To watch any of the skateboarding commercials these days, you'd think that skateboarding was as illegal and immoral as highway drag racing. They all follow the same recipe—ending with skateboarders being chased away by the police or some sort of authority figure from wherever they were trying to indulge in their sport (with a few shots of disapproving elderly bystanders for that added touch). These commercials and advertisements are probably a true representation of the stigma the sport faces in mainstream America. Yet in the highest form of irony, the increased frequency and penetration of these commercials into mainstream TV is telling of the growth the sport is enjoying. Much of it has to do with the popularity explosion that Extreme Sports has enjoyed recently and the fact that skateboarding is lumped into this category. So understandably, it didn't take long for a videogame publisher, Activision, to jump to the forefront and take advantage of this surge. The result was a promising skateboarding title named Tony Hawk's Pro Skater released on the PlayStation. It was so good that it spawned a port on the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast, while a sequel waits in the wings. Obviously the game struck a cord with skateboarding fans and gamers alike, but you have to take my word for it when I say that the game is just that good.
For the uninitiated, the premise is simple: You take the role of one of six/eight professional skaters (including the living-legend, Tony Hawk) through a career mode in the hopes of being proclaimed the best skater in the world. Each comes with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own particular skating style. And as far as the rules go, they are quite equally simplistic: Perform a trick almost anywhere in the courses available—while not falling down in the process—and you'll be rewarded with points. Naturally you earn more points depending on how many tricks you pull off, and the more difficult and creative the tricks you string together, the better your overall score will be. But before you cringe at the thought of having to learn all sorts of crazy button combinations in order to get anywhere in the game, I have to tell you that there is simply nothing to worry about.
All the motion-capture work done with Tony Hawk; detailed recreation of real world tracks and true-to-life skateboarding atmosphere poured into the game notwithstanding, Tony Hawk's is one of the most approachable videogames I have come across in some time. Literally, within minutes I was handling myself well enough to actually pull off a trick or two before falling flat on my face in a bloody mess (hey, even the best of us take a tumble or two). That's because the button configuration is incredibly simple while hiding the complex maneuvers it avails to you. The simple tricks, like "Ollies" (hopping in the air with the skateboard) and "Grinding" (sliding along the edge of almost any angular surface—most likely handrails), are pulled off with a simple tap of the button. If I wanted to get a little fancy, all I needed to do was tap another face button and I scored more points as a result. Much to my surprise, the more complicated tricks—for example, those performed along ramps and pipes—were pulled off with similar ease.
Another positive for Tony Hawk's is its open-ended quality. To get past each stage requires the meeting of certain parameters for the previous stage. It usually entails five standard things, one of which is finding and collecting the letters of the word SKATE that are scattered around the courses. In true design sense, it isn't immediately necessary that this be done in order to progress, but in order to master the game, such objectives like this must be met. And Tony Hawk's allows you the opportunity to come back at your leisure and try to meet these criteria. As an additional benefit to meeting these objectives, is the possibility of unlocking secrets. Finding video tape icons hidden in the courses offers more of a challenge and are met only after some practice and sharpening of your skills. Once they are found however, they can unlock new decks (skateboards) for a specific skater and new courses.
A key factor in the success of this title has to be the game's robust graphics engine. In fact, it is one of the most solid game engines you'll see on any console system. In layman's terms, Tony Hawk's uses an over-the-shoulder perspective, but anyone with videogame experience can attest to the frustration experienced at the hands of the faulty camera systems that come with these types of games. Could Neversoft manage to correct this with the fast pace and kinetic nature of skateboarding? The answer is a resounding yes! To my amazement, whether jumping off handrails or into and out of empty swimming pools and leaping off ramps, the camera followed the action flawlessly. It pulls away and zooms in at exactly the right time to offer the best view (that was also the most dramatic). The essence of skateboarding, the improvisational, is handled fabulously here. From the word "go," transitioning from a handrail to an ollie into a "wall walk," is done with unbelievable smoothness. Neversoft should be commended for such a feat.
Neversoft included other modes to increase the gameplay. There is a Free Skate mode that allows you to skate on any track—perfecting certain tricks and setting records for most points accumulated, as well as a time-limited test where you have to score the most points in under two minutes. But what is intringent to the skateboarding mentality is competition and "one-upping" your friends with outrageous stunts and tricks, and Neversoft didn't disappoint with its two-player mode. Three modes are offered here, but the best of the bunch has to be the Trick Attack. It's essentially a two-minute free-for-all where you take on a buddy and outshine him with all sorts of tricks before time runs out. Given the ease of controls and the handling of the skaters, it's a snap to put on a show for bragging rights. The other two, Graffiti (do a trick on an area and it is tagged with your skater's color) and HORSE were fun, but they didn't have the frenetic pace of the other modes and got old pretty quickly.
There are some parts of the game that I take issue with. For one thing, being that the Dreamcast version is essentially a straight port of the PlayStation version, the only difference between the two games are the graphics. Thanks to the Dreamcast's graphical processing might, Tony Hawk's can be seen in high resolution (640 by 480), but in the process, the PlayStation's low-resolution textures were reused. Its most apparent in the backgrounds of the courses as they retain a grainy quality to them. Another point of concern was the music. Cramming Tony Hawkswith heavy metal tracks the likes of Dead Kennedys and Primus was a stroke of genius as they fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly. However, as I found out with Sega's Crazy Taxi, if you're going to use music of real-life bands for your game, then you had better get a ton of it. After about the third or fourth hour, I was tired of hearing every song darn-near every song available. Neither of these are really major gripes, but I was a bit disappointed to see there weren't more improvements in these areas. But my final issue is with the repetitiveness of the stages. Even though the stages could vary greatly in location and "personality", progressing past them required the same five basic steps, and after a few hours of playing time, it could all feel a bit redundant.
All in all, I had a blast playing Tony Hawk's. It was so easy to get into that I was almost fooled into thinking the real-life sport could be that easy. The few negatives I mentioned were not that big a deal. In fact, the graphical and aural issues I had may only annoy hardcore gamers who own every version of the game, and the repetitiveness may bother someone who is new to the sport to begin with. Still, they are there, but are dwarfed by the excellent gameplay and craftsmanship this game has. It's an excellent title all around.
Disclaimer:This review is based on the Dreamcast version of the game.