After many games, a feature film or two, and even several critically acclaimed symphonic performances, the Final Fantasy juggernaut is set to run the table in yet another entertainment medium. Square Enix isn't confident enough in the state of US handset technology to offer American fans premiere games like Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis and Final Fantasy II, which are old news for most Japanese gamers. Rather than let the lucrative American market lie fallow while the phone technology matures, Square Enix has turned the exclusion principle on its head by offering special, US-only Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding is the first of these to hit the download decks. It's a shame that Square Enix wasn't able to bring a more interesting aspect of the classic role-playing game to mobile at this time. Even so, this is a perfectly serviceable, speedy riding game that'll whet fans' appetites for more substantial stuff.
Depending on how obsessed you are with Final Fantasy VII, you may or may not remember the game's brief snowboarding sequence. Back in those days, this simple racer's presence in the sprawling RPG qualified as an innovation, because it helped to break up two of the story's particularly long sections with a bit of action. In Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding, however, Cloud's winter holiday has been divorced from its context and turned into a stand-alone product. Just as in the PlayStation version, the game's three courses are littered with balloons, which boost your score when collected, and obstacles, like trees and snow moogles, which will put you flat on your back if you run into them. Only a beginner course is available at the beginning of the game, and in this you unlock the medium and hard courses by earning an acceptable grade on the previous run. After you've performed adequately on all three courses, you'll be able to choose a time trial mode by grabbing a special balloon at the start of a run. During a time trial, all obstacles disappear, the plain white snow is replaced by a trippy checkerboard pattern, and a ghost racer appears to denote your best time, prompting some questions about the contents of said balloon.
Happily, Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding's gameplay is both fast and fun. You can readily play the game with one hand, as the turn, brake, and jump buttons are all assigned to the phone's D pad. Cloud's turning radius isn't like what you'd find in the Winter Olympics, but this actually makes things more interesting, because you have to anticipate turns and dips in the courses to zoom around them without bailing. And there's plenty of topsy-turvy course design, too. The runs snake around like waterslides, sending you through tunnels, forests, and moogle fields with abandon. There are some mild jumps, too, even if Cloud can barely take advantage of them, as his selection of tricks seems to be limited to two simple grabs and an occasional backflip. You can enable a spin-jump mode on the options screen, but it doesn't appear to do much of anything besides make him spin around like a helicopter. Although jumping is useful for clearing snow moogles and grabbing bonus balloons, it's better for snowboarding games to err on the side of excess when it comes to aerial derring-do, and this one doesn't.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding is a treat to watch on the LG VX8000. The snowboarding action is smooth--except, of course, when Cloud slams into a moogle or the like. After a particularly nasty collision, he'll dust himself off and sometimes even do some hip stretches to shake the pain. The game's frame rate never appears to drop below the high teens, and it dwells mostly in the low 20s. Consequently, Snowboarding pretty much ties Asphalt: Urban GT for the title of best-running V CAST game. Unfortunately, the sound's not anywhere near as great. We were thrilled to hear the Chocobo Song rendered in full, polyphonic MIDI glory--at least for the first dozen loops or so. After that, even complete Final Fantasy freaks will be dashing for the off switch. There are no other sound effects in this version of the game, so there's really no reason to turn it back on.
Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding turned out to be exactly as advertised--a competent mobile version of that old minigame from your favorite RPG of all time. Whether you'll enjoy the easy pleasures of the ride, or be teased into a Square Enix-hating frenzy by this ephemeral puff of nostalgia, remains to be seen. Sure, this game is a technological quantum leap over most American mobile games, but it's still a rather pale copy of a forgettable cog in what was a truly great machine. If you can forgive Square Enix for creeping slowly into the US market while Japanese mobile gamers are feasting overseas, Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding is worth a look. Otherwise, this game's poor value should make you think twice--you currently get three tracks for a $10 one-time purchase, without even the requisite online leaderboard. It may be worth waiting for some of the other 3D snowboarding games to make it over to V CAST before you hit the download button on this one.