17 Paul Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903–2101
$34.95, Color only
Reviewed by Scott Wasser
There you are, at the top of what certainly must be the highest mountain in the entire world. You're all bundled up in fluorescent-color clothes and wearing a pair of uncomfortable plastic boots with a couple of long fiberglass slats strapped to your feet.
But hey, who's complaining? Skiing is fun. At least that's what all your skiing buddies told you.
So you try not to think about how all the puffy clothing makes you feel like a helpless teddy bear. You struggle to stay upright as you inch your way to the edge of the mountain where the ski trail begins.
Ah, finally! You've made it! You gaze down the trail, which looks more like a sheer cliff than a gently descending slope, and try to pick a path with plenty of soft, forgiving snow and as few bumps as possible.
Then, surprising even yourself, you somehow manage to summon up enough courage to nudge your skis over the precipice and hurtle down the mountain.
It's at that moment—the moment you reach the point of no return— you realize just how much trouble you're in. During all the bundling and buckling, nobody ever taught you anything about skiing.
That is precisely the biggest problem with Downhill Challenge, a program that simulates ski racing. The program provides you with everything you need to vicariously engage in four different types of ski racing—except the knowledge required to successfully compete.
It's a shame, because Downhill Challenge has some merit. For one thing, it's the only skiing simulation I'm aware of for the ST. For ski nuts who trek great distances, stand in long lines and pay big bucks to participate in the sport— Downhill Challenge is a pleasant way to enjoy the activity when there's no snow on the mountain or no time to get there.
As a simulation, it does a credible job of recreating the sport. After booting the program, you have the option of choosing to practice one of four ski-racing events: Slalom, Giant Slalom, Downhill or Ski Jumping. Or, you and up to five other players can "register" to compete in all four events (The computer can be one of the competitors).
After going through the preliminaries, you're presented with the main game screen, which is divided into three parts. The largest part is a window, in which all the action takes place. The view is from above and behind the skier you'll control.
Framing that window on two sides is information about what is taking place on the course, such as the skier's speed, elapsed time and gates missed. In the lower left-hand corner of the screen is a small window that indicates the type of event being run or, in the case of the ski jump, shows a profile of the airborne skier.
Downhill Challenge captures the sensation of skiing about as well as can be expected of a computer simulation. Attribute that to nice graphics and good animation.
Because the screen scrolls both horizontally and vertically, perspective is realistic. Both the foreground and background change as the on-screen skier blasts down the mountain. That helps create the feeling of being on a ski slope rather than a treadmill. Even the spills capture the jarring, disorienting feeling of the real thing.
On the other hand, having to use a joystick to control the skier is a constant reminder that this is a simulation. Although the controls are easy to master and the response is good, there's simply no way that jiggling a joystick can even remotely emulate the physical moves involved in real skiing. Using the keyboard to control the skier is even less satisfying.
The most disappointing thing about Downhill Challenge is the way it leaves you snowbound in the documentation department. The word "challenge" in the program's title could easily refer to the difficulty many players will have figuring out what's going on.
Most avid skiers know how important it is for beginners to start with a lesson from a knowledgeable instructor. Smart skiers tout the value of taking a lesson every once in a while, no matter how long you've been skiing. The more you know about skiing, the more you'll enjoy the sport. But information is hard to come by in Downhill Challenge's user's guide. Only the most rudimentary instructions are provided, and some important information is omitted.
For example, nowhere in the guide does it explain the controls required to compete in the ski jump event. It's up to the player to figure out how to control the skier.
A less glaring omission is the documentation's failure to explain the strange beeping you'll hear at certain times during a run, or that the "competition" mode requires players to participate in all four events and take two runs in each.
Finally, it disturbs me that the guide doesn't provide any explanation of the individual events or the differences between them. Ski racing is an esoteric sport. A simulation of it should be accompanied by documentation that includes paragraphs devoted to explaining the events and describing the techniques and skills required to master them.
The skimpy documentation makes Downhill Challenge less enjoyable than it could be. If you're familiar with ski racing or patient enough to figure out Downhill Challenge, you'll probably think it does a good job of simulating the sport. If only it did a better job describing it.
Scott Wasser has been a daily newspaper reporter and editor for the past 12 years, and has been interfacing with computers for the last four. He has written columns and feature stories about computer hardware, software and home electronics, and is a regular reviewer for ST-LOG.