percent a game about skiing and very little else. Its two gameplay modes are Time Attack and “Story Mode,” which tells a story in the same way the instructions on the back of a box of washing powder form an epic poem chronicling the eternal victory of Freshness and Bounce over the dread forces of Blackcurrant Juice Stains.
There are four nameless skiers to choose from, each with their own strengths. Having not actually started the game yet it’s impossible to know whether I’ll be tackling a speed course or a winding course, so I suppose I’ll begin with the “For Beginners” guy on the left. He’s holding a giant french fry, he clearly knows what’s up.
Story Mode features eight courses of increasing difficulty, spread across the globe in locations famous for hosting skiing events, like Manhattan. The “story” part of Story Mode consists of little more than being told “hey, congrats, you won an event, now do another one!” until you’re the Monarch of Skiing and the frostbitten corpses of your enemies litter the trail behind you, so let’s get to making that dream a reality.
And we’re off. As you can see, Extreme Downhill is a top-down race against the clock. Ski well enough to keep your speed up and avoid crashing and you’ll reach a checkpoint, which will give you more time to reach the next checkpoint, and so on until you finish the course. You can also crash into these snowmen for a small amount of bonus time, which I’m fairly sure isn’t a real part of competitive skiing. I’d probably watch televised skiing if the participants received extra points for making young snowman-building children cry.
There are no other physical skiiers on the track at the same time as you – this is a pure time-trial affair – but you do get to see the “ghost” of the current high-score holder so you can gauge how well you’re doing. Given that this game involves skiing at 130 kilometres an hour along exposed mountaintops and over wooden bridges with no guard rails, it may well be an actual ghost.
The controls are easy to learn, because there hardly are any. You turn using left and right on the joystick and there’s a button to slow down, although if you use the brake button at all in the latter half of the game you’ll end up running out of time. You’re limited to “steering,” essentially, and while that would be more engaging if Extreme Downhill was a gimmick cabinet where you controlled the action by moving two fake ski poles or something, it wasn’t. It was just a joystick, and as a result it already feels like a very limited game and I haven’t even finished the first stage yet.
Can we not use the phrase “last spurt,” please? Not when using table sauces, not during lovemaking, and not in this skiing videogame. Thanks in advance.
Having successfully negotiated the course and flattened a bunch of snowmen, our skier ruins this moment of triumph by acting like such a smug prick it’s a wonder the crowd don’t leap over the advertising hoardings and insert his skis into his body, sideways.
It took me quite a while to realise that “carrier” is supposed to be “career.” In my defence, I was still thinking about my skier’s victory pose in the first race and whether his extreme smugness made it more likely that his name would be Chad or Chet. I’m leaning towards Chad, but it’s definitely one of those two names. On top of that, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what the “GLAND” billboard is advertising. Probably best not to think about it, honestly.
I switched to the female “all-rounder” character for stage two, which takes place in Canada. She’s about to land on a snowman in a manner that will be a) very uncomfortable and b) might mean she and the snowman are technically married.
Beyond the character I’m playing as, nothing much has changed. The stage still looks the same and plays the same, although there are a few sections where you can fall off the mountain now and also a couple of eagles flew past, which was the most interesting thing about skiing in Canada. There’s just not that much you can say about a game where all you do is turn around corners. This is especially true on the tighter bends, and it often feels like Extreme Downhill is happy to accept moving the stick left or right slightly to mean “well done, you perfectly navigated this treacherous hairpin turn.” There’s a feeling of distance between the player and the action on the screen that makes Extreme Downhill kinda unsatisfying to play. Put it this way – I managed to get surprisingly far into the Canada stage when I didn’t press the controls at all, with my character accelerating automatically and pinging around the corners like some especially gaudy pinball.
After Canada comes the Challenging Stage. It has no bearing on whether you progress through the, ahem, story, so don’t worry about scenarios like the one pictured above where I failed to line myself up correctly with the extremely dangerous rope bridge and launched myself off Big Idiot Mountain with the approximate velocity of a Tomahawk missile. At least the danger of these stages makes them more interesting than the regular levels, and it’s going to be real interesting for Jacques the fur trapper when a skier lands in the chimney of his cabin.
I cleared the Challenging Stage, but my victory was quickly forgotten when I noticed that sign at the back that says “Little Bastard” on it. That’s a bold advertising strategy, huh? I can see the commercials now. “Hey, you. Yeah, you, the dumb-looking guy with the bad haircut. Smoke Little Bastard cigarettes, you piece of shit!”
That’s not the only interesting bit of decoration around Extreme Downhill’s courses, either.
How about a big advertisement that says “GOD SAVE ME!,” that’s definitely interesting. I say advertisement, but it was clearly created by the spectators and erected as a plea to be rescued from this hell of standing atop a frozen peak and being forced to watch rich people slide down a mountain. Give it a few hours and they’ll be lashing a discarded ice skate to that sign to create a makeshift guillotine.
Oh, cool, we’re changing to football now? The 2018 World Cup was great, I can’t wait to play some tournament football on the biggest stage of them all!
Aww, we’re still skiing. Boo.
We’re in Italy now, and despite being on a completely different continent the stages still look the same. I know there’s only so much you can do with snow, but baffling billboard aside once I’d played a couple of stages I felt like I’d seen everything Extreme Downhill had to offer.
It was around this point that I realised Extreme Downhill isn’t a skiing game at all. It’s a rally driving game with the cars replaced by people who thought falling down the stairs wasn’t an interesting enough way to break their spine. Seriously, you could replace ChadChet with a Subaru Impreza and the game would be identical. It’s got the same arrows that tell you when a corner is coming up as most rally games, it’s all about sliding around corners and beating the clock… it’s difficult to find a full list of the games made by Sammy but I would not be surprised if they released a rally game a year or two before Extreme Downhill that plays very similarly.
The German course features billboards of buff, shirtless men. God, what I wouldn’t give to be shirtless in a snowstorm right now. I’m being serious, this heatwave is literally killing me. I don't do well in hot weather, I look like a plastic bag laying in an oily puddle.
The billboard is advertising something called Troosers, which is, of course, Scottish for trousers. You know, like the famous Scottish song about troosers. That’s why it says “loose fit,” you see.
Onward to America, which is where the different characters came into play. After several failed attempts at clearing the stage with the all-rounder character, I switched to Mr. Winding Course and immediately set a new course record. The thing is, I don’t think I played much better. I did everything I did before except it worked, and the only reason I can come up with is that Mr. Winding Course loses much less speed when turning. I’m not sure it’s even possible to complete the later stages with the slower characters, which makes the fact you can only switch characters once you’ve spent a continue bit of a kick in the balls.
The mountains of Japan are home to cowboy billboards advertising, I dunno, cowboys themselves? Hey, someone’s got to look after all those cows you have, am I right? This cowboy might have a hat and an eyepatch, but that’s not fooling me: I’m ninety-five percent sure that this is actually a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger, specifically when he’s pointing a gun at someone in a Terminator movie.
I’d class falling off a mountain as “extreme downhill”, yes.
The final course is in Norway, the birthplace of skiing (I assume). The course is tough, but perhaps not quite as brutal as I was expecting it to be. Extreme Downhill is a strange one, difficulty-wise. The character you choose seems to make a massive difference, and stages often have one or two vicious obstacles or turns in the middle of the stage that can make or break your run.
For example, had I slightly misaligned my skier and fallen off this bridge, that would probably have been game over, and learning the course so you know when these hazards are coming up is definitely the key to good times. I mean good times on the leaderboard, not “good times” as in fun, which Extreme Downhill is rather lacking. A major problem is that you can’t see where you’re going. Seriously, look at the screenshots and remember that your skier is travelling pretty bloody quickly and you’ll seen realise that there’s no way to see what’s coming up in the next half-second. The “camera” really could have done with been pulled back a bit, because as it stands all the player is doing is responding to the arrows as they appear. Am I saying that Extreme Downhill was originally designed as a test for intelligence in laboratory goldfish, where they were rewarded with food pellets if they could correctly nudge a lever when the appropriate arrow was shown to them? And then one of the researchers came back from a skiing trip and said “hey guys, this might sound crazy but hear me out...”? I might be. I just might be.
It’s not all bad, though. The snowmen are cute, the weirdo billboards are entertaining enough to stop me regretting that I played the game. Oh right, good things about the gameplay. Well, it’s definitely fast, and straightforward enough to pick up and play for five minutes of high-intensity eyeball stimulation. It works, for the most part, even if it does feel like the game’s guiding you around corners. It’s probably the best skiing videogame I’ve ever played, and I trust you’re all clever enough to work out the reasoning behind that statement.
“King of Hills” was also the title inkjet-printed onto the King of the Hill DVD box set I ordered from AliExpress.
And then the game crashed during the ending sequence, which seemed pretty appropriate.
At the beginning of this article I said Extreme Downhill is a game about skiing, but it isn’t, not really. It’s a game about going fast and occasionally slamming face-first into a billboard with a shirtless man on it. It’s definitely an arcade game, I’ll say that much. I can’t imagine a home console port of Extreme Downhill: this is a game all about big graphics, big speed and gameplay so shallow you’d struggle to drown a chinchilla in it. I didn’t much enjoy playing it, but I did enjoy experiencing it, even if it did call me a Little Bastard.
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