When it comes to launch titles, Nintendo reigns supreme. With the launch of almost every Nintendo platform, gamers have been rewarded with games that were either groundbreaking or gave a true glimpse of the possibilities the console afforded game developers. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) got Super Mario Brothers; the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) got a double helping in Super Mario World and Pilotwings; and the Nintendo 64 got Super Mario 64 and Wave Race 64. These releases were standard bearers right from the start, setting standards that few developers besides Nintendo itself managed to reach. That's what makes the launch of the Game Boy Advance so surprising. Nintendo launched the most powerful handheld on the market, but the killer app we have come to expect didn't come from Nintendo at all. It was a game made for Activision by Vivcarious Visions—and what's more, its a port of a sequel that debuted on the PlayStation console.
No matter which way you look at it, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 is a monumental achievement. When Nintendo first announced the specs for the Game Boy Advance to the world, speculation abounded from all circles in the industry as to what the true power of the console could be. There were debates about how many sprites the unit could actually handle and whether it could pull off a convincing 3D with polygons of any degree of sophistication. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 puts that debate to rest as soon as you turn on the game. I need to preface this by saying that not all of the graphics in the game are rendered in 3D. It only applies to the character you are controlling. Out of necessity, Vicarious Visions created character models made of up to 300 polygons—quite impressive for a handheld—thus eliminating the need to create tons of individual, hand-drawn frames of animation. This decision not only saved the developer some time and effort, but greatly augmented the appearance of the characters and resulted in a fluidity to the animation that would have been impractical previously. The rest of the game holds a static, isometric viewpoint (three-quarter, overhead perspective) to create a believable 3D world in which to skate. However Vicarious Visions did it, the graphics look like they were pulled right from the PlayStation version only displayed at a lower resolution.
This new perspective gives the game a fresh appearance and I would go so far as to say that it's like picking up a brand new game. However, this new perspective does call for adjustments to be made on the part of the player, both aesthetically and with regards to gameplay. As I alluded to, the camera position is fixed so there are many times where you can't see around certain objects, be it a ramp, wall or building. The compromise Vicarious Visions came up with was so make objects transparent as you pass behind them. This helps greatly, but it does lead to some confusion. During the course of the game, it was often difficult to distinguish between something that was transparent and solid objects. Stunts ended rather brutally whenever I mistook a solid wall, for example, for a ramp. It was only after a little practice and a more careful eye, that it all became second nature and proved to be a rather creative solution on Vicarious Visions' part.
It gets better. Vicarious Visions ported the entire 13-skater roster from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 along with their full arsenal of tricks. Nollies, Ollies, No Comply, Boneless, Wall Rides—they are all there and thanks to the polygonal characters performing them, they animate beautifully. You know whether you are controlling Elissa Steamer or the venerable Tony Hawk himself, not just by their detailed appearance, but how they handle and what sort of stunts they can perform. And the game still possesses a go anywhere, do anything style of play. Vicarious Visions even succeeded in the unenviable task of incorporating all of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 stages into the game as well as the familiar obstacles one might find in the PlayStation releases. That means plenty of rails, half-pipes, benches and whatever else Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 fans might use to grind on or leap off of and onto during the course of a game. There is even a trick zoom feature that zooms in on your character whenever you pull off something new. Though a bit pixelated and not always presented in the crispest of animation, it's all the more impressive since it is being done via the Game Boy Advance's Mode-7 emulation technology. It is impossible for anyone to see this game in action and not be in awe.
It comes as no surprise that Vicarious Visions had to make concessions in moving Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 from a console with an eight-button configuration to a handheld system with a four-button configuration. The A-button performs grinds, the B-button is used to perform both the crouch and the jump, the R-shoulder button performs grab tricks and L-shoulder button performs flip tricks. To turn in mid-air you must now use the D-pad. (Anyone upset with the set-up has the option of remapping the buttons to a layout they prefer.) Though the face buttons are not much of an issue, I must say that the placement of the L- and R-button called for some creative finger gymnastics on my part, to get some moves to work the way I wanted. It's not that they didn't work, but it takes some practice before it feels anywhere as natural as on the PlayStation controls. Having said all of that, I would say that I took to this game like I did largely because all of these factors came together to create something that felt different and almost called for a new way of playing the game.
The game soundtrack, almost synonymous with the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, is reduced from its redbook audio roots to that of digitized sound samples. The resulting sounds are decent enough, but are nowhere near the adrenaline pumping sounds of a Dead Kennedy track. It is certainly an understandable trade-off given the differences in media, but it is one that hurts this port. On the plus side, the in-game sound effects are authentic as they are taken right out of the PlayStation versions.
Vicarious Visions did manage to cram the obligatory playing modes into the game as well. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater fans will still get to go through the single session, the free skate and career mode (complete with 10 goals per stage ranging from collecting the letters S-K-A-T-E to grabbing hidden tapes). However, it's what isn't in the game that is the most glaring. Given the Game Boy Advance's lack of sizable portable and limited local memory, the developer had to sacrifice some of the more popular features. Gone is the relatively new Track Editor feature unfortunate for gamers eager to create their own tracks on which to skate at their leisure. Fans will also have to do without the two-player play. This is omission is particularly bothersome since the legacy of the Game Boy has been linked multiplayer gaming. To get a game like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2—a franchise designed to facilitate two-player gaming—without such an option only hurts this release. Whether due to a lack of development time or the inability to get it to work sufficiently on the Game Boy Advance, its absence becomes all the more evident after a few hours of solitary play. But the biggest omission has to be the lack of a create-a-player mode. Again, no doubt due to the memory limitations of the Game Boy Advance, players will have to forego taking advantage of this Tony Hawk's Pro Skater mainstay. There is still the option of selecting and later customizing the stats and tricks of any of the 13 pro skaters available in career mode, but as we all know, this grows old rather quickly. It's sad to see these features missing because they were important pieces that led to the popularity of this franchise over the years, but what remains is still impressive in its own right.
Regular readers of this web site are sure to know by now that we are not the biggest fans of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise and would understandably expect us to raze a port of the much-ballyhooed PlayStation sequel. But if you've been able to keep up since my opening words, you'd see that this is not the case. This particular port has been remade almost from scratch and gives a new lease on life to a franchise that was wading in stagnation. Whatever Nintendo's reasons for its sub par launch—whether it was conceit, malaise or both—its third parties like Activision have managed to come through and pick up the slack.