PS2 Essentials: Alpine Racer 3

I am one of the least sporty people I know, and I find the prospect of winter sports particularly terrifying. But I’ve always found something appealing about games involving skiing and suchlike.

My interest in this type of game dates right back to the imaginatively titled Skiing on the Philips G7000 Videopac (aka the Magnavox Odyssey 2 for American readers, where the game was known as Alpine Skiing) and the slightly later Winter Games from Epyx for various home computers.

Sometime around the PlayStation 1 and 2 eras, winter sports games started to place a heavy focus on technical, trick-based gameplay rather than the straight racing of early titles such as Skiing. And I kind of missed that simplicity.

Enter Namco’s Alpine Racer 3, the third installment of a series that began as a 1994 arcade title.

A contemporary of the developer’s popular Ridge Racer series and running on the same System 22 hardware, the original Alpine Racer carried a lot of Ridge Racer’s intuitive immediacy into a slightly different type of game. It was particularly noteworthy for eschewing standard control schemes in favour of players controlling their skier with their feet on movable, ski-like foot stands. (Aside: did you know it is “skiing” but not “skiier”? I learned that today. English is weird and stupid.)

2001’s Alpine Racer 3, unlike its two predecessors, went in a slightly different direction from its two arcade-exclusive predecessors. Rather than adopting a quasi-realistic approach with lycra-clad skiers competing in the kind of downhill events you’d see as part of the Winter Olympics, it instead jumped on the then-growing “extreme sports” trend by featuring a cast of selectable characters with unique appearances and personalities, and also incorporated snowboarding and skiboarding as well as straight skiing.

It was also specifically designed to play at home on PlayStation 2, unlike its arcade-exclusive predecessors.

Alpine Racer 3 features four main ways to play: the Extreme Winner’s Cup, single races against three opponents, a slalom mode in which you weave through gates, and a time attack mode where it’s you against the clock on any of the courses you’ve unlocked.

Of these, the Extreme Winner’s Cup is the closest to an “arcade” mode, though rather than being a straight reimagining of the earlier games, it instead provides a degree of persistent progression by allowing you to purchase new equipment for each character that can then be used in the other modes.

The seven different playable characters each have three basic statistics: “speed” and “turn” are pretty self-explanatory, while “power” determines how likely they are to resist falling over when colliding with something. As you might expect, each character has strengths and weaknesses, though these can be compensated for to a certain extent through the equipment you use. In some ways, the character selection acts almost like a difficulty setting; the relatively slow Jose Helguera is a good choice for beginners, for example, since he’s good at turning, while little girl Chelsea Amery, who is weak in all regards except being cute, presents you with a stiff challenge.

Each character has a variety of different equipment to unlock — generally three different pieces of “basic” equipment, three pieces of significantly better “advanced” equipment and one piece of “evolution” equipment which, among other things, provides the ability to use a special boost power three times per race. In order to unlock these, you have to pay for them; money is earned by completing races in Extreme Winner’s Cup mode, with bigger bonuses being awarded for finishing in particularly impressive times, going out of your way to perform jumps and tricks, and making it down the slope without hitting anything or falling over.

These latter aspects demonstrate some of Alpine Racer 3’s more distinctive features. Jumps and tricks, for example, cannot be triggered at any old time as in titles such as EA’s SSX series — there’s no jump button, for starters. Instead, you perform jumps by simply hitting ramps and conveniently placed lumps of snow, while tricks are performed automatically by doing big jumps at specific points on the course while travelling at 80km/h or more.

As for collisions and falls, well, you’d better get used to the fact that Alpine Racer 3 has no brake button, and as such you’ll need to learn the routes down each of the slopes very carefully indeed — as well as when is the right time to start steering around sharp turns. It’s often a lot earlier than you might think, particularly with the less manoeuvrable characters, but it’s immensely satisfying to slide around a challenging series of narrow chicanes when you finally pull it off.

And this, really, is where the appeal of Alpine Racer 3 comes in; its tight focus on the racing side of things means that it is a delightfully fluid experience to play. The controls are deliberately simple and easy to understand (though there is an optional “advanced” control scheme that allows you to use the right analogue stick for “edging” to make sharper turns) and the fact you don’t need to worry about earning boosts or scoring points on the way down means that you can concentrate on the important thing: getting down as quickly as possible.

There’s a nice feeling of progression as you unlock new equipment — the Advanced equipment is noticeably faster than the Basic, for example — and you’ll find yourself naturally getting better as you learn the various courses. There’s a good difficulty curve throughout the Extreme Winner’s Cup mode, and a nice element of risk versus reward if you fail to win a race — rather than adopting an arcade-style credit system, you can instead spend some of your money to try again, with each subsequent race getting more expensive. In other words, if you find yourself retrying a difficult race too many times, you’ll actually end off worse off than you started; sometimes it’s worth just cutting your losses, starting the tournament again and using your accumulated winnings to purchase some better gear.

The course design is excellent, and, much like Ridge Racer, features a number of courses that take different routes through similar scenery. There are often multiple routes to take, and in one notable example, you have to take a “secret” shortcut in order to beat the computer-controlled racer, because he certainly knows where it is and how to use it! This race is great example of the game teaching the player something without being explicit about it; once you figure out that is how your opponent is getting ahead of you so easily, you can then use this knowledge to your advantage when you revisit the track in the future.

Also like Ridge Racer, each course features a variety of dynamic scenery that keeps things interesting and exciting. In some cases, this is purely for show, such as where low-flying aerobatic planes put on a coloured smoke display for you; in others, you’ll have to actually dodge elements such as oncoming trains or even massive avalanches of snow. If you’re not ready for these, they can really ruin your day, but once you’ve encountered them once or twice, you’ll learn to anticipate them, and how best to deal with them; this is a game that very much rewards course memorisation and skillful play.

The whole thing is wrapped up in a delightfully stylish aesthetic package that, interestingly, is closer in execution to the PS1’s Ridge Racer Type-4 than its closer contemporary Ridge Racer V.  There’s a cool CG intro, gorgeously stylised animated menus and a wonderful soundtrack that sounds a lot more “Namco” than the forgettable licensed cacophony that was Ridge Racer V’s score; and, just to complete that authentic late ’90s/early ’00s Namco feel, there’s even an overexcitable announcer bellowing things at you all through each race. Also you can unlock Klonoa as a playable character, and the final course of the Extreme Winner’s Cup is basically F-Zero on skis.

Alpine Racer 3 may not be as complex or as in depth as its contemporaries and rivals such as the aforementioned SSX — perhaps why it’s not nearly as well-known as those games — but damn if it isn’t fun as hell. For those who enjoy deliciously pure, straightforward and simple arcade racing — and perhaps fancy swapping four wheels for a pair of skis — it’s definitely a game you should add to your collection.

More about Alpine Racer 3

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