Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD
Release Date: 08/28/2012
For anybody that hasn’t played any of the original four Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles, the following paragraphs might read with a shinier veneer of nostalgia than expected for a ‘modern’ video game review. For this reviewer, commenting on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is as much an exercise in trying to restrain his nostalgia as it is to comment on the game’s merits and flaws. Not every game is perfect, nor is every attempt at reviewing one. But through nostalgia, many things are possible. Certain things can be overlooked – perhaps even outright forgiven – provided that certain fundamentals remain, as experience becomes memory, which might motivate a purchase on PSN.
If it’s one things that critics do best, it’s ascribing unnecessary pretense to things that the rest of the world says don’t matter. Before Tony Hawk, the skating superstar that brought celebrity to a pastime once only enjoyed by misanthropic Southern Californian teenagers and the cops that harassed them, skate-boarding was just like any other hobby. Way before things like the X-Games and publishing decisions made by Bobby Kotick, skating culture thrived in empty pools and half-pipes across the urban US. As its appeal grew, certain skaters grew notoriety through word of mouth and the VHS bootleg trade. Some skaters, or their immediate peers, found a voice through punk bands formed through the late 1980s and early 90s, which further spread the sport’s gospel through punk rock shows that traveled throughout the nation, and music videos from these bands survived either into the late hours of non-pop MTV, or the currently dying art of public access programming.
Part of that appeal was the “F it all” attitude that permeated everything “skater,” a sentiment amplified by power chords and high tempos of punk rock groups. That sentiment even spread to record labels that featured these groups, many of which at the time were not part of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), or tapped into the larger distribution systems of the day. Labels like Epitaph and Fat Whreck Chords, which provided endless music kindle for a fiercely independent fire, reinforced the idea that the skater culture was a counter culture. In Los Angeles, you were more likely to recognize Bad Religion being played on KROQ through their Atlantic Records single “Infected” rather than a portion of their song “Man with a Mission,” which was part of their “40 Minutes Non-Stop KROQ” station liner.
It might be glib to say, but it was the 90s. I wasn’t a skater, but a few of my friends were. For me, it was the intersection of my love of bands like Bad Religion and Pennywise that brought me to the fold, where I found the lyrics of folks like Greg Graffin and Jason M. Thirsk as energizing as the quick riffs. Others dressed the part, whether it be the then-independently operated businesses behind Oakley sunglasses or Vans shoes. Even from the 80s, skate board brands like Santa Cruz thrived as the gospel was spread through clothes, music, and the boards themselves.
So it was only a matter of time before skating had reached the mainstream. Sure, old school gamers will remember older titles like Skate or Die! or 720° on the NES. But for most gamers, it took a pre-Blizzard-swallowing Activision to bring it to the market. Their acolyte was Tony Hawk. And in August of 1999, the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released for the original PlayStation. It was later released on every platform of the day, including the N-Gage, and launched a franchise that has garnered over $1 billion in revenue to date.
How was the game, you might wonder? Quite good. Damn good, actually. If video games were country musicians making it big in pop music, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was the Shania Twain of its day. Many of the same people who blew off the Madden franchise found skating enjoyable, as they led Mr. Hawk and company through level after level of improbable physics and other such excitement. It also introduced a generation to lots of punk, rock and later rap tunes that they otherwise might not have heard before. For many gamers, Goldfinger would be more than just a James Bond Villian.
So that, as a reviewer, is what I’m up against. My first brush with the franchise was on my Sega Dreamcast in 2000, myself a misanthropic youth listening to Millencollin and Jurassic 5, surrounded by urban ambivalence and 32-oz Coke Slurpee cups from nights before. Today, 12 years later, I’ve been charged with commenting on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD (THPSHD), while I stare down that classic, routine-laden workweek that perhaps claims us all.
So, after nearly 800 introductory words, how is it?
Well, your neurons won’t be safe. For those that have played before, almost everything in THPSHD is just as you remember it. If you’ve played it before, THPSHD combines seven of the levels from the first two Tony Hawk titles, and plays just like them, save for the absence of the revert. All of the levels are nearly indistinguishable from their source games, and you’ll find yourself attempting to grind across airplane wings and jump from school-strewn bungalows in no time.
Have some things changed superficially? Sure. Because Robomoto believes in revisionist history for the sake of easy digestion, the secret VHS tapes have been replaced with secret DVD discs. This prompted one of my first of few “Oh hell no” moments, as the rest seems unchanged. The levels feel like they did, and the physics are just as merciless at points as you might remember. Stat point increases can be purchased by completing goals and collecting cash, and later levels unlock with the number of goals completed.
Let’s talk about gameplay. For the uninitiated, for whom I want to personally thank for reading this far in and not leaving, THPSHD places you in control of Tony Hawk or any of his friends as a skater in generic places like “Airplane Hanger” or “High School” as you ollie, grind, nollie, and wall-ride your way to the highest score possible under the pressure of a two-minute countdown. You’ll have to trust me when I type that this is far more fun in practice than it is to read.
High scores are put together by chaining tricks together across the level, which includes everything from balancing your character along rails to jumping off quarter-pipes while spinning. The longer you can keep your balance, the better. Can you do a complete 360° turn and not fall flat on your face? Great. Can you jump from off a quarter-pipe while doing a spinning kick-flip into grinding on a rail before landing, then starting an invert before regaining composure? If this sounds like fun, you’ve found your game.
How high can these scores get? Anywhere from “Hey! Good job, self!” to “I’m taking my ball and going home.” It’s a lot like bowling. If I can get a score over 120, it’s a good day. But others won’t bat an eye at 210. I reserve a playful sense of envy for those people, which is the same I reserve for those who play THPSHD.
