Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Skate misery: Street Sk8er (PS1)

Street Sk8er (PS1, 1999)

The dismal reviews for the recent Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 were sort of depressing because the early games are near-perfection in what they attempted. Not that there's been a decent entry in the series in some time - but for seemingly purely marketing reasons, Activision decided to revive the original naming scheme. That makes it sting so much worse, I guess. So when I dug out the older games in some weird nostalgia-stroking therapy, I was surprised by just how damn good the first game is. Oh, and it those nostalgia chords all right; the last time I felt so 1999 was when I re-played the dismal Sonic Adventure (told you I'm a sucker) and watched the first Matrix film in the same weekend.

But tucked away in the back of my mind was the distant memory of some other skateboarding game on PS1... not that I forgot the title; even as a 5th grader that "8" struck me as particularly dumb. But still, it was 1999, and skateboarding was the pinnacle of cool for any young, healthy boy. To be honest, I didn't give any number of shits about skateboarding itself; it was the fashion and culture that surrounded it... the Vans, the graffiti, the obnoxiously catchy ska-pop-punk music that was so en vogue then. Street Sk8er gets that right at least - our cover hero even has a Fred Durst goatee.

That's the extent of what this game does right, if we can even call it that. It was the kind of game I played - 11-year-olds will be 11-year-olds - knowing it wasn't particularly good. A demo disc, probably from the defunct Official Playstation Magazine, gave me my first taste of Neversoft's Tony Hawk magic, and so I settled for this garbage while I eagerly awaited the former's release in the fall of 1999 (a most magical time that also included the Dreamcast launch and Final Fantasy VIII - both on my birthday).

Playing it now, it's the sort of game that feels like an arcade port - I mean that in a bad way. The tricks are so limited and rudimentary to perform that it feels like - well, it feels like this:

Except it's not an arcade port, and there is no skateboard controller. And it looks like pretty much every other third-rate PS1 game - muddy textures and shoddy animation. I'm not sure the tricks matter all that much, though. The game goes like this: you pick your skater, and start down a course. I mean "course" in the sense of a track, not so unlike Tony Hawk's "Downhill Jam" level. There's a timer, with checkpoints giving more (again, that arcade feel). You perform your everyday skateboarding tricks - you know, like standing triple backflips - on either half-pipes or ramps.

Speeding through a level won't net enough points to pass. Not reaching the end in time results in failure. But your leftover time generally accounts for 25% of your total score. The entire crux of the game, then, is trying to hit some sweet spot between using your time to perform tricks, and getting through the course with time left on the clock. Easier said than done, when the slightest bump knocks you on your ass, and the basic jumping mechanic is faulty. "Tricks" really only amount to jumping off a ramp or pipe - the timing is pretty finnicky - and hitting a directional button at the same time.

I guess it speaks to the quality and ingenuity of what Neversoft did with its Tony Hawk games... even now I can't help but try a 720 kickflip+grab trick, land into a manual over to the next rail and grind it out. Clearly I'm playing the wrong game. Street Sk8er, though, has no place in history, except as the first dedicated skateboarding game for the Playstation. If you're into that sort of thing, the soundtrack at least is full of artists you might hear in a Quiksilver outlet store. Me, I can't bring myself to hate it as much as I should - but that's nostalgia for you.

All screenshots are my own. Top Skater image from Arcade Museum. Box art from GameFAQs

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