Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder
Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder at first glance appears to be another cash grab for Activision following the critically acclaimed Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. Expecting the success of the Birdman, Activision started its O2 label, dedicated exclusively to extreme sports as a rival to EA BIG. While Activision already had a BMX title in Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX and was making waves in being one of the few surfing games in Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer. They needed a snowboarding title and a developer who could rise to the challenge.
Following the release of Cool Boarders Code Alien, UEP Systems shut down the following year. Not too long following this, several of its former members would form Dear Soft and would begin the development of Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder. All of the major directors, publishers, and designers, including Masaya Kobayashi, returned for one final snowboarding game, one last time. This would be the Cool Boarders that the Western fans missed out on, right?
Absolutely not. But it was still a pretty solid game.
Activision, being the publisher, wanted to keep each game consistent in terms of gameplay. Fans of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater can pick up and play Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX for example. This is because the controls are similar and the gameplay is familiar. Every THPS “spin-off” functioned mechanically similar to each within their unique sports. Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder is no different. Personally, I wish I could have seen or read the terms of their agreement. I’m sure it must have been an honor for the developers to have a chance to work with the publisher of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which was more than likely inspired by Cool Boarders paving the way.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve played Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder as the game was featured as a playable demo on a demo disc. Remember the good old days when players had a chance to try out video games on a physical form of media? Nowadays there are plenty of ways to play betas and demos with a simple click! I’m so sorry for the “boomer” talk, I recently turned old. Anyways, in that demo, I remember Shaun Palmer and Tara Dakides being the playable riders as well as one level, Aspen. I always felt the game was too difficult to grasp as a kid because it wasn’t Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Now that I know who the developers are, I’ll try to answer the question — What would a THPS-inspired game look like from UEP Systems?
Beginning with the controls, Dear Soft went with the iconic THPS control scheme over their traditional snowboarding titles. The triangle is to grind, Circle is to grab, and the shoulder buttons are for spin rotations. After landing a halfpipe, the player can press R2 to Revert and shift the buttons up and down to perform a manual. Instead of using the square button to flip, as naturally, snowboards shouldn’t flip, Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder replaces it with body flips. Corkscrews, Rodeos, Mistys, and flips are assigned to this button which made it awkward to get used to after playing Cool Boarders titles all week.
There are also special moves but it’s not as extravagant as THPS. Instead of something simple like pressing down, right, and circle for a 900, SPPS’s special tricks look an awful lot like a fighting game special move. Each character has two Special Tricks, each with either a half-circle forward or a half-circle backward notation. Some more advanced tricks that don’t require a special meter use multiple inputs, including a fireball motion—Ah, I said it.
What I found amusing about this was that the more rewarding tricks required the players to tap into their inner Street Fighter. I enjoyed this because the skill floor for this game is super low and all it’s required is basic extreme sports gaming knowledge. To pull off some cool tech, you’d have to learn these special tricks much like you would in fighting games. Before I give Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder too much praise, the game does feel like a bumpy ride at times.
I’m glad I had a chance to play Code Alien before this title as it would have prepared me for its physics engine. It certainly doesn’t feel like a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater title, but rather as a game that attempts to capture what made those games fun. With over five years of experience, Dear Soft had developed several tracks that flow well with the game’s engine. Rails are short and disjointed, meaning that linking between rails is encouraged. Lines that lead into kickers and other obstacles help keep things as fresh as the powder carved. Gone are the tightly packed ridges and challenging corners, as each track was created with the intent of tricking and not racing.
Overall the gameplay was enjoyable, although to fully appreciate it the player would have to increase their stats enough so that they don’t bail every few seconds. Perhaps unique to the THPS-esque titles is the requirement to level your board as you land. In other titles, landing sideways is enough to bail but in this game, the player needs to pitch their board with the up and down directions. If anything is less than perfect, they will bail although higher stats help alleviate this.
