UEP Systems / SEGA
Opening your back door to let the family dog out for his usual romp through the snow only permits bitter winds to lash across your face, the mid-winter cold remaining relentless as it hovers between readings of subzero and Siberian. It’s February of 1999 and everything is frozen and gray. The holidays are over and the weather looks about as friendly as a starved polar bear. Inside your head you can hear the familiar jingle: “It’s the most substandard time of the yeeeaaar!” So what to do until the weather changes from bogus to beach? Or better yet, what game can be spun on your newly acquired Sega Dreamcast that hasn’t already been beaten for the second or third time? With Soulcalibur mastered and Sonic Adventure finished off, there isn’t much else to jam with. Maybe a few more touchdowns in NFL Blitz 2000 will cure the winter tide blues. But wasn’t there a fourth game under the tree last year? Jolly old Saint Nick really delivered! Yeah, that snowboarding one that kind of looks similar to the flux of games that the PlayStation has been pumping out for the last few years. Darting upstairs to take a look at the Christmas stash, you find a few leftover gifts semi-hidden underneath a mix of righteous comics and untouched homework. Caught up in the tidal wave that was football, swords and hedgehogs, you haven’t even taken the shrink-wrap off of this baby yet! Tearing into the plastic and finally setting the disc free, your day just went from beyond lame to most excellent. It’s time to hit the powder and get shredding with Rippin’ Riders Snowboarding.
Developed by UEP Systems (the creators of the Cool Boarders series) and released in 1999, Rippin’ Riders Snowboarding (known as Cool Boarders Burrrn in Japan – the game couldn’t don the Cool Boarders name upon release in North America due to Sony owning the rights to the name in the U.S.) is the one and only snowboarding game to hit the monumental mountain that was Sega’s Dreamcast. An early title to release for the the machine, Rippin’ Riders still showcased more than enough power to let anyone from the average to the pro gamer see that the Dreamcast was packing a ton of heat in the winter, with strong graphics and gameplay capabilities to accentuate the point. Even a quick comparison between Idol Mind’s Cool Boarders 4 (released for the PlayStation that same year) and UEP’s Rippin’ Riders Snowboarding showcases the aesthetic differences between the two games lucidly. UEP Systems may not have been able to release the game Stateside under the moniker that they wanted, but for me, one play of Rippin’ Riders was all it took – making it impossible to deny that the original kings of snowboarding were back in business, and this time, they were riding with Sega.
The game starts up in a radical fashion that can only be compared to something akin to a ballistic rock concert held in the glassy tundra. Axel, one of the game’s selectable characters, can be seen walking towards a beaming white mountain in dramatic fashion, building up suspense and anticipation for the game to come. He jumps on his board and starts to shred down the mountain, laying ice and snow to rest as the crest of his ride tears the summit a new one. An awesome exhibition of graphical power accompanied by stylistically heavy guitar riffs that only a title coming from the seemingly unruly Sega machine could pull off, this is a game that let the player know that the Dreamcast wasn’t pulling any punches.
While reviewing both versions of the game, I came across something largely unusual with regards to its characters. There are seven characters (six in Japan) to choose from at the onset, all of which come with their own strengths and weaknesses. Hard rocker, Axel, takes up the mantel of all-rounder with an even balance of attributes ranging from jump, technique, power, balance, quickness and max speed. As the apparent face of the game (in Japan, at least), it’s interesting to note that Sega of America clearly didn’t share the same vision regarding who should take the helm of main character, seemingly replacing Axel as the player’s first choice and bypassing the need to unlock another versatile boarder, Jimmy. Jimmy, as a whole, makes for a really bizarre difference between the Japanese and American versions of the game. In the Japanese version, Jimmy doesn’t even exist as his spot is occupied by a secret character that goes by the name, Tightman. Tightman must be unlocked by satisfying certain conditions in the game, whereas in the American version, Jimmy is not only fully available before you hit your very first mountain, but upon taking a flip through the game’s manual, he’s actually the first character introduced (along with a backstory three times as long as any of the other riders), further encouraging the player’s selection of him over Axel. Personally, I found this added option to be really peculiar considering that Jimmy is nowhere near as likeable as Axel. On the select screen, he’s seen hunched over in a toque and plain orange jacket. Almost hidden from view, he does little to standout among the rest of the roster. What makes matters worse is that Jimmy’s overall design is terrible, bland and boring with a facial structure similar to one of the common thugs from GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64. Jimmy aside, the majority of the other selectable characters are pretty interesting. Tia, the Snow Dancer (“Cutie Tricks Babe” in Japan), is usually my character of choice as she shines in the balance and technique departments. Ronnie, the Big Tanker, lives up to his nickname and then some by presenting a beefy, militaristic physique with the power attributes and a haircut resembling Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 to back it up. As Jimmy occupies one of what were originally intended to be three unlockable character slots, there are only two other boarders to gain access to in Rippin’ Riders; a snowman and an alien named “Gray”. Both of whom are still much cooler than Jimmy.
