Monday, August 31, 2020

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PS1)

Our personal experience with the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series began with Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 for the PS2, however it did get us interested in the idea of owning a skateboard. Years later when we acted upon this, we gained a sudden impulse to play every game in the series that we could get our hands on, in order of release, starting from the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the PS1. With the announcement of a remaster of the first two Pro Skater games for modern platforms, entitled Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, I decided to try and revisit those two games for comparison, and possibly beyond. Going back to the original Pro Skater game was a fun experience, though it wasn’t without issue.

While there isn’t a story mode per say, there is a campaign in which you go to various landmarks to complete various challenges within a two-minute time limit. Completing these challenges gives you VHS tapes (you can tell the age of this game just from that), which unlock new areas over the course of the game. The ultimate goal is to acquire enough tapes to compete in a series of three competitions, composed of three one-minute heats, interspersed throughout the campaign, each of which has increasingly stingier judges. Outside of the final competition, a particularly difficult level for me was Downhill Jam (set in Phoenix, AZ), and so it says something if even when unlocking the third competition I avoided that stage as much as possible.

The game also features a wide variety of playable pro skaters from the time, 10 at the start. Among others, these range from Tony Hawk himself and Bob Burnquist to Chad Muska and first female pro Elissa Steamer. Each skater has their own separate campaign and differing starting stats, providing a bit of challenge and extra replay value.

The tape challenges are largely similar for non-competition levels. The main
differences are increasing score requirements and what you need to find
for the second challenge.

As much of the game involved accruing enough points, various moves can be performed to increase your score. Some basic moves include grinding on edges or rails or jumping off of ramps, however more complex moves involve combinations of the directional and face buttons, giving you more points at a time. Combo moves can be achieved by stringing multiple moves together, however repeating moves leads to diminishing returns and it can be difficult to string more than three together at a time, requiring some creativity on the player’s end to rack up a higher score.

Variety and point counts also fill up a Special Meter, allowing the use of additional special moves once it turns yellow. These moves are unique to each skater, such as Tony Hawk’s legendary The 900, and require additional button presses to pull off. These also have longer animations, requiring more air time than usual to pull off, however it is incredibly satisfying once you do.

While the level design is generally good and varied, there were some minor issues I ran into. The hit detection seemed a little spotty at times, such as during the second competition where it was possible to still bail on a perfectly-executed trick because of how some of the walls were designed. There were also times where, in an area where multiple grinds in a row would seem possible, I was not able to pull it off despite being in the right position to do so. On the subject of grinding, one major aspect of a grind is the balance of your skater, which can often be hard to adjust properly due to having to rely on which direction you happen to be leaning in the moment.

Grinding requires a balancing act at times. (Pictured: Tony Hawk)

Though the visuals aren’t anything to write home about by modern standards, they were good for the time and feature enough detail to sell each environment and faithfully capture the likeness of each skater. That said, the draw distance isn’t too great, but the levels are designed such that it usually isn’t too much of a problem. However, this comes to a head in the penultimate stage, Streets (set in San Francisco, CA). While a condensed and faithful recreation of the idea of San Francisco, which I can vouch for having visited the actual city before as a child, the level is very wide open compared to previous levels and suffers greatly from the terrible draw distance, making it more difficult to both navigate and appreciate the effort.

The game also features a great soundtrack composed largely of licensed music, each of which plays on a set rotation during each two-minute interval of play. While the soundtrack is generally really great to listen to, my personal least favorite track was “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” by Primus; while the song itself is okay, it felt like it clashed a little with the rest of the song selection, plus I’m not that much of a Primus fan anyway, so this specific track was one I didn’t really look forward to hearing. Among the rest of the licensed songs, however, two standouts for me were “Superman” by Goldfinger and “New Girl” by Suicide Machines.

Since I played the PS1 version, it's worth noting that the game is compatible with the DualShock controller that came later in the console's lifespan and a year prior to Pro Skater, in addition to the original controller nicknamed the "dog bone". The DualShock adds a greater feeling of immersion to skating, as the controller vibrates for certain actions such as grinding or bailing. At one point while playing, I had the Analog function turn off on its own a few times, during which I discovered that the directional buttons can be used for movement alternatively to the left thumbstick, though using the stick is significantly less awkward and provides greater freedom of movement. Even though you can't, I also found myself instinctively using the right thumbstick in an attempt to move the camera, which would have helped a lot when tying to turn some sharp corners.

After more than 20 years, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is still worth a look for those looking to start from the beginning or just see where it all began. While its offerings are bare-bones compared to later entries, there is still enough variety and challenge to the gameplay, as well as a whole host of professional skaters, to keep you going for some time. It may even encourage you to pick up a skateboard somewhere down the line.

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