Close to thirteen years ago, the video game industry witnessed the start of an extreme sports explosion, which was kick started by Activision‘s release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. The game, which allowed armchair skateboarding enthusiasts to live out their dreams of pulling off incredible tricks and visceral combos, quickly became a phenomenon and singlehandedly created a brand new sub-genre for developers to tinker with. As a result, the next handful of years saw a hefty dose of extreme titles hit every device in existence, but none of them ever came close to captivating fans like Tony Hawk and his friends at Neversoft were able to, and quite a few sequels followed.
If one were to poll longtime series fans regarding their favourite iterations, a noticeable trend would quickly become apparent. That’s because the early Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles have proven to be leaps and bounds ahead of their peers, with the franchise’s fourth version standing as its last great hurrah. Some of the later games were pretty good, but too many trips to the well and a limited amount of enhancement lead to grumbling fans, leaving the executives at Activision with a tough decision to make regarding the future of one of their greatest cash cows. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong option and two ill-fated motion titles followed, leading to some comical videos where the games’ necessary skateboard accessory was used for real-life tricking by disappointed fans who felt they’d wasted their hard earned dollars.
Now that close to two years have followed since the publisher’s executives made their money-driven blunder, Tony Hawk has teamed up with his former publishing pals and developer Robomodo, in order to take us back to a time when his games were played religiously inside of millions of households, apartments and dorm rooms. That collaboration has given us Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, a visually-enhanced revamp that mixes design elements from both Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and its first sequel, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. However, unlike most downloadable games, this one is less of a one and done scenario and more of a content platform. Downloadable content from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 has already been confirmed, and it’s likely that elements from the fourth game will follow suit. Though, at this moment in time, we can only talk about the base game and how it lives up to the lofty expectations that longtime series fanatics (myself included) have placed upon it.
The important thing to note is that this franchise has never been about paying close attention to realism. For that reason, points-based success depends on players’ trick linking skills. Being able to pull off a nice kickflip to Madonna combination is a good starting point, but it’s only a drop in the ocean compared to what those who’ve put thousands of hours into the games can do. Nor is it anywhere close to what high score objectives require, because those can only be achieved by armchair boarders who can mix lengthy manuals with flips, tricks and grinds. It takes time to get used to how things work, especially since this release is less forgiving than its peers, making practicing trick runs even more important. Newcomers will fall a lot, and that’s not a representation of their general gaming skill because this series requires users to learn how to land perfectly. Botching landings can ruin impressive combos, and can also result in some nasty falls, while borderline touchdowns can lead to a noticeable deduction in earned points.
While the above descriptors may have made it seem like these games are all about tricking, that isn’t the case. In the olden days, each unique stage would present five different objectives, and completing each one would earn players tapes, which could be used to unlock more environments. The first two objectives would relate to earning a certain amount of points, while the others listed miscellaneous tasks like knocking over a certain amount of boxes, finding all five letters of the word skate and collecting each level’s hidden tape. With those secondary goals, the developers were able to get creative, and could tie their lists into each individual environment’s characteristics. Thankfully, that’s something which this revamp takes a step further.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD takes the core gameplay found inside of its two inspirational efforts and adds certain elements in, including new goals, modes and projectives, adding on to framework that is still relevant and addictive over a decade after its debut. There aren’t any new stages – the eight levels that are included cull from both games as a greatest hits package – but the new goals provide additional reasons for players to spend time exploring each environment with a fine-toothed comb. They’ll have you attempting to achieve sick score plateaus, sleuthing for added environmentally-specific collectibles, and looking for hidden money. Though, once all of a level’s main goals are completed, the projectives open up and change things dramatically by introducing tougher tasks and a shorter time limit in which to complete them. In fact, only half of the traditional two minute-long run timer will be available to the veterans who will try their luck with the extra difficult projectives.
