Do you know what this website has been missing? Lists! And it’s about time someone came in and fixed that, the someone specifically being me, who is writing this one now. For as besmirched as they so often are, I think lists are actually a really valuable form of writing, especially within accessible criticism. And since a big thing we’re trying to do with Abnormal Mapping is make it a website that can be enjoyed by those who don’t keep up with the ins and outs of games culture or writing, I’m gonna try to write lists on this website which serve as an entry point into critically considering a certain topic.
Today, we’re tackling the Tony Hawk’s games. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 is on the horizon, in what seems like the most half-hearted possible bid to make Tony Hawk relevant once more. It’s being positioned in a similar way that every Sonic game was between Sonic 06 and Sonic Generations, as a nostalgic return to form which caters to most people’s early experience with the series. As someone who played those games every year upon release for seven years, I think “it’s like the good ol’ ones!” is a really unfair way of approaching a series that has been far more varied and vibrant than that. It deserves a little more respect and a little bit of a closer look, which is what we’re going to give it today!
So join me, as I take you on a journey from worst to best, and we take a look at just what makes the Birdman good, what makes the Hawkman bad, and just why we should even care at all. I ended up writing a lot about these games, which won’t surprise anyone, so today we’re tackling the first five games in the list, and next time we’ll have the grand conclusion to the video game tale of Anthony Frank Hawk.
10: Pro Skater HD
Back in 2012, Activision made its first attempt at bringing back that hot Tony Hawk’s brand. After the success of Guitar Hero (and Neversoft’s move to that franchise), the series had attempted and failed to become a successful peripheral title of its own, despite the fact that there possibly isn’t a franchise that would translate less to peripheral control. Tony Hawk’s is a series defined by your ability to move through space at speed, interacting with as many objects as possible along the way, and Ride and Shred were doomed from their very inception.
After their abject and total failure, Robomodo were given the chance to bring Tony Hawk back onto Xbox Live Arcade, with levels and mechanics identical to those from the original two games. What wasn’t identical was the physics system, and playing Pro Skater HD is an instant lesson in the importance of feel. You’re heavier, you’re slower, your relationship to your body and space made different in individually imperceptible ways that combine to undermine the entire effect of the game.
In many ways, Pro Skater HD existence is incredibly important in highlighting what forms the core of the series’ identity. It’s not the formal structures of the game design, or the progression of the levels, or even the specifics of the controls. Pro Skater HD makes it clear that despite the series’ arcadey identity, it is just as focused on the connection between player and body within its own abstracted reality as its more grounded competitor/successor, Skate. An important fact which would perhaps be lost without this game to make it so obvious for all.
9: Pro Skater 4
It’s no secret that Pro Skater 3 is considered the high watermark of the series. It’s the game in which the revert was added, making endless combos possible and thus cementing what the identity of Tony Hawk’s was to be going forward. But the 2 minute, arcadelike progression of Pro Skater 3 was untenable for appealing to a modern audience. And with this was born the one problem that the series would spend the rest of its lifetime attempting to solve: how to marry the open movement through a space which is the core of Tony Hawk’s popularity with a structure that bolsters the game up to a satisfying length that would sell to an audience in 2002.
Pro Skater 4 did not have a solution. It allowed players to ride around in free-roam and attempt to build a score, before picking and choosing specific goals which counted towards the progression. It was the worst of both worlds, punishing players for engaging with the game’s systems in the way open way they were designed to be engaged with, whilst limiting those system’s possibilities during the moments of the game designated as important. The game may have felt even better than Pro Skater 3, with more lenient balance meters and tightened up movement, but it never gave people a reason to play.
In many ways, to look at the journey of Tony Hawk’s is to look at the effects of external structures of game design upon a fairly constant core interactions of play. After Pro Skater 3, every game Neversoft made always felt amazing, but they were able to extract wildly different effects based on the ways they structured the interactions with that experience through goals, levels and progression. It’s why I think the post-3 games are more interesting to consider than those which came before, even if playing some of them is less than ideal.
Underground will always have a special place in my heart as the first Tony Hawk’s game I owned. I only got my Xbox in 2003, and even though I had played the hell out of the prior two games at a friends house, I had an ownership of Underground that made that game feel like it was mine. It didn’t matter that the game was almost entirely constructed on a foundation of unthinkably wrong decisions at each and every turn, I could play it whenever I wanted and that was enough.
It’s partially for that personal connection that it comes in above Pro Skater 4, but also that the one thing Underground has which its predecessor doesn’t is consistency. Pro Skater 4 is an incoherent game, one which plays well but can’t figure out what to do with itself on any level. Underground instead knows exactly what it is, a gritty east-coast story of a rags to riches skater. The story is on each and every level appalling, and it removes any sense of fun or vibrancy from the game’s level design, but it gives the game a real sense of identity.
The game was structurally identical to Pro Skater 4, with only discrete goals which trapped the player counting towards story progression. But with the game’s identity came also a character identity, grounding the previously purposeless free play segments within the life and experience of the created character. This specificity gives Underground the edge over its predecessor, and proves that a misguided and crappy identity is always going to be better than no identity at all.
7: Pro Skater
Given the impact and influence the game went on to have, it’s wholly unfair to call the orignial Pro Skater a bad game. However, it’s entirely fair to call it a bad Tony Hawk’s game, at least in the context of the series as a complete entity. Like a pilot of a television show that would go on to become great, Pro Skater didn’t quite know what it had yet.
The moveset – whilst far more complete than any skating game before it – was limited without manuals and reverts that forced emphasis on the design of the environment. With more punishing physics and difficult tricks, it was a puzzle game in which the the goal was to find the explicitly design lines within the space, rather than giving you the agency and tools to freely express yourself within the space.. As Chris Franklin first pointed out, it has less in common philosophically with Tony Hawk’s, and instead shares its approach with EