Sports games aren’t popular with collectors because everyone thinks they suck. But there are some hidden gems out there to enjoy — and their lack of popularity means you can pick ’em up pretty cheap, too! Let’s explore this unloved genre!
While sports games can be a hard sell for many people, as we’ve established, winter sports have a certain “cool factor” to them (no pun intended) that makes them a lot more palatable to the general gaming audience than many other types of sports games.
That said, there are still a few big names that tend to dominate the space — in the case of skiing and snowboarding, EA’s SSX series ruled the roost throughout the PlayStation 2 era. So today we’re going to take a look at a slightly lesser known winter sports game for the PlayStation 2: Namco’s Alpine Racer 3, the third installment of a series that began in arcades in 1994.
Running on the same System 22 hardware as the original Ridge Racer, the first Alpine Racer game carried its stablemate’s intuitive immediacy into a different type of game; it also had an intriguing full-body control scheme where you would steer by moving your feet on ski-like foot stands.
Alpine Racer 3, which came out in 2001, was a little bit different from its two arcade-only predecessors. Firstly and perhaps most significantly, it was designed as a console exclusive. Secondly, it eschewed the semi-realistic approach to the events seen in the two earlier games in favour of a more exaggerated “extreme sports” approach, which was just becoming fashionable around that time. And thirdly, it expanded its remit to cover snowboarding and skiboarding as well as simply skiing.
In Alpine Racer 3, you pick one of seven playable characters and take them into any of the game’s four modes: the Extreme Winner’s Cup offers arcade-style structured gameplay with persistent progression, the single race mode challenges you to take on three rivals, the slalom mode tasks you with weaving through gates, and the time attack mode is self-explanatory.
Once you get into the gameplay, Alpine Racer 3 immediately distinguishes itself from titles such as SSX by de-emphasising score-based trick gameplay in favour of being a fairly straightforward racer. I say “fairly”; the courses you’ll be sliding down are pretty perilous, it has to be said, with some absolutely spectacular setpieces to enjoy as you make your way down to the base. But the core of the gameplay is still “get to the end as fast as you can”.
Alpine Racer 3’s tight focus on the racing angle gives it a wonderful sense of fluidity and rhythm. The lack of a brake button means you’ll really need to learn these courses inside out in order to succeed, and the fact that jumps and tricks are automatic at predefined locations on the track means that you don’t have to distract yourself from the optimal racing line in order to build up boost or something.
The Extreme Winner’s Cup mode allows you to earn money which can be used to purchase new equipment for each of the playable characters, but there’s also an element of risk versus reward at play: fail to clear an event and you’ll have the opportunity to try again for a fee, with said fee increasing with each “continue”. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worthwhile to try the event again, or start again from the beginning of the series; while it can be a pain to run through the same events over and over, practice really does make perfect in this game.
The game does a great job of silently teaching you things, too. There are several events where you might find it seemingly impossible to keep up with the computer-controlled opponent — until you pay attention to what he’s doing and discover that he’s using a cheeky shortcut. Once you get the hang of doing that too, your times on that course will only continue to improve — and, of course, you’ll stand a fighting chance against that pesky rival, too.
The game has that distinct sense of “Namco style” from around the turn of the century; aesthetically, the game is closer to Ridge Racer Type-4 than its closer contemporary Ridge Racer V, but that’s honestly welcome; while Ridge Racer V is an iconic early PlayStation 2 game, its cacophonic licensed soundtrack hasn’t held up all that well, and the cool jazz funk vibes of Type-4 just fit more nicely with the kind of atmosphere that Alpine Racer 3 is trying to create.
The Type-4 philosophy extends to the overall track design, too; there’s lots of appealing scenery to admire as you whizz past on your way downhill, and plenty of dynamic scenery elements. Some of these are just for show, but you’ll need to watch out, because things like avalanches and oncoming trains can really get in the way if you’re not careful!
Plus you can unlock Klonoa as a playable character, and the “secret” course is basically F-Zero on skis. Have I sold you yet?
Sadly, there’s no sign of any sort of rerelease of this on the horizon, so you’ll have to nab the PS2 version if you want to play it. Thankfully, it’s cheap as chips at places like CEX, so don’t expect to pay a lot for it. And believe me, it’s a game you’ll be very happy to have in your collection.