Don’t let the 80s stock photo scare you away!
HoverSki has the foundations of a great top-down racing game. You get a track, a jet-ski, and you go fast. It’s pretty simple. But the game shakes that modesty and tip-toes into the world of extreme sports, and that’s a big misstep.
Hoverski was the pet project of Brett Camper, who designed the game in high school with a few friends over two years (1995-1997). It was Camper’s first big project after learning to program. The game takes inspiration from old top-down racing games such as R.C. Pro-Am and Micro Machines, and it plays very much like them. Just add in the loose handling that you’d expect from a water vehicle.
HoverSki works best when it aims low. Courses contain few if any obstacles, and maneuvering the jet-ski is fairly fun. You’ll generally have a good time learning its momentum and taking corners at the right speed. The game throws in some other curveballs, like the need to refuel or boosting with nitro, but they’re usually only a minor hiccup.
…at first. After the first course, the game throws in a cumbersome tricking system. While jumping, you can do stunts for points and fuel by holding down the Insert key and turning.
Go ahead, if you’re at a keyboard, try holding down the arrow keys and the Insert key at the same time. Awkward, right? (Luckily, the gamepad controls are a little more ergonomic.)
Doing tricks tends to cut into your momentum, and landing off-balance dunks you into the water and costs you time. This would normally be an acceptable tradeoff, but given the clunky stunt controls, it’s hard to make the distance and trick at the same time. In fact, most missed jumps will send you careening off the track. If you do go off-route – an unfortunate likelihood – you’ll have to restart manually at the last checkpoint.
Why muck up the game with that? Just when I started to enjoy the basic racing mechanics, HoverSki overcomplicates itself. Plenty of racing games have tricking, including the newest entries in the Mario Kart series, so how come HoverSki blows it? This might sound like needless kvetching, but given that you sometimes need to do tricks to get fuel, the addition of stunts dramatically refocuses the pace of the game.
Brett Camper acknowledges that the tricking system is “insanely difficult,” if only because it was never an issue for the developers. “I think that what happens is that when you are working on a game, you are play-testing it so much that you become incredibly skilled at it,” he explained, “so we were always tweaking the difficulty from our own false baseline.” These mechanics weren’t just slapped into the game at the last minute either: years before the Tony Hawk series existed, Camper and his friends wanted to incorporate the extreme sports culture from their childhoods. And as it turned out, giving points for stunts added an interesting competitive element to the game in the absence of computer opponents. But the end result wasn’t well-implemented.
(Plus, the developers really wanted to use the giant sparkly effect they made for earning points. It’s one of the many visual tricks inspired by demoscene artists, including the rippling water effect, the high framerate, and the dorky jet-ski guy with over 1200 frames of animation. You get the feeling that they spent more time on the decorative touches than other aspects.)
The rest of HoverSki is fine. Half the courses don’t have nasty jumps in them. The visuals are charmingly blocky, like a Super Nintendo game. It even has same-keyboard multiplayer that cleverly works around rubber-banding.
Maybe this one just flew too close to the sun. Darn. I really liked that little jet-ski guy too.
Camper finds that racing alone in HoverSki is a little… eerie. Or as he puts it, “There’s something a bit existential about the whole thing.”