Polaris SnoCross

Developer: Vicarious Visions
Publisher: Vatical Entertainment
Released: December 27 2000
Regions: NA
Genre: Racing
Multiplayer: 1-4 players
Cart Size: 12MB / 96Mbits
Saving: Controller Pak
Rumble Pak?: Yes
Expansion Pak? No
- Required? No

The long lost stepchild of the N64 Sports lineup

Racing, in its many shapes and forms, is one of the most predominant genres on the N64. Seriously, there's over 50 of them! Yet it wasn't until 4 years after the N64's release that a snowmobile racing game hit store shelves. Mind you, it's not a very common sub-genre to start with, but snowmobile games started to pick up in popularity by 2000. Polaris Snocross is the only racer of its kind on the N64, thematically speaking. But it shares core gameplay qualities with other racing mainstays, like Wave Race 64 and Excitebike 64. I happen to be a big fan of real life snowmobiling, so how does Polaris Snocross shape up?

Polaris Snocross is, at its roots, basically the same as other "realistic" arcade-y racers at the time. There's a single event mode, a tournament to win trophies and unlock new rides and set new records, various stunts and tricks to perform and an emphasis on realistic graphics and physics. The single event mode can be played with up to 4 players, while the instant action and tournament are single player-only. It's a bit disappointing that there aren't more gameplay modes. Excitebike 64 had a lot of variety in that regard and it wasn't released much earlier. Tournament mode is essentially the main mode in the game, unless you're always in multiplayer mode. Tournament is straight forward, race on 3 tracks against 3 other competitors, attempt to win gold trophies. The opponent racers can be rather brutal in difficulty towards the end of the tournament mode, but it's not impossible.

Snocross has a decent selection of snowmobiles and race tracks, but there isn't much more than what its competitors offered years prior. What Snocross has exclusivity of is detail and hidden paths in the race tracks. Where Excitebike 64 was almost strictly a by-the-books stadium-style racer and Wave Race 64 never dabbled too much into extra paths, Snocross readily employs them. Some tracks have more multiple sections of track than others, but the best ones are great fun to explore.

The tricks and stunts one can perform in Snocross are limited, but their function is rather unique compared to other stunt-based games of the time. In tournament mode, instead of scoring points or perhaps getting a speed boost from pulling off a neat trick, each stunt you perform earns you a point or two towards an extra wrench. This adds a great deal of flexibility to the tournament mode, allowing a player to gain an edge towards the gold trophy should they falter during one of the races. It's not quite Pro Skater or Excitebike 64, but Snocross pulls off stunts pretty well. Each one has a different time span and they are pretty forgiving concerning when you can land a stunt without wiping out.

One of Snocross's other strengths is its physics. Unlike a lot of racing games on N64, this is one of the few that employs vehicle physics, which greatly heightens the sense of realism that games of this type tried to emulate. For the most part, the physics work as they should. The snowmobile will bob and sway around the turns, or lift a ski up when taking a sharp turn, or the track will grip and climb up jumps and inclines like a real snowmobile would. One significant flaw I notice is when you're landing from a jump. The snowmobile falls through the air rather slowly and it doesn't make much of a thud. I know it's snow, but I guarantee 99% of the tracks in Snocross consist of hard packed snow, which is definitely not light and fluffy. Besides that, snowmobiles weigh a ton, they don't get much air time and they always smack the ground rather hard. Such physics probably wouldn't make for a very good stunt-based game, but the stunts feel like more of an afterthought anyway.

As graphics go, Snocross is... Well, not bad, but not great either. The textures are all pretty nice, but everything being covered in snow greatly hides any possible lack of quality thereof. Polygon models are decent, there's no tearing and most in-game objects and scenery are rendered well. One significant drawback is the lack of draw distance. The game puts a cap on how far ahead one can see before the graphics just fade into the background. This is the sort of thing you'd see in 1996, not 2000. It gives the game a very sloppy feel; Snocross can't possibly be pushing the N64 that much.

The music and sound effects are not nearly as lively as the graphics, and that's not saying much. There's little in the way of music, announcement or even ambiance. Each race is basically just the droning of the snowmobile engines, unless you turn the music and sound effects up higher. The music isn't from any licensed bands; it's really generic and not noteworthy at all. It's certainly no Need for Speed. While next to no announcer is better than one that never shuts up, some more voice accompaniment would have spruced this game up a bit. Wave Race 64 pulled it off, why can't this game? This game even uses MusyX from Factor 5, it almost feels like a waste considering how dull the sound is.

It's hard to stay away too long from comparisons, but eventually one must be made. The quality of a game that obviously builds upon similar, older ones is partly judged by how well it does it. Snocross takes more than a little inspiration from Wave Race 64 and Excitebike 64. These games are so tried and true; they blur the line between boring sports games and fun original racing games. Snocross doesn't quite reach those levels, partly because it lacks pizzazz and some substance, but it's not terrible either. For a third party effort, it's quite decent. Good by 1998 standards or so, but by 2000 there were many more impressive releases. This is the sort of game that gets lost easily among better contenders.

Overall, Polaris Snocross is a decent, but not great, racing game. It has a bare bones selection of game modes, a meager arrangement of snowmobiles and tracks, above average graphics and dull sound. To its credit though, it's a very good snowmobile racing game, with mostly realistic machine physics and even a 4-player mode. Snocross was a pretty decent effort, too bad it's brother game Sea-Doo Hydrocross went unreleased on N64.

Presentation: 5.0
Snocross is about as middle of the road as you can get. The license is essentially just tacked onto an otherwise generic snowmobile racing game.

Graphics: 6.5
The visuals, the textures, polygon rendering and environments are decent enough. Standard fare for the most part, but the short draw distance is simply unacceptable for a game released in 2000.

Sound: 5.5
The sound is actually more lacking than the graphics. The music is bland, the announcer is barely there and the sound effects are sparse. This game could have used an Excitebike 64-like sound injection.

Gameplay: 7.5
More or less Snocross's best advantage. It's not half bad, the physics are pretty good and the tracks have many split paths. The track and snowmobile selection is adequate and there are even stunts to be had.

Lasting Appeal: 6.0
There's not a whole lot of replay value to be had after you've beaten the tournament mode, but Snocross holds its own well enough in multiplayer mode with the available tracks and snowmobiles.

Overall: 6.1

Written by Aaron Wilcott
May 12 2013