The two minute-long timer only factors in during certain modes, and isn’t a part of free skate runs or certain mini-game variants. However, each gameplay scenario presents its own design features and unique challenges. One has players attempting to pull off amazing combos in order to prevent their skater’s head from popping, while another tasks them with picking up pellets. On top of these, fan favourite multiplayer modes like Trick Attack and Graffiti return, although they’re only available online. There aren’t any local multiplayer modes to be found inside of this digital download file, but having the option to jump online is better, and the game’s Xbox LIVE connectivity allows for full leaderboard support.
Completed goals offer monetary rewards, which are used to purchase statistical upgrades for each of the game’s skaters – a roster which boasts quite a few newcomers, including Riley Hawk. Boards can also be purchased, but they don’t provide the unrealistic ability boosts that they used to, which adds some realism into a relatively unrealistic game. Doing well should result in improved skills, and it does, but you get the chance to pick where those improvements take place. Plus, the nice thing is that this design’s benefits are noticeable, as sluggish skaters transform into skilled superstars. However, that comes with a downside, which is that improving a skater’s speed to the 100% plateau can result in a frustrating loss of precision during secret tape collecting attempts. Then again, the default version of Microsoft‘s Xbox 360 controller isn’t ideal for controlling a game like this, mainly because of its poorly-designed directional pad.
Although it’s safe to say that some gamers haven’t played one of the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games in quite some time, I’ve revisited the series’ Nintendo 64 debut more than once over the last several years. There’s simply something about it that never gets old, and Neversoft deserves commendation for creating a game with such a great amount of replay value. Even though I’ve put countless hours into runs through the studio’s dusty Warehouse, expansive Mall and steep Downhill Jam course, they’re still a lot of fun to interact within.
All three of those classics are included within Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, and they all look quite a bit better than they did back in 1999, thanks to the use of a partially cel-shaded visual style. Flanking those noted maps are select stages from the studio’s next digital skateboarding venture: Hangar, School II, Venice Beach and Marseille. There certainly isn’t a shortage of fan favourites on that list, but I found it disappointing that the original School stage wasn’t included, and also felt that the tournament stages from the original game would have made a great impact if they’d been chosen for inclusion. Then again, those thoughts can be attributed to the fact that I’ve always preferred the unique environments from the first game over those featured within its first sequel.
This series’ first two titles launched two console generations ago, and the available technology wasn’t anywhere close to what it is today. For that reason, elements of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater feel dated, but that’s where some of its charm resides. That’s because you have to adapt trick runs and landings to account for the fact that reverts aren’t available – at least, not at this moment – presenting an experience that requires quite a bit of skill. However, this revamp is unfortunately marred by a technological issue that I don’t remember being in its source material, and that’s lag. Yes, you will encounter slight hang-ups during gameplay. Although it only lasts for a moment, the brief pause can screw up players’ flow, but the silver lining is that I didn’t encounter it throughout the entire game. In fact, it seemed to be linked to School II for some reason.
One other thing that the old cartridges and CDs provided was a track skip option, and that’s missing here much to my chagrin. Although the new track list, which offers a mix of old and new songs, is quite strong, Goldfinger‘s Superman does not play enough. This is admittedly an occurrence of nitpicking, but I listened to that one song over and over again while playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and it introduced me to a band that has become a personal favourite. It’d be nice if the option to switch to it was made available, but it’s not, and it’s a bit of a bummer. However, as mentioned above, the other songs are of quality, and they all sound quite good. The same thing can be said about the action-centric sound effects that have been with this series since its inception. They’ve also received a nice boost in quality.
Now that my anticipation-filled wait for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD has ended, and I’ve had a chance to put quite a bit of time into the game, I feel that it’s an easy recommendation for fans of the series’ classic releases. The addictive elements that we know and love have been faithfully recreated, and there’s a lot of fun to be had for an affordable amount of money. There really is a lot to like here, which newcomers will also appreciate if they go in with the understanding that some of the core elements at the heart of this experience are, in fact, slightly dated. Though, unfortunately, some standout stages were left out of this package, and it suffers from an annoying yet infrequent frame rate bug. Then again, both of those issues are correctable.
This article is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us for review purposes.