When was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’s Peak?

Ben Kuchera of Polygon wrote a thoughtful, nostalgia-laden piece in response to teases about the new Tony Hawk skateboarding video game in the works. As a fan of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series (or more generally the Tony Hawk series), it got me thinking about the games and their highs and lows, as well as the influence that the titles I played and everything in them had on me in middle and high school.

The best THPS?

Kuchera finds THPS2 to be the Tony Hawk series in its finest form:

The second Pro Skater release was bigger, with ten objectives per level and more levels overall, competition events where you were judged on your performance, and create-a-skater options with a leveling system that allowed you to purchase skill points to beef up your abilities. The manual, which allowed you to extend combos much further, was brought in. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was the perfect mixture of size and purity of the concept.

The fourth game in the series introduced an open world, because every game needed an open world. Instead of a single, well-designed skate park with a set of understood objectives you had to explore the level to find your objectives and then complete them. This was great for stretching the amount of time people played the game, but was it any more fun?

The idea of the two-minute run to get everything done, or at least as much as you could, was gone. The tight, high-concept version of the game that launched the series had been ditched in favor of a game with a much larger scope, not to mention online play, and it was the beginning of the end.

I tend to agree with this assessment of the evolution of Neversoft’s vision of the series. Dropping the “Pro Skater” label after number four for “Underground” nearly says it all: the player gets off their skateboard and starts getting caught up in other hijinks.

Kuchera skips over THPS3, however, which I think deserves highlight and defending. Few people have played every single one (I haven’t played 2 or Underground, and only rented 4), so I hardly fault anyone for not tracking every little change in the series.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

THPS3 was chock-full of content in all of the best ways. It kept to the skating-focused form of the numbered titles and, like THPS2 with the addition of manuals, further increased the capabilities of chaining tricks with reverts. Manuals allowed players to connect grinds (riding on rails, ledges, and quarter pipe lips) with ground movement to reach other areas. Reverts are executed at the landing of an air trick off of a quarter or half pipe that, when combined with manuals, allow even vert tricks to connect with everything else. It was at this sweet spot, before “caveman” and the ability to get off the board, that I believe the gameplay was at its purest form.

Add to that the number and quality of levels! Canada, the Airport, Los Angeles, and the Cruise Ship were all great levels with lots to do, and Airport is probably one of the best in the entire series. The classic Warehouse also makes a return appearance.

THPS3 also had a level editor! This allowed for near-endless amounts of fun when a creator could make the perfect rail/quarterpipe/ledge combo… that landed right in a pool of lava. I spent an inordinate amount of time creating a complex “maze” level that used every bit of digital skateboarding skill to get past. It maxed out what you could shove onto a level. For real.

The appearances of surfer Kelly Slater and Sith Lord Darth Maul were special treats. THPS3 also continued the legacy of including video of the skaters from the game performing real tricks. Rodney Mullen’s was mind-blowing, and still is:

Other games

THPS1

THPS3 is my favorite, easily. The original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, though, does hold a place in my heart for its groundbreaking gameplay, as well as its music. The ten songs on its soundtrack influenced me so much that a few years ago when I was writing articles suggesting songs for inclusion in Rock Band and Guitar Hero, I did one specifically on that game:

“New Girl” – The Suicide Machines

Many of these songs are quite short, often averaging to around two minutes. (The reason is likely that the rounds in THPS were two minutes long.) This one is a poster child for the rest, hitting it hard from the beginning and not letting up until it’s done. The drum part is… almost maniacal. The intro itself gives me chills to try to tackle (from my experience, drum rolls are unnecessarily hard in Rock Band games), but it’s quite different and seems like a blast to play.

…And what’s that awesomely audible bass part? I could have sworn that wasn’t legal. Guitar riffs ebb and flow from the focus: repetitive upbeats switch to the frontline sound in a heartbeat, trading off for the vocalist. What I like about the singing is that it is quick, punk, but not so screamy to turn me off. Plus, it’s got those calls back and forth that I love so much. This one’s a real winner.

Oh, and I heard some keyboards in there!

[…]

“Here & Now” – The Ernies

At three and a half minutes, this is the longest song in the game. I know, I fell asleep before the end, too. (Even while skateboarding!) It’s got a neat mix of an extremely memorable main lyric (the title) and a listing of elements of the cosmos. To me, it makes the song feel very genuine to talk about such a massive scale, cramming those syllables into lyrical lines, but bring it all back… to a single person. Anyway, the guitar and bass parts are awesome, generating that epic tonality that brings the point home even more clearly. Drums are more generic but do vary throughout to lead into the new sections.

