Rare-a-thon: Slalom

A humble sports game on the NES may not sound like a significant title, but Slalom is actually a major piece of gaming history. It was developed by Rareware founders Tim & Chris Stamper, after Nintendo intiailly refused to give them a license to develop for the NES. The Stamper Champs reverse-engineered the console themselves and created a demo of Slalom. This impressed Nintendo so much that Rare became the first licensed NES developer outside of Japan.

What better way to kick off this marathon, where I intend to play through every game developed by Rareware prior to its decline.

For all its historical significance, Slalom is an admittedly simple game. It’s a ski-based racing title, where your objective is to make it down a series of perilous slopes within a time limit. Besides the winding course itself, you’ll also have to content with all manner of obstacles. Trees and moguls make for natural hazards, while clueless kids, other skiers, and snowmen present man-made trouble. One wrong collision and you’ll be eating snow.

Time limits are tight. While you can get away with a few mistakes, I frequently found myself only barely making the finish line. Some courses I had to try over and over again before I’d eventually make it to the end. Strangely enough, it’s not the hardest courses that I struggled with the most; rather it’s the longest courses. It’s easier to get skilled at a level that is less than 50 seconds than it is to get through one that lasts over 2 minutes. There are just so many more opportunities to make little mistakes and it’s a lot more frustrating to retry such levels.

Besides obstacles, you also have to look out for the flags. These mark where you are supposed to be skiing, either by forming little gates that you must pass through or being dotted around so you need to slalom between them. Missing one of these flags causes your character to brake a bit. It’s not as immediately damning, but messing up a sequence of these flags does cost you a lot of momentum. With other obstacles in the way, it’s sometimes worth considering skipping a flag to play it safer.

Slalom features 24 tracks spread across 3 mountains, which represent increasing levels of difficulty. While all the tracks use the same assets and obstacles, they are VERY well-designed levels. Each course has a nice flow to it, making it feel you like you can naturally anticipate where obstacles will appear next. The semi-random behavior of other skiers adds some variety, as you can never quite predict how they might get in your way when repeating a familiar level.

The visuals are easy on the eyes. The course uses greys and whites, with more detailed mountainsides acting as a backdrop. This makes the obstacles stand out better, so it actually feels like your fault when you hit them. It’s not spectacular, but it puts gameplay over style and that makes me happy. I do also like the visual effects used to make the turns in the track feel so dynamic.

I do consider it a missed opportunity that other skiers don’t react to the obstacles. Excitebike released 3 years before Slalom and in that game it was funny to watch the other racers faceplant and crash all over the place. It makes hitting obstacles less frustrating when you see the computer struggle with them too. In Slalom, however, the other skiers will just phase through trees and largely ignore the flags. It feels a tad unfair.

Another frustration is that you don’t get any invulnerability after a mistake. If hitting an obstacle knocks you off course, then you can immediately hit something else and suffer twice as much. Or you may be knocked over entirely and crash right in front of another obstacle. So after the lengthy animation of you getting back up, you’re going to unavoidably hit the thing right in front of you and fall again. It’s intensely frustrating when you’re on a good run, only for one mistake to cascade into 30 seconds of pure agony.

If, like me, you have a soft spot for retro sports games, then Slalom is one you shouldn’t skip out on. With 24 unique courses, it has plenty of meat on its bone. The game also controls and looks splendidly. Though you will have to put up with some very punishing time limits and tumbles that don’t 100% feel like they are your own fault.

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