Time for a Stupid American™ story. Before plunking this cart into the Jaguar, I thought “Val d’Isère” was a person – some winter athlete whose name they were using as a brand, like Tony Hawk or Shawn White. It isn’t. It’s a lovely French resort that acts as the exclusive setting for this game. That’s what I get for trying to step out of my place, and now I shall go back to intensely following whatever the Kardashians are doing today.
What you can expect from this game is right there in the title, up to and including the “badical” 80’s font. You’ll take either a skiing or snowboarding racer downhill in one of three different challenge types. Further game options let you customize your experience. Freestyle mode lets you soar down the slopes and pass checkpoint gates to add to your time limit. Training lets you pick and run particular courses to learn their layout and improve your time. Compete mode randomizes the track selection and puts you in a bracket against other AI players. This bracket shrinks as poor performers get culled, and if you fail to qualify in any track, you use up one of your lives (you start with two) to replay it.
Each of these three modes is paired with one of the three challenges – Downhill, Slalom, and Giant Slalom. Let me preface the following by saying that I know diddly dick about skiing, so if you do, you’re best to ignore the rest of this paragraph. All three modes are about moving through gates defined by two flags. If you miss a gate, a penalty is added to your final time. The difference between each mode appears to be based on the distance and “size” of the gates. Downhill has nice, big gates that are spaced far apart and fairly easy to clear. Slalom has short gates that come at you in a very rapid zig-zag pattern – you have to build up a consistent left/right cadence and maintain it through the course.
All this skiing takes place in a faux-3D corridor built with scaling sprites – think OutRun. You view your skier from a locked third person view, and move them within their lane. Meanwhile, that lane shifts around beneath your feet as the game auto-steers around corners. I always found this system confusing. Its engine style was never ideal, and once polygons came around, you no longer needed to fake 3D environments. It’s also at its worst here for two simple reasons: lack of track delineation, and the judicious use of hills.
On the first point, let’s look at Atari’s Pole Position. Same basic technology, similar gameplay. In Pole Position, your valid strip of road is always colored gray with out-of-bounds areas colored green (for surrounding grass). It’s very easy to tell when you’re moving your car off the road, even without the markers on the roadside. Here, everything is blue and white. A lighter shade of blue seems intended to mark the trail, but it’s tough to make out at high speed. The edge of the course is further marked sporadically, and usually simply with trees – which is where I would frequently find myself when the track suddenly shifts on a curve.
On the second point, despite the fact that you’re going downhill, there are bumps and ridges along the track that obscure your view. I guess unleveled tracks are a part of skiing, (though I think the groundskeeper would be fired for all the speed-slowing bare patches that appear for an additional challenge) and you can do some tricks if you press Up and just the right time. Still, it seems extreme here while artificially blocking your view of the next set of flags. I suppose the idea here is to shake up the execution of this tech – previous racers haven’t had hills so severe – but it doesn’t “look” right and introduces very practical gameplay problems.
The result is that you’re just going to have to learn the tracks – certainly not the worst requirement, but something that does get in the way of some casual pick-up-and-play fun. I was never driven by high scores or perfecting times – even in 1994 I’d be thinking about the next game to rent from the video store – but if you’re competitive and like dedicating time and effort to one particular game at a time, you’ll be able to build some skill here (even if that skill is mostly rote memorization).
Graphically, it’s fast and responsive. The track scales and zips by as quickly and smoothly as if it were arcade hardware, and it’s nice to see the Jaguar showing off some of its abilities. The frequent twisting and dipping gives an almost roller coaster effect that’s fun to watch and fairly exciting to play. My only complaint is that the speed sometimes gets away from you, and the track changes become difficult to follow.
While technically impressive, the artwork lacks variety. What’s here is great – it’s colorful and looks the part. A nice digitized photo of what I presume is the actual surrounding mountains makes up the background, and the passing trees and pedestrians look suitably sharp. There’s just not enough of them. This resort is the only location in the game, so the background never changes, the courses all use identical assets, and the only differences between them become the placement of their turns and bumps. I don’t feel like I can complain too much because, ultimately, you’re skiing down a snowy mountain – it’s going to be white. But still, without track ribbons, boards, crowds, or different times of day, it falls again on learning the layout of each track to find any long-term fun here.
There are also no characters to choose from and no high score memory. Also, there’s no direct compete option. You won’t be racing another player (real or AI) live on a run, you’ll simply be chasing their time on a board. Two player mode similarly hot swaps between the current racer. All somewhat standard for the time though.
This game and Super Burnout both show that scaling 2-D racers were one of the Jaguar hardware’s strengths. Val d’Isère screams on the console, but also dips and auto-steers a bit too much for its own good. The samey tracks and handful of reused assets don’t differentiate the tracks enough, and the pace means your best times are going to come from memorizing the tracks, not from responding to the changes you see coming. Good showcase for the Jag, but an average title in gameplay respects.
I’d put this up with Kasumi Ninja as supporting Atari’s claims of arcade-quality graphics in your home. Responsive controls. Speed and framerate never seem to hitch, and make each course a wild – if somewhat difficult to follow – ride.
I’ve always hated these scaling racers for taking control away from you on turns – this one does it frequently, and throws in hills and jumps to boot. Makes it almost impossible to do well playing a reactionary game. Over 12 tracks, but no much art to make them different.