If you could point to a single component of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games that accounts for their incredible popularity, it would be the intuitive and challenging trick system. Activision and developer Dearsoft have applied the Tony Hawk blueprint to snowboarding in Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder. The end result is a solid and enjoyable snowboarding game that successfully brings Tony Hawk to the mountain.
Considering the serious differences between the two sports, it's pretty surprising just how much Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder plays like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. The levels are designed after real-world slopes, like Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Squaw Valley, and just like in Tony Hawk, the levels alternate between freestyle and competition. Each freestyle level has a set of nine goals. The secret sponsor icons, a colder version of Tony Hawk's secret tapes, and the standard score challenges are found in every freestyle level, along with more level-specific goals, such as crashing through five signs or jumping over a yuppie. Completing these goals will let you move on to the next mountain and will net you stat points to improve your boarder's abilities. In the occasional competition level, you'll race down the mountain against other boarders for a bronze, silver, or gold medal. Since snowboarding is inherently a much more linear sport than skateboarding, this multiple-level goal system is not a perfect fit. However, each level has its share of ski lifts, snowmobiles, and 4x4s that will teleport you back up the mountain, making it possible to give it another shot without starting over. This little trick is kind of hackneyed, but it's an interesting solution to a problem that has beleaguered other freestyle snowboarding games, and most importantly, it works.
The trick system in Shaun Palmer is almost identical to Tony Hawk 3's trick system, down to the inclusion of the revert, a maneuver that can be used to chain multiple vert tricks into a single combo. If you've played Tony Hawk, you'll be able to pick up Shaun Palmer almost instantly, though there are a few key differences. Ollies, grab tricks, and grinds work the same; however, the boarder and skater definitions of "flip trick" aren't exactly the same. Instead of flipping the board with his or her feet, your boarder will flip his or her whole body. This difference in mechanics will force Tony Hawk vets to alter their game slightly, because you won't be able to integrate flip tricks into your grinds. It's also worth noting that grind balance is much more difficult to maintain, and you'll have to keep a watchful eye on that balance meter. Your boarder also has a special trick meter, which slowly fills up as you complete more tricks without bailing. Once it's full, you'll be able to execute a handful of special flips, grabs, and grinds that are generally worth more points than standard tricks. Straying from the Tony Hawk formula, pulling off special tricks requires more D-pad action, and instead of a simple up-down or left-right movement, you'll have to perform more-complex moves, like a Street Fighter-style half-circle motion. Some of the higher-scoring standard tricks require multiple D-pad movements as well, and these changes help bring a greater level of depth to Shaun Palmer's already outstanding trick system.
Activision's action sports games have thus far proven to be some of the best-looking games in the genre, and Shaun Palmer maintains this tradition. The environments are dense with ramps, half-pipes, and ski lodges, and while the game takes certain liberties with the level design, each slope fairly faithfully represents the real-world ski resort it was modeled after. The textures generally look good and are full of small, realistic imperfections, though some of the snow textures are a bit fuzzier than they should be. The most impressive piece of Shaun Palmer's presentation is the boarders themselves. The models have even more detail than those found in Tony Hawk 3, with superior facial features and more-realistic hair. The boarders animate beautifully, transitioning naturally from one trick into another. One of the smaller details that really helps bring a greater level of realism to the game is the way your boarder's clothes will flap in the wind as he or she picks up speed. It's not as flashy as SSX, but it does a proficient job of representing real-life snowboarders on real-life slopes.
If Shaun Palmer's soundtrack is any indication of the musical tastes of the general snowboarder population, then there must be a huge metalhead faction in the group. Groups like Static X, Alien Ant Farm, Papa Roach, and Pantera provide background noise for the game, so depending on how receptive you are to the brand of metal that's currently popular, you'll either love the soundtrack or hate it. The in-game sound is also kind of spotty in certain areas. Different surfaces produce different sounds as your board slides over them, and while there are distinct differences between powder, groomed snow, and the wooden deck of a ski lodge, the sounds just aren't as sharp as those found in EA's SSX games. You'll occasionally come upon bystanders, most of whom have some choice words for your reckless shredding. For whatever reason, these voice samples are far too loud and sound like they were recorded in a tin can, making them stick out against the rest of the game's sound.
If you're a fan of the Tony Hawk series looking for something new, and previous snowboarding offerings haven't interested you, Shaun Palmer may be worth a look. While not without its flaws, the game capably brings the gameplay mechanics and general style of the Tony Hawk games to the mountain.