I have spent a couple hours over the last couple days playing Just Ski by Jeff Weber. If you haven't played his original game Krashlander (of near identical mechanic), you should. It's one of the few games to make my list at criticalios.tumblr.com, where I post only the games I feel truly memorable to my iOS gaming history.
Just Ski asks you to just ski, and it's one of the harder mobile games I've ever played, due to the unflinching difficulty of its opening minutes as you struggle to land a single jump. (The trailer below belies the difficulty of the game.)
You view your character from they side as they zoom down slopes and up slopes and, if an angle is sharp enough, your character gets air. In traditional jump/spin-based games, you press a button to tilt forward or backward to flip and set yourself up for landings. Weber's work eschews this cliche (and less realistic) behavior to say that you can only use the rotational momentum you carried with you from the ground. I've experienced it elsewhere (in Cryptic Sea EP's Skate or Don't) and it can be incredibly rewarding, but it is also quite punishing.
In Jeff's interpretation, you slide your finger up or down on the screen to transition between crouching to standing. The game is about correctly using the momentum created transitioning between poses. When going over a jump, if you move from crouching to standing, your body's momentum exaggerates the momentum you carry into the jump, changing how quickly you spin. While in the air, you can crouch to spin faster, or stretch out to slow down.
Just Ski is incredibly difficult. You have to learn how to jump, you have to learn how to estimate your rotational speed, crouch, land, to not bounce, and so on. When you start landing jump after jump, it feels good.
But if you get beyond the difficulty and start to find the fun, you'll discover Weber made an interesting decision by making the game even more challenging beyond the moment to moment experience.
The previous game Krashlander plays to tradition with a standard level-based progression system, each level 10-30 seconds long, with a three star system. Get any star, move on to the next level. Hilariously, you get stars by crashing your skier into stationary enemies at the end of each slope. Hit all three of the enemies, and you get three stars.
There is just, as far as I've been able to discern, one long multiple minute level, with the sky slowly changing color from black to red to green and, according to Jeff, apparently back to black at the supposed end. Fall, and you start back at the beginning. I have no idea if there is a second level. As explained by Weber elsewhere, the only knowledge you have of progress is an orb in the sky that shifts color to represent the farthest you've reached.
There are no enemies, there is no menu, if you fall, a reset and help button appear. Annoyingly, the help button is placed where your finger rests during play, assuming you're right-handed. This is annoying because, it is sometimes possible to recover from a fall, and on many occasions when trying to recover, I have hit the "?" accidentally.
By taking many cues from Desert Golfing, but by going further and getting rid of levels entirely, Weber makes an admirable but risky move. The beginning threatens to get stale. Those early jumps, that interminably long 3 seconds of straightaway at the start. You become aware of how distant that 9th jump is. That one you screw up every other time. That one that sets you back forty seconds. It recalls to me the upper echelons of Trackmania Nations Forever. But in this case, there's no other content to fall back on, except to exit the game.
But the more I play, the more it works. I am returning to Just Ski because it's so effortless to try; just what I love in a mobile game. I spent ten minutes playing this morning, and went farther than ever before. I expect it will stay on my phone for a while yet. It's there, tempting me with that easy lure. There's a challenge to be had. One single challenge. One long mountain with a lot of jumps. On the TouchArcade podcast they sometimes joke about how many apps you can buy for the price of a Whopper or Big Mac. Just Ski costs far less than a burger, and I haven't had my fill yet.
Randy O'Connor is a game designer and artist. He's working on the iOS game Seldom Falls, and he's into game interaction and meaning. He's available for mobile game consulting, or mobile game art. (He also does non-mobile stuff, but he's just been in the mobile scene awhile.)