Yet another franchise update appears on the Gamecube; this time in a genre that the original helped define. It is a solid outing in most regards, as one would expect from Nintendo. As a racing game it is certainly very easy to pick up and play, has a few exhilarating moments, and a few additions here and there help to give it some depth. With some excellent tracks and stunning speed I would rate it as one of the better single player experiences available of its ilk, but like the flame that burns twice as bright it only burns half as long, and it is all over quite quickly.
From the main menu you start by choosing your racer from one of the five available, a group of individuals that happily manage to span most ethnic demographics. Each character has different stats, like speed and jumping ability, and they also have their own set of boards to choose from. Once you have wrestled with choosing your persona you can leap straight into the match race mode that comprises the main thrust of the game.
Depending on the difficulty level you will race over a unique set of four (novice), five (hard) and six (expert) courses, making for a grand total of fifteen tracks. The last track in each is actually a race against the clock rather than an opponent, with the hard and expert finales showcasing the games headlining avalanches. The aesthetics and diversity of the tracks are simply breath taking. You'll get to race through towns, down roads, over bridges; encountering various forms of wildlife as well as other racers. Additionally, some of the weather effects that accompany parts of the tracks are awesome, for instance in one course you leap down into a large gully amidst a snowstorm. The riders aren't particularly detailed but you won't care when you admire the way their clothes flap in the wind and get caked in layers of snow. It's the numerous little touches that help bring everything to life.
But how does it race? It's good, in fact it's very good. You definitely get a nice feel for all the different surfaces you are racing on, be it the heavier snowfall that you can carve around or the faster ice sections that must be negotiated. If you deviate from the best racing line it's pretty obvious. On the earlier tracks you should find it a breeze to gain victory, even if you are just getting used to the controls. And though all the races are a purely one on one affair there can still be some palpable tension toward the final stages. The dynamics of racing are what you would expect. Holding the shoulder button to tuck in allows you to go faster but with less manoeuvrability. There is a jump button to clear some obstacles, and certain paths of snow will impede your race to victory. I've read many critical accounts of the rubber band nature of your opponents AI. Personally I found it to be just right, allowing enough leeway to catch up after a fall without being too obvious. As you only have three lives to complete each set of tracks it can be a little irksome to fall foul at the end, but as the races are brief it's not too much of a chore to repeat.
There are a couple of additions that surround the racing system. Awkward landings or impacts bring up a little 'wiggle' meter on the screen. To avoid tumbling over you must rotate the control stick in that direction in order to regain your balance. Once you get used to it you realise it's a pretty good system, providing for a middle state between being ok and wiping out completely. Various obstacles may be jumped over with the A button, and you can also grind along logs and railings, using the control stick to tilt left or right so that you remain level.
It's the trick system that is most disappointing. Tricks are easy enough to perform. The B, X and Y buttons are for doing grabs and the shoulders button allows you to perform spins, and this is linked to the control stick for direction. By performing tricks you charge up a power meter, and when this is full it means you can take a fall and recover quickly or knock your opponent down. There isn't really much to it, and exhibiting unnecessary flair once charged puts you in jeopardy so it is best avoided. A typical tactic, then, is to do a couple of tricks early on and then leave well alone.
Aside from racing there is a time trial mode, which oddly contains coins to be collected if you want to unlock new boards but there is no time limit on the task. Gate challenge is another variation on the theme, and success is largely determined by consistency rather than speed. These modes promote exploration of the different routes down the slopes and reward you with new boards and costumes. They are not very substantial though and so it falls to the trick attack mode to provide longevity.
For racing alone, the trick system is more than adequate: but when faced with the three trick attack courses the implemented combo system is very frustrating. The three courses are a simple ski jump, a half pipe section and an obstacle course. The problem stems not from the implementation of the individual tricks, but from the combo system. When you are in the air, you must perform a grab, release, and wait for your character to flash. Then you must perform another, different, grab to gain a x2 combo, and again for x3, x4 and so on. Performing spins doesn't add to the combo, only to the base points that are multiplied. If done right you end up with a very ungraceful trick but lots of points. Getting the timing right, however, is a nightmare. The trick system is simply not responsive enough.
Multiplayer isn't as good as it should be either. Only six of the courses are available and any more than two players equates to a rather bad frame rate. With two players though, the ease at which the game can be picked up means that a novice can challenge you with some really close and exciting games after a couple of attempts. Sadly, after a few more races you'll have played pretty much everything this game has to offer and will move on to more remarkable fare.
Nothing in 1080 Avalanche suggests that it was rushed to completion, because while you are playing it can be tremendous fun. Touches of polish are evident, such as when you complete the last race the credits roll with your own replay playing in the background. The soundtrack isn't too bad either with Nintendo finally licensing some actual music rather than their own cutesy ditties, though amidst the punk rock and electric you'll probably only find a few tracks that you like. It's a good racing game, that's for sure, but bizarrely one that has little replay value and a mediocre multiplayer option. Nintendo have all but finished rehashing their N64 franchises for the Gamecube; let's hope they have something better up their sleeve for the future.