What’s more interesting about this song is that you’d very rarely hear the second half of it. It was all-too-often a mystery what the ending was when you couldn’t combo past the two-minute time limit more than a few seconds. I find it quite refreshing to completely hear it so long afterward. This band, among likely others from this soundtrack, has dissolved since the game was released a decade ago. It’s a bit poetic that this is their lasting impression to a great many people who never really knew them, there and then. Listen to this one if you listen to a song at all from this list.

Underground 2 and American Wasteland

I do also want to give a shoutout to some of the positive developments from the Underground games. Yes, they lost their focus; yes, the additions were haphazard at best; but the levels were massive and full of tons of stuff to do. It actually did feel pretty cool, or at least different, to have more of a narrative arc through the game. Maybe it was just because my brother and I had so much enthusiasm for this title and the amount of content it had in it; the game felt like all one needed in a skating game. It also felt edgy, raw, and adult with Bam Margera leading the way. Of course now I can see it was crass and immature, but so it goes.

Even American Wasteland, for its lazy gimmick/selling point, had something going for it in the story-long evolution of a giant skate park. It felt fantastic to develop a huge, trashy space into something positive, as an ode to the game’s title, I suppose.

Kuchera describes these elements as distractions from the core intensity and competition of maximizing a two-minute display of skating perfection. I’m not convinced that prominently maintaining that mode with a story mode as well wouldn’t be an appropriate balance, the best of both worlds.

A brief aside on Neversoft

I’ve always thought Neversoft, the now-defunct company that made Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and its notable sequels and took over Guitar Hero starting with 3, was perfect for making skating games (and rock games). All my experiences with their titles showed rough edges, had glitches, and left loose ends. In general, many parts didn’t feel fully thought-out. For example:

  • Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland’s notable development was the lack of loading screens. This was done by adding long, boxed-in hallways between sections of Los Angeles where skating was choppy and laggy while the player waited several seconds until the level was loaded.
  • Underground 2, with its objectives given out by other characters (and its story), was rife with abrupt jumps and buggy moments, especially with its new mechanics.
  • Guitar Hero 3 was full of painfully slow menus (a killer for a lefty playing with righty friends) and long load times. The duel mode, like with the devil himself, was poorly-conceived and either exploitable or frustrating.

If there were ever a genre or audience for which these kinds of problems were tolerable or even aesthetically pleasing, it’s punk. I’d never expect a game featuring Bam Margera (of Jackass fame) to be made with a fine polish. Though while skating and rock may both have intersections with punk sensibilities, they are of course not synonymous. The early THPS games are indicators of that, lacking the Jackass-style tour, graffiti, and objectives unrelated to skating.

Hopes for THPS5

Despite my criticisms of some games, there was a lot to love. A game about skateboarding that chained together combos for high scores was novel and genius. Perhaps the next title can learn from all sources: THPS for its focus on skating excellence; Underground for some of its breadth, maybe for a narrative. Simplicity might be the idea, like in streamlined OlliOlli. Kuchera’s thesis on what makes a good Tony Hawk game is thus:

The first few games took the players into something close to a meditative state; it was just you, your skater and the level. Everyone had the same chance to do something amazing, and you only had a few minutes in which to try.

I’d also love for the unsavory elements of the series to be lost. I’d like to think Jackass humor and antics doesn’t fly anymore, but I’m probably wrong. I can at least expect that a developer would catch some serious shit if THPS5 was as loaded with toxic masculinity, fat jokes, and sexism as Underground 2 was. Even THPS3, my favorite, had the player impressing “Neversoft girls” on a cruise ship.

Self-aware reckless abandon I can handle; the game knowingly flaunts reality and the physical consequences to bailing in the name of fun. Having women primarily be sex objects in these games serves a narrow definition of “gamer” that simply isn’t accurate anymore and excludes many, myself included.

My brother really enjoyed lowering the stats of his skater down to zero and attempting realistic, small tricks. He would learn to ollie on the driveway outside the window while I’d grind a log in a lumberyard as Bigfoot. There’s a space in gaming for an inclusive experience that can capture both the heightened and regular reality for skaters, the expansive and the focused. I’m hopeful that some time away gives the Tony Hawk series the fresh reboot it needs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *