Game Reviews

Back on Board with TONY HAWK

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In the summer of 2020, somewhere in Southern California, Tony Hawk and the Activision Team recreated the iconic Warehouse level from the original TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER video game. Complete with a long red flat bar, a dilapidated pizza delivery car boarded up with plywood, and graffiti coating the concrete walls, anyone that played the original TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER (THPS) in 1999 would immediately recognize where they were. In early September of this year, a now 52-year-old Tony Hawk posted to Instagram a video of him about to drop in to the recreated Warehouse. “Remember this place?” The legendary skater turns from the camera and towards the course, dropping in, board sliding the flat bar, ollying the car, and hand planting the quarter pipe. I sent the video to my dad: Remember this place? 

“Of course I do! The first console game I ever played” he replied. 

In 1999, the original TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER was released on Playstation and was later ported onto the other popular home consoles of the day. The game featured a crew of the late ‘90s’ most prolific skaters, embarking on their own pro tours, performing biology-defying stunts to earn points, and completing challenges across a series of immersive levels. The gameplay was arcade-like, allowing players to string together button-mashing combos, racking up higher and higher scores the further they would push their skater without losing their balance. Stringing together the gnarliest combo possible would earn players the highest score, but at the risk of losing it all with one off-axis landing. The feature that stuck out to my dad and many others was the local multiplayer mode. Those head-to-head matchups in THPS were some of the first displays of the gathering power of video games. Kids were thrust onto the streets, biking across suburbs to compete against their friends and prove themselves with their controllers. A generation was hooked, and at a time where skateboarding was just cresting the wave of mainstream popular culture, TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER was a tsunami. 

Tony Hawk Original game

Imagine this grimy Warehouse but in STUNNING high definition

I was young when the game was first released. The Nintendo 64 I used exclusively for MARIO KART 64 quickly turned into a Tony Hawk machine in 2000. Most of my lasting memories of the original game revolve around my neighbors in the small New Jersey town I grew up in—specifically, two brothers a few years older than me and a few paces ahead in what was making an impact on youth culture. The same brothers that taught me where Mewtwo was hidden in POKEMON YELLOW and handed me Green Day’s DOOKIE turned me on to THPS. I remember sitting in their basement, crashing through the overhang at the Warehouse after gathering speed on the first ramp of the level as Goldfinger’s “Superman” blared in the background. Our parents would gather around the TV as we racked up higher and higher scores, shouting and restarting the level if we bailed too early. Eventually our entire families were in on it. That year I unwrapped my first skateboard over the holidays. A Birdhouse deck, Tony Hawk’s skate company. 

The team at Activision and developers Vicarious Visions had a tall order in remastering the original Tony Hawk games. The franchise that was once the pinnacle of sports video games had fallen in recent years. TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER 5, released in 2015, was met with largely negative feedback for its choppy mechanics, nearly broken level design and flow, and convoluted narratives.

The remastered games, a combination of both TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER 1+ 2, are a glorious return to form for the Birdman and his friends. Featuring the original lineup of playable skaters, a handful of new budding stars, a few unlockable characters, and the ability to create your own skater avatar, the remastered THPS is far more customizable than its namesake. All of the original maps make a comeback, presented in high definition, handling each grimey dumpster and gritty quarter pipe with tremendous care. Not only do the revamped graphics give the parks a cosmetic overhaul, they give way for a new understanding of how to skate and navigate all the secret rooftops and alleyways. Each map feels like skating through a place you visited as a kid, but now with an adult’s perspective—combos and stringing tricks together here makes a whole lot more sense. Best of all, most of the original soundtrack returns, now featuring an additional batch of new songs that shuffle into the mix seamlessly.

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 Screenshot

Tony Hawk still makes this kind of thing look easy

The gameplay is as sticky and addictive as ever. Like the original game’s campaign, players traverse maps completing various challenges and gathering collectables in order to advance and unlock the next course. Held under tight time restrictions for each attempt, I found myself frequently restarting my run if I wasn’t skating in a cohesive or successful way. The number of times I repeated “last try then I’m moving on” only to attempt a combo 20 more times is innumerable. This is a sensation many skaters feel on actual concrete when they attempt to land a trick they’ve been working on all session. “Last try” is grunted to onlookers before wheels roll up to a ledge for the 100th time: if they bail, they’ll have no choice but to try again.

The skating and physics of THPS are ridiculous. The simplest press of a button makes your character perform a trick that would be jaw-dropping at any actual skatepark. And once players become skilled enough to string together combos earning hundreds of thousands of points, a full suspension of disbelief is required to buy into the game’s premise. These impossible physics were pushed back against in more modern skating game franchises, like EA’s SKATE (2007), which feature mechanics more closely resembling what’s possible in real life. The stunts performed in the remastered THPS feel as they did back in 1999, charming and adrenaline-pumping. These games are fantastical and extreme, portraying skateboarding through a Hollywood action movie lens. Jumping high, skating fast, and falling hard is what makes this experience so special. 

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 Screenshot

Tail slide, baby! In real life? Pretty hard. In this game? Super easy. 

The week I spent reviewing this game, I had some friends over to play. Almost immediately, controls felt intuitive, even to those that hadn’t gamed much since their Nintendo 64 days. To the beginners, kickflips turned into treflips, into impossibles, and then into 540 airwalks off a balcony into a 5-0 to nose manual, in minutes. The game encourages a bold play style, turning us all into fast learners. The harder you push what you think is possible on your trucks, the closer you are to greatness. The support the game gives its players to skate daringly and creatively is the link between THPS and actual skateboarding. This connection is why the game has resonated so heartily for two decades. As you play, you are constantly being reminded that with enough determination and passion, you’ll roll away from the trick. This idea is central to the spirit of actual skateboarding. So give it one last try, or 20—you’ll probably land it. 

After a few hours with the game, my friends and I left the apartment and rolled up to the skatepark across the street. A lot of us stopped skating after high school, but picked it up again in 2020 to reconnect with something we love in an uncertain year. We push around the obstacles scattering the concrete, encouraging each other to be daring and creative on our boards. We bail a lot. Like Tony Hawk in the recreated Warehouse, returning here feels familiar, cathartic, and extremely fun. Remember this place? 

Sam Sarokin
Sam Sarokin is a New York City based contributor. He loves a nice sturdy coffee table, karaoke, and Willem Defoe.

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