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Remembering Microsoft's Finest Gaming Hour: Skifree

From The Archive

Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun's 141-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, Alec's 2009 retrospective of Microsoft oddity Skifree.

Why? Why does he want to eat me? What did I ever do to him?

I'm just skiing, man. I'm not a threat to him or his people. I can't believe I taste that great, underneath this garish windcheater and plastic boots. I'm certainly not going to replace all the calories he spends chasing me down a frozen mountain slope at about 90mph. He wants to eat me because he's just a massive bastard. There's no other possible explanation.

The Abominable Snow Monster always catches me. He always eats me. This is the world's most dangerous sport - never mind the limb-breaking collisions with trees and rocks and flags and chairlifts and people. This is an activity that always, always ends with being devoured by a indefatigable monster. No-one in their right mind would ever attempt it.

Yet I've attempted it again and again. My life is a small price to pay for a high score. And maybe, just maybe I'll somehow escape the clutches of the hairy, grey, man-eating horror this time. But enough about Kieron's mum. I'm talking about early Microsoft's finest gaming hour.

Skifree enjoys the kind of cutely legendary backstory that's very rare in today's harshly focus-grouped times. Mid-level programmer Chris Pirih created and played a tribute to Activision’s Skiing for the Atari 2600 in his spare time, until eventually the sparsely colourful snow-world on his screen was spotted by one of his managers. Soon afterwards, it found itself a part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, alongside the likes of Tetris, FreeCell and LucasArts’ Pipe Dream. It’s an odd collection of games even to this day, but its aim at the time was to offer a collection of 16-bit games that worked exclusively in Windows 3.1 – very much a rarity in an age when most every game was designed for DOS. You may remember this icon:

Ah, 16-colour memories.

Oddly, I knew none of this until a few days ago, when Skifree randomly flickered across my forebrain for the first time in years and I had the fancy to read up about it. My experience of it was a copied floppy disk I owned at school. Most pupils in my school had a similar disc. It contained only Skifree, with no trace of its official Microsoftian status.

[We each had another floppy disc at the time, containing a barely discernable series of looped, low-resolution black and white photo slideshows about a large-thighed lady named Mandy indulging in a series of explicit sexual adventures, but that’s another story.]

We each played it alone, the only way it could be played, and competed for high scores. High scores were achieved by using the game’s simple controls to pull off simple stunts in its simple engine. Points were lost by slamming into trees, people and whatnot. There were bragging rights to be had from besting that lunchbreak’s highest score so far, but mostly it was about watching each other slam face-first into obstacles and giggling.

Eventually, the high scores achieved by the fastest-fingered kids became insurmountable. That’s when the secondary challenge came in – avoid the Abominable Snow Monster for as long as possible.

It was achievable, for some of us at least. The game world appeared infinite, an endless expanse of white with bits in even after the stretch during which points could be earned had passed. It wasn’t. It looped, eventually and invisibly. If you stayed alive for long enough, you'd eventually reach the start point again, and safety anew.

A cursory check reveals someone’s inevitably done the exact maths to ascertain the point at which this happened, but frankly that diminishes the experience for me. The joy was this desperate, ski-bound flight for survival, pinging left and right to keep just a step ahead from this ceaseless egg-shaped horror, going on and on and on and on until suddenly, miraculously, the Monster was gone.

Except a few minutes later you’d be out of the safe bit again and the bastard would come right back. ‘Skifree’ ain’t the half of it. ‘Skiforever’ would be better. You never, ever stop skiing, not until you choose to quit, until you got eaten or until you got so tired you let yourself get eaten. Truly, this is a far more frightening sport than death race, bare knuckle boxing or bullfighting. It’s a sport you sign up to for life. The rest of your life. Which will probably be extremely short.

There’s something strangely subversive about this inevitable defeat, this somehow celebratory futility. It’s not very Microsoft, a company now built upon laughably hollow You Can Do Anything! soundbytes. This was and is the great joy of it – skiing as nihilism. I love it for that. It’s a strange accident that somehow wound up presented before the eyes of the world.

Oh, and it’s also about as note-perfect as a reflex-based high score game gets, even now.

Chris Pirih hasn't forgotten what's surely his finest hour. A few years back, he dug up the original sourcecode and created an identical version that, unlike the original, plays nice with our modern Windowses. Get it from here, but do read his page about the game too.

I adored and still adore Skifree. It's one of the Games That Made Me, and now I've revisited it I'm really not sure why it wasn't on my original list.

I used to have nightmares about the Abominable Snow Monster. I'm worried that's going to happen again.

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