Oh hell yeah, N64 emulation again! That means the standard caveat of 'we're amazed this thing works on our setup at all so if there's emulation glitches please don't shout at us'. Same as the one for Castlevania 64, I believe. And another thing, the name. It would appear that the Japanese title of the game is Air Boarder 64, while the PAL title is AirBoarder 64. This is from comparing the design of the game's logo, and a single English sentence- Let's try! Air Boarding- in the Japanese manual, to the game's description on the PAL box referring to the boards as AirBoards. As Gaming Hell is indeed a British site, owing to it being written by people who live on this island, we've adopted the name AirBoarder 64 (even though our research was conducted on a JP copy). This is at least vaguely consistent with what we've done before (see also: Koloomn, Space Invaders: Invasion Day) except the times when we didn't (see also: Puzzle Bobble 4, Double Target I guess?). Yes, we have meetings about this kind of thing. Yes, they're mostly boring and one-sided. Rumours that they descend into discussions about who is the best Touhou/Love Live/Ai-Mai-Mi are ridiculous and unfounded. We all know Ponoka is the best anyway.
Bear with us as Gaming Hell enters very strange territory (for this site, anyway)- skateboarding! Future skateboarding!
It's not enough to have an idea that hasn't been seen in a video game before. Execution is important too, and such is the fate of AirBoarder 64. Now, my knowledge of skateboarding games is very poor, but I'm willing to bet that, when you think of the genre, in particular of 3D skateboarding games (sorry, 720, we still love you), you think of Neversoft's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series (or, for some reason, Tony Hawk's Skateboarding over here, at least for the first entry). Why wouldn't you? One of the most successful sports video game franchises of all time! However, that was released in 1999. Tracing the genre back further than that- specifically with the kind of timed, trick-centric structure Tony Hawk's had in mind- gets you basically nothing. The most notable 3D example is probably Sega's Top Skater for the arcades released in 1997, but that also had a more traditional racing game feel to it as well. No, if you want a free-form, 'make as many tricks as you can for score in the time limit' game, you can find something earlier than Tony Hawk's in the 3D space, and that's AirBoarder 64, developed by Human (of Clock Tower and Fire Pro Wrestling fame) and released only in Japan, Europe and Australia. While it was set in the future and used a hoverboard, among other modes the game had a mode very similar to THPS, letting you loose in a skate park (and a forest, and a giant house) to perform tricks and score as many points as possible under a time limit.
And yet... Despite having almost the same basic structure as Neversoft's game, which had yet to even exist (AirBoarder 64 came out in March 1998 in Japan, with THPS's release in August 1999) the few magazine reviews of AirBoarder 64 I could dig up- from N64 Magazine and Official Nintendo Magazine specifically- weren't kind to the game, with both citing the fact that it felt pointless and aimless. Even though its structure for the Street Work mode is basically like the Tony Hawk's games, that would go on to get rave reviews! As we are about to find out- and as you can no doubt assume already- there's plenty of good reason for that, and just getting to the idea a little earlier does not make AirBoarder 64 ahead of its time or misunderstood. For now, let's hit the park and shred some... I mean, let's bluntside and k-grind a... Who am I kidding, let's play this old future skateboarding video game no-one's heard of because its US release was cancelled.
Before we dive into one of the three core game modes (not counting Free Run, which just lets you muck about in each stage with no objectives) let's get the basics out the way. AirBoarder 64, as the name suggests, has its competitors (four standard, four hidden) ride not on skateboards but airboards, which apparently hover 50cm off the ground. However, the fundamentals are easy to understand- you can accelerate (including kicking yourself forward), jump (hold to build up power), use a limited amount of Turbos to pick up speed quickly, and perform various tricks either by rotating the analogue stick in the air or using the C-Buttons when in the air, near the lip of a ramp, or on a rail (successful tricks build up your Turbo meter). The actual control scheme works really well- in lieu of a dual analogue setup, the C-Buttons are the perfect fit for tricks as they correspond logically to the four directions your character can bend themselves towards. It's a surprisingly good fit for the N64 controller.
However, the control in-game is less praise-worthy. The analogue stick is extremely sensitive, so while making sharp turns is absolutely no problem, anything finer and more precise than that is out of the question. The game attempts to hide this by having its stages being fairly open, but it can't escape it entirely, so courses like Lost Forest and Giant House, which have some intricate bridges and tunnels, turn into your character slamming into every God-damned wall along the way. However, you're not going to smack into every wall- the hoverboard element means that one of the unique points of the game is that you can go up walls, which sounds great in theory. In practice, this can lead to even more problems, such as the game being very fussy about which walls you can go up and which you can't and at what angle, and the camera trying to keep up but failing. The worst offender is Giant House, where almost every wall is rideable, which can lead to you getting trapped between two walls or scaling ones you don't intend to. Using very light taps of the analogue stick and tapping the accelerate button can sadly only help you so much, as you often need that momentum, and you really have to handle the stick absurdly gently. On top of that, the camera has a tendency to aim itself at your character's jacksie when rising from a jump, a most unhelpful angle, though it does correct itself for the descent. Generally, if you set the camera to Far on the Options menu, you'll have less problems with it, but making sharp turns also messes with its sense of direction which can lead to you slamming into walls too. .
