|I've yanked myself away from
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for just long enough to fulfill what I consider my civic obligation
namely, to convey just how great of a game THPS is. For those of you who just want
to skip the insightful critique and get right to the good stuff, let me put it clearly:
Yes, THPS is all it was cracked up to be. It is not only a great extreme sports title, but
it is a deep and beautiful gaming experience that everybody should try at least once.
With the rise in popularity of sports like skateboarding, snowboarding, rollerblading, and freestyle BMX, due in large part to mainstream competitions like ESPN's X Games and ABC's new Gravity Games, developers have been jumping all over the genre. Titles like 3Xtreme, Coolboarders, 1080, Street Sk8r, and a slew of others have flooded the market over the last year, and we can expect plenty more to come along in the near future. In the glut of titles released a lot has been missing. The board sports, which are the most often used in video games, have been conflated. Skateboarding has often been treated as a downhill sport, and developers have failed to really recognize the technical progression the sport has undergone throughout the '90s. The simplified view of skating is bolstered by the fact that it is technically difficult to create a game that properly represents the skateboarding experience.
To properly simulate skating a developer must create believable character and board motion, and then synthesize that with highly interactive environments. Contemporary skating often operates under the assumption that anything is skateable. As if that weren't hard enough, a skateboarding game must have a lot of variety. There are a whole lot of different grinds, grabs, flips, and spins that are staples of the sport. With all of that to take into consideration, it's no wonder that games often represent the sports in an arcade manner.
So here's where we give big ups to Neversoft. Woo-hoo! We love Neversoft. As if to atone for giving us a whole gamefull of Bruce Willis, they have created a masterpiece using a much more thoroughly likeable legend, Tony Hawk. Hawk is a skateboarding giant on par with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, or Lou Gherig. He has invented tricks, like the McTwist, Stalefish, Madonna, and Varial 540, and, during the 1999 X Games, became the first person to pull a 900 degree spin in competition. He's responsible, has run his skate company called Birdhouse for seven years, and is an openly loving father. Overall, he's just a really nice guy, a true asset to a sport that has been plagued by a "bad kid" reputation for decades.
THPS makes available ten skaters for you to use and abuse. There's the Birdman himself, Bob Burnquist, Kareem Campbell, Rune Glifberg, Bucky Lasek, Chad Muska, Andrew Reynolds, Geoff Rowley, Elissa Steamer, and Jamie Thomas, a spectrum of skate styles to satisfy discriminating gamers. Each character has at least three signature moves, such as the one-footed smith grind, the dark slide, and the infamous 900 spin. You can also choose from a half-dozen or so different decks, tune your trucks to loose, medium, or tight, and pick what color wheels you'll ride. The attention to detail is commendable, as deck graphics are identical to the real-life versions, and also commendable is the inclusion of Elissa Steamer, the first woman to garner a pro deck. In a sport dominated by males, Steamer has broken new ground, and it's nice to see the first realistic skateboarding game get off on the right foot.
The single player modes are career mode, single session, and free skate. In career mode you play the different skaters to earn videotapes by completing five objectives on each level, unlocking new levels as you go. The objectives are similar for each: obtain the amateur and pro high scores, destroy five things that are particular to the level, collect the letters S-K-A-T-E, and get the hidden videotape. The tape challenges begin easy enough, but get extremely difficult, and each level requires a different technique and approach.
THPS includes three two player games: graffiti, trick attack, and HORSE. In grafitti you do tricks by launching off of or onto obstacles, turning them your color. You can steal an obstacle that has been "tagged" by your opponent by doing a trick worth more points off the same obstacle. Trick attack is a basic competition to see who can get the best score, and HORSE is just like every other variation of the game. One player goes at a time, and has ten seconds to trick off a nearby obstacle. The next player must beat or match his score. What's really cool about HORSE is that you can enter any word you want, so you can play excrutiatingly long matches of MULLETHEAD.
The level design is amazing. There are nine areas: the warehouse, school, mall, Chicago skatepark, downtown Minneapolis, downhill jam, Burnside skatepark in Portland, the streets of San Francisco, and a "mysterious" final skatepark. I won't give it away, although almost every other site does. Some of the levels, like the mall and the downhill jam, seem very much like race courses, and you can hit the finish line on both levels, but there is no racing element in THPS. Aaron Cammarata, a Neversoft designer, described the downhill jam level as "the Grand Canyon if it had been filled in with concrete by skaters," and he's not wrong.
The levels are sprawling, and full of opportunities for tricks and combos. Every little ledge, pole, picnic table, car, sign, lamp post, and hand rail is interactive. You can break through glass to enter buildings, and find hidden areas in each level. In the school level you can get on the roof and jump down into the gym. In Frisco you can jump off the fountain, onto a building, follow the ledge to the top, then launch of some serious Evil Kneivel style jump and crash through the pagoda in the middle of the plaza, racking up mass points. All of the environmental differences make each level progressively harder and play a major role in the tape challenges. In the warehouse you break apart piles of boxes to get a tape, but at the school you have to grind on the picnic tables. Letters are located at miscellaneous hard to reach places, and the hidden tape is always nearly impossible to get until you figure out the spatial puzzle that will launch you to it. There are plenty of banked transitions and ramps that will launch you over various gaps that add to your trick score.
What strikes me most about THPS is the creativity and innovation with which the levels are designed and the sport is represented in electronic form. The more technical bits that we are usually so concerned with, such as graphics, camera, and control, seem to fall beneath the surface of the game. The reason they are so unnoticeable is that they are flawless. The graphics are amazing, especially considering the amount of movement and the size and complexity of the levels. It is really obvious to see what the difference between tricks is because the movement is so nice. It was actually motion-captured from Tony Hawk. There is no clipping, and textures are very nice. The camera never loses the skater, again an impressive feat considering the complex motion and high speed.
Control on THPS is great. It incorporates a simple button and direction pad combo system to pull off tricks, and the L and R buttons take care of the rotation. Timing is everything, and you must be pointing in the right direction to land a trick. Combos are the heart and soul of scoring big points, so tricks like a fastplant-kickflip-360-benihana are not uncommon at all. Also, using the terrain is essential. You must develop an eye for jumping off a ramp, doing a trick, and landing on a ledge or rail to grind, or any one of a plethora of combinations.
To accentuate the skating experience, THPS incorporates amazing sound. Not only are the environmental sounds incredible, but the soundtrack is way cool. Rolling over bricks sounds different than rolling on concrete, and rails clink and grind with just the right metallic ring. The background music features Primus, the Suicide Machines, the Vandals, and the Dead Kennedys to name a few. The mixture of old and new punk and ska lends a very skate-video feel to the game. In fact, upon completing the game with the different skaters you unlock cinematics that are mini video segments. Unlock them all and you have access to a whole movie featuring ten of the best skaters around.
It's an addictive game, but strangely rewarding. THPS isn't the easiest play the first time through, but the pace of skill development and the infinite replayability make it a pleasure to develop the right technique. Once you have developed that technique with one skater, it easily transfers to the others, and the variety of play options can keep you busy for months. Also, once you are good enough, the game becomes a really nice thing to watch. As a player you are able to really stretch your creative muscles through choosing a line and sticking it. There is no right way to play the game, and plenty of room for flair. That's why it shouldn't be catagorized as simply an "extreme sports game." It is much more than that. The intricacy of the play system is something that will interest and excite any avid gamer.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is phenomenal. It not only provides a fantasy outlet for all those joes like me out there who will just never be the greatest skater, or even very good, but it satisfies the true practitioners of the art in a way that no other skating game has.