To illustrate that disparity, I’ll share a little anecdote about it. Way back during my game testing days, I worked with a guy who worked at Activision as a tester for one of the earlier Hawk titles. When playing the third title while on break, my jaw dropped as he chained trick after trick, to where he would accumulate hundreds of thousands of points into one string. Upon asking him what he had to give up in order to preform so unholy a feat, he smiled and said “I worked with a guy who would routinely get scores in the millions. The designers had to add extra digits to keep up with his scores. He started as a tester on the first [Tony Hawk game], and then became a designer on the second.”
This was affirmed during online play, which I’ll get to a bit later. But the game play is just as I remember it, which is pretty damn good. There are even static tutorial help menus this time around, which spell out the nuances of every trick if you need it. After twelve years, I had no shame in admitting that I spent time with them. There’s also a gap map buried after the pause menu, with suggestions about how to clear them and progress. This was especially useful in clearing a problematic gap in the High School level, which looks like it was inspired by the campus of Venice High. Any way you slice it, it’s damn fun.
Graphically, it lives up to the ‘HD’ designation. Everything looks great on a 720p display. Honestly, levels in these games haven’t looked this good since they went through a VGA box on the Dreamcast. It’s no Crysis, but it looks as good as it needs to be.
It bears stressing: the THPSHD experience wouldn’t be the same without the music that was licensed from the earlier games. Well, if you think like me regarding the music, then you can rest easy. Goldfinger’s “Superman,” Public Enemy’s version of “Bring the Noise” with pre-John Bush Anthrax, Bad Religion’s “You” and Millencollin’s “No Cigar” are all included, along with three other tracks. Unfortunately, so is “When Worlds Collide” by Powerman 5000. But the newer tracks Activision has wrangled together aren’t slouches either. While I’ve grown less patient with music in my older age, the newer music here fits. One bonus about the music this time around is that it doesn’t stop. Even when you finish the level and go through loading screens, the song continues to play to completion. Imagine my surprise when I found out that “Superman” was a whole 57 seconds longer than I thought! It’s a very welcome surprise.
I also have to mention that custom soundtracks are supported. This might seem like a throw-away, obvious thing to type in 2012. But when the first game came out, you didn’t have such an option. While I can’t recall any obvious examples at the moment, some games could have benefited from a custom soundtrack option. In fact, the reason I purchased Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater parts three and four on the original X-Box was solely because of custom soundtrack support. That being typed, you really shouldn’t need it with this game. I played it with Bad Religion’s The Dissent of Man, and it made me feel 16 again. But again, the soundtrack is so good, you shouldn’t need this feature.
The controller layout is as you might remember it. Since I cut my teeth on the Dreamcast version, I had to acclimate to the PlayStation controller, which commanded a negligible learning curve. So even if you’re coming off of another platform, even the older Xbox controllers, you should be OK. It’s not jarring like, for instance, going from Marvel Vs Capcom 2 to Marvel Vs Capcom 3 where compassion and rationale turned the other way when Capcom chopped off two crucial buttons without flinching. Suffice it to say, everything’s A-OK.
That orthodoxy will serve you well in competing in online modes. Graffiti mode is just as you remember, where you play tricks off of level elements (pipes, rails, etc.) in a continuous game of horse with opponents. The higher the score on a given element, the lower likelihood that it will be taken from you, with the higher number of “grafitti’d” elements denoting the winner. You can also do a mutli-player Free Skate session, where it’s just one big friendly practice session. Trick Attack is kind of like the single player mode, except you’ll be in competition for the highest score by the end of the clock. Big Head mode is as clever a name as it is a game, as you need to perform tricks in order to keep your head from exploding. Better and longer trick chains will keep your head nice and small, while failing to keep your head in check will knock you out of the running.
Any way you slice it, there’s A LOT to do in this game, in spite of it being marketed as “not a full game” with “only” seven levels. The goals and game modes in single player will keep you busy far beyond when Activision might try the HD angle with their Mat Hoffman franchise. The online mode will keep you busy too, as there’s a healthy amount of players out there keeping the dream alive. The game also features a persistent gap list (possibly for a relevant trophy?), unlockable cheats, and Facebook integration. That last one just feels weird.
Ultimately, is THPSHD worth your time and money? I may be biased by my nostalgia, but I say yes. But caveat emptor, or “buyer beware,” as my nostalgia may not be the same as yours. Or yours might not exist at all. With respect to audience appeal, Activision is probably banking on people like me who played and loved the earlier games. Those folks, many who might have traded their Thrasher subscriptions for Netflix subscriptions, might be tempted to put down the money for the experience. For those that haven’t played the game before, well… it’s rather hard to tell. The games themselves are still great. There’s no doubt that they’ll be enjoyed by any new player who tries them out. But aside from relying on older game players to generate sales through posting goodwill on message boards about how great the first games were, what do they have?
At the end of the day, that’s a prediction I can’t make. But, fortunately, I’m not in the business of predestination. I’m just reviewing the game. In this case, for whomever decides to try it, be they old devotees or new to the park, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD a very, very enjoyable game.
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Robomodo’s done a commendable job cleaning up the old Neversoft formula for newer game players and TVs. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is exactly what it needs to be. It’s well-maintained, looks beautiful, plays well (even with no revert!), and sounds awesome. Online game modes compliment an already full single-player game. In short, it’s as great as you remember. And if you haven’t played it before, it’s definitely worth your time.