Saturday, December 19, 2015

Skate Bliss: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PS1/GBC)


Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PS1, 1999)

Street Sk8er proved that there could be an audience for a good skateboarding game with the full power of the PS1 behind it - except that it was garbage. But pretend for a minute that it was a competent game (this will require a tremendous imagination on your part), and still one glaring issue stands out: the game is not really about skateboarding at all. That game, along with Sega's arcade-exclusive Top Skater (1997) positioned the skateboarding game as a timed, solo checkpoint-based racing course. The fact that your avatar rode on a skateboard, could sometimes jump on rails, and randomly did absurd triple-backflips off of ramps scattered around the track - well, that's all just incidental.

So it's difficult to overstate just how profound an impact Tony Hawk's Pro Skater had - not just on skateboarding games, but on any sort of "extreme" sports (just take a look at the name-sponsored BMX, snowboarding, etc. games that followed in its wake). It's simple: the game practically created a new genre. Which should be enough to go on, but it also happens to be a masterpiece in its own right, and one of the greatest action games ever made.


And I think it's best to consider it an action game and not a sports game. It's not immediately accessible to the average non-gamer - at any time you have access to about 24 tricks - and those are just the basics, not including skater-specific specials, location-based tricks (half-pipe handplant, for instance), switches, wall rides, nollies... in fact, it's pretty overwhelming, especially considering you can use most of these in virtually limitless combinations.


Good thing, then, that the first stage is a little slice of level design perfection. From the start, after picking one of the real-life skaters, the player is dropped right into the warehouse with very little instruction. The loading screen shows the level's five objectives, but they won't be obvious at first. And... it's a skate park. That's it. There's a timer, but there's no actual end in the level - it's almost entirely wide open. And it is perfectly primed to get the player going - decent half-pipes and ramps that jump right into rails, allowing the player to get a feel for how to combine tricks and grinds.

After getting a feel for the near-perfect physics engine - where your landing is just as important as pulling off tricks - you'll start to take a look at those objectives ("tapes") and understand how best to get any number of them within the allotted two minutes. Each level offers the same five: two score-based tapes, collecting S-K-A-T-E letters around the level, finding a hidden tape, and activating five switches specific to each level (grinding 5 tables, destroying 5 boxes, etc.). The first level puts one of the boxes on a level just beyond a half-pipe - a perfect way of teaching the player how to do a transfer without any BS hand-holding tutorial; the hidden tape also makes for a perfect demonstration of how momentum works in the game.


So the first level practically is a tutorial, which also functions as a fun level in itself. But it's unique in how small it is - when levels open up (as soon as the second stage), suddenly collecting all of the S-K-A-T-E letters doesn't seem like something you're likely to accomplish in your first few tries. In fact most of the levels are pretty big; even playing it today I'm still discovering little secrets and new areas. And developer Neversoft wasn't afraid to switch it up, either - two levels are a more linear "course"-type stage, while a few of the traditional skate parks do away with the tape objectives altogether in lieu of minute-based score attack competitions, where the core gameplay can really shine.


Neversoft isn't afraid to have a little fun - unlockables include footage of the devs themselves attempting to skate, a playable, satirical police officer, and the final level is Area 51 imagined as a skate park, complete with hidden rooms full of aliens and UFOs.



Until its release in 1999, there hadn't really been anything like THPS's gameplay. It's the kind of action that seems suitable for arcade - addictive, easy to pick up and difficult to master, and infinitely flexible. Yet it has the type of polished physics and thoughtful level design that would be out of place in some quarter-munching machine. In short, it strikes a perfect balance between sim and arcade. Neversoft didn't really strive for realism (maybe Thrasher, released for the PS1 in 2000, is more your cup of tea... if the idea of your board breaking from one too many bails sounds like fun), but rather authenticity -  the pro names, brand sponsors, and punk soundtrack help in that regard. But it's also one of the best animated games on the system, and though no one in real life is regularly pulling off 720 double-kickflips+B/S methods, there aren't any ridiculous triple backflips or uphill grinds here. The music isn't really my thing, but the audio design (overlooked most of the time) is spot-on and damn-near reality-accurate.

But all that's not really important for those who of us who have very little interest in skateboarding itself; it still functions as an action game first and foremost, and one of the finest around.

Handheld Bonus!

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (Game Boy Color, 2000)



The game, like pretty much everything else, was "ported" to the Game Boy Color. It plays as well as you'd expect: which is to say it's a miserable piece of shit that should never have been sold to consumers. It consists of two modes - a simple half-pipe trial that redefines the word "basic," and an atrocious overhead racing mode; the simple act of successfully jumping off a ramp is rewarded with a static image of Tony Hawk mid-trick. No really that's the entire game. Don't bother.


All screenshots are my own. Box art from GameFAQs. Screenshots are from the PS1 version. It runs nearly flawlessly, though the Dreamcast and X-Box ports are, naturally, beefier. I didn't test the N64 version; I'm not sure why anyone would even want to. 

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