These control and physics foibles probably impact Time Trial and Coin modes the most, both of which are more reliant on precise movement- Time Trial places checkpoints in the form of red circles across the map that need to be passed through in order, while Coin hides anything between 20 to 129 (!) coins on each course for you to collect. Of the two, Time Trial is probably the more enjoyable, where there's only a handful of checkpoints to clear and mostly sensible par times (aside from the Giant House ones, specifically the last one with a checkpoint on top of a rail on the ceiling of the kitchen, that is the worst). That said, some of the routes (three per course) don't flow particularly well, and certain checkpoints are far more frustrating to actually reach than they should be due to the aforementioned control issues and the camera during your ascent meaning you can't see where to aim for. If nothing else, the checkpoints themselves are quite large in an attempt to account for the controls, and so in spite of its issues I had probably the most fun in this mode overall. I wanted to say Coin was the most stress-free, as the time limit is very generous, but I put that notion away as soon as I tried Lost Forest and realised it'd be like finding needles in a haystack (the coin sprites are pretty small too, so good luck with that)
The mode mostly unscathed by the controls is the Street Work mode, the most THPS-like of them, where under a strict time limit (that can be boosted by passing through yellow circles) you need to perform as many tricks and stunts as possible to reach a score suitable for an A grade to unlock the next difficulty. You don't need to be able to pull off quite as much finnicky and precise movements here, so the game kinda gets away with it in that regard. Nah, what hurts the Street Work mode is the level design itself, seemingly not designed with successively moving from trick to trick like the THPS games- with the exception of Green Park, which could pass as a proper skate park with hoverboards in mind, the other stages feel a lot more haphazard, with some (Lost Forest, Sunset Bridge) feeling far more like they were designed to be race courses (which is why they work better in Time Trial) and others (Snow Festival 64, Giant House) having a sense of an arena-like design, but no real cohesion, seemingly scattering rails and jumps around with wanton abandon. The added sense of verticality granted by being able to scale walls doesn't help either- these places just feel too open, with no tightness to the level design to make you really want to dig in and find the optimal routes for the highest scores.
So, is AirBoarder 64 a total write-off then? I mean, it sure sounds it, right? Despite my criticisms though, I can't completely disregard the game. This is definitely one of those troublesome 2 out of 5 games. The aesthetic is part of that- I've seen a few places call the game ugly, but I dunno, I've seen worse on the system, and it does its best to evoke a late 90s not-quite-future universe, and even gets into silly territory with that Giant House stage. In Time Trial mode, on the more open stages, it's almost a decent job? Also, while the movement controls leave somethng to be desired, the trick controls are pretty intuitive, so it's a shame the level designs don't step up to make it more fun to chain them. Missed potential, to sum it up, and perhaps it could've done with arriving on the scene later. The genre was very much in its infancy at this stage, and perhaps if Human had time to study the Tony Hawk games, and look at what they did well- tightly-constructed and secret-laden stages built for combo optimisation, controls that don't see Mr. Hawk slamming into every wall in a 5-mile radius- they would've been able to iterate on that with the additional mechanics something like a hoverboard and the verticality could adds to the formula. A bit like learning to walk before you can run, except in this case, learning to skate before you can hover. As it stands, AirBoarder 64 remains a bizarre little footnote, one that barely made any traction in the regions it was released in, never mind the big ol' region it missed out on, but may be of limited interest if you're up for fighting with the controls.
For making one pause on the plausaibility and feasibility of hoverboards, AirBoarder 64 is awarded...
In a sentence, AirBoarder 64 is... Grinding the wrong rail.
And now, it's that time, folks!
Before we go, a little look at what might've been, with the cancelled US release of AirBoarder 64.
(With the boxart nicked from NeoSeeker- I didn't even know it existed!
AirBoarder 64 got its Japanese release in early 1998 and its PAL release later in the same year courtesy of publisher GMI. The American release, however, took a lot longer to surface. It was planned to be released by Agetec, a game-focused subsidiary of ASCII Entertainment who were better known for making controllers than publishing games. They formed early in 1999 and AirBoarder 64, retitled AirBoardin' USA (presumably a nod to that Beach Boys song, although I doubt you'll catch them airboardin' on the Ventura County line) was their only penned N64 release, announced for release in the fall of 2000. It then got delayed until February 17th, 2001 but didn't even make it until then, as it was cancelled in November 2000 which IGN seems to report with cruel, unusual relish. I imagine the reason it was cancelled is simple- by the time the US release was finally due, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater had come out for both the Playstation and Nintendo 64 which utterly shamed AirBoarder USA [Are you sure that's the right name? - Ed] which probably put Agetec off. A similar case to Phantom Breaker being repeatedly humiliated into not being published by the likes of Skullgirls and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. The difference there is if AirBoarder 64 had been developoed later, perhaps we would've had something better. Ah, the road not taken (or hovered over).
Aside from the boxart, here's all that really remains of the US version, a short promo video with music not taken from the final product.
It's nice that we can finally tick 'extreme sports' off our list of covered genres. Never thought we'd be able to do that!