The roster features many pro boarders and up-and-coming riders at the time instead of a fictional cast of characters. This is also one of the first video game appearances of Shaun White, during his teenage years. With him being in the game, as well as having his own snowboarding game titled Shaun White Snowboarding, it has been a challenge trying not to type one over the other. While the player can create their own character, it’s nowhere near in-depth as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was.
Much like that game, Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder features unlockable characters although there’s no Wolverine, Darth Maul, or Spider-Man sadly. The two bonus riders are Cory Nastazio and Mike "Rooftop" Escamilla, both of whom are pro-BMX riders. A word of trivia — this game came out months before Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2 would release, meaning that these guys made their debut on PS2 before Mr. Hoffman. Technically. Still, it’s a cool shout-out to another underrated Activision title.
Each level has its unique goals as well as the common “Get a high score” goals. Some goals require you to perform tricks in front of photographers, collect items, smash boards, and the usual fare. Players who are familiar with the Downhill Jam levels in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater will recall the player’s run ending as they reach the bottom. Later games would circumvent this by allowing a player to return to the top of the run.
Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder takes this a step further by placing several gondolas across the slopes. Upon going through them, the player is taken back up the mountain up to a certain point. These serve as checkpoints for the player, giving them another chance at snagging an objective they may have missed going downhill.
While the courses are based on real-life locations, each location has its own unique characteristics from the other. The Aspen course is the most sentimental one as those who have played the Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder demo will remember this course. Plowing through a mountain pass at sunset, there are branching paths including breaking through a building in the middle of a party or going through more technical areas. The finish line is through a city area including several cafes, which share a similar setting with all other courses.
For each layout, the player begins at the peak of each course, usually contending with fallen trees and poles that can be used to trick off. As the player reaches the base, more man-made fixtures and ridable obstacles start to appear, showing that this is the area that “most” boarders would be comfortable riding. Dear Soft had made some of the most aesthetically pleasing courses in any of the games they have developed – The stages offer various routes and show progression as the player goes downhill. If the player starts seeing more residential areas, they know they are reaching the end of the course.
One of my favorite courses in the game is the last course that the player unlocks in Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder, the Gotcha Glacier in Anaheim. As all of the locations in the game are based on real-life ones, this course was based on the then-planned indoor Snowboarding park of the same name. Unfortunately, plans were scrapped long after this game’s release, so the only thing Dear Soft had to go by was some early designs. Let’s just say they took that board and shredded with it, as everything about this course screams fun over realism.
Halfpipes that consist of almost the entire course, rails hanging above rafters all over the place, funboxes, and every object meant to propel you as fast as you’re allowed to be creative with your lines. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this was their answer to SSX’s Tokyo Megaplex, another similar fantasy track filled with a “Snowboarder’s dream course” in mind. I’d say it’s better than the Megaplex and that happens to be one of my favorite courses of all time.
The Gotcha Glacier exemplifies everything that made Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder potentially good. The verticality is next level with multiple branching paths and a sense of speed as you chain trick after trick. It feels satisfying doing an entire trick line from top to bottom and having to redo it all over again by catching the respawn point makes it a thrill. Unfortunately, to see the best part of this game the player would have had to grind many hours to make it here. Fortunately, the player can bypass all of this by entering cheat codes. Good ole “unlock everything” cheats, they don’t make them like they used to pre-DLC.
Whether they were known as Dear Soft or UEP Systems, Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder was their swan song whether it was average or not. At the time, the extreme sports genre was becoming saturated to the point where most fans wanted to wait for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 than bother with anything else. What’s great about talking about games now is that over two decades later, people like me can reflect on the “behind-the-scenes” aspect.
I had no intentions at all to cover, nor think about, Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder until I discovered the connection between Cool Boarders 2, the developers, and the aftermath of a company that disbanded. Considering I played this game very briefly when I was younger, this felt like a homecoming armed with information that I never had before. It allowed me to play this game from a different perspective. Overall, this is definitely worth a try for extreme sports fans, especially snowboarding fans, to see what would become of a legendary developer that paved the way for 3D extreme sports.