The course selection in the game is where things really start to pick up. Large and picturesque, the landscapes available for shredding do a fine job of showcasing the Dreamcast’s impressive power. The first course, Mountain Review, takes riders down a scenic cordillera filled with winter cabins and fresh powder. A relatively easy course to descend, Mountain Review serves as warm-up for some of the gnarlier challenges to come. Another cool bonus that the course provides is that time progresses from day to night as you plunge down the mountain, only adding to the overall atmosphere by making you feel as if you’ve been snow surfing for hours. Emerald Forest follows suit in that it’s not overly difficult to navigate and delivers a woodland dream in the midst of winter – a really enthralling course that may be even prettier to cruise through than the first. These first two courses are easily my favourites to play as the ones that follow can feel downright chaotic thanks to their sometimes-unpredictable layouts. They’re fun to play through but they are nowhere near as leisurely as the courses that precede them.
Brushing up on the game’s controls is definitely recommended before attempting to cruise down it’s later, more treacherous stages. Unfortunately, the control department is where Rippin’ Riders get’s it’s bindings in a bit of a twist. Maneuvering one’s way through the various courses in Free Ride mode (the game’s main attraction) is doable (for the most part), but there are some seriously bumpy rides in store. Compared to other, later released snowboarding games such as SSX or Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder (both of which hit the PlayStation 2 only one to two years later), Rippin’ Riders’ lack of polish regarding its controls and, even more so, its needlessly complex way of executing tricks, becomes ever more apparent. Pulling off sweet moves wouldn’t be such a hot issue if nailing said maneuvers weren’t actually required for you to progress in the game, but they are. At the conclusion of each stage, your score total is added up, consisting of points awarded for the various types of tricks that you pulled off and for how fast you sped down the mountain. For a game that focuses on a racing and time trial aspects (in other words, making it to the finish line as quickly as possible), I can’t help but think about how the game would’ve ended up being a lot more enjoyable if the player could’ve simply focused on descending the mountain as efficiently as possible while pulling off a trick or two (or no tricks at all) that didn’t count towards such paramount importance (a good example of this are the Snowboard Kids titles for the Nintendo 64). There’s also a Super Pipe mode dedicated to grabbing big air and pulling off tricks in an Xtreme setting, along with Match Race, which allows for two-player, head-to-head action.
Somewhat wonky controls aside, the game’s soundtrack is excellent and actually changes depending on the character you select, which is a really neat feature. Again, I’m impartial to Tia as I find that her blend of upbeat techno suits the scene for most of the courses perfectly, but I actually enjoy everyone’s particular brand of tunes as I shred some powder, even Jimmy’s.
All in all, I can see how Rippin’ Riders would’ve made for a fun distraction among some of the other, heavier hitters that graced the Dreamcast during it’s first few months of life. It has its setbacks, but if you take the time to grasp how it handles, the game serves up some solid gameplay, impressive visuals, and righteous music. And as I mentioned earlier, it remains the Dreamcast’s sole snowboard centric outing, so if you’re in the mood to get tubular with Sega’s last piece of home hardware, it’s your best (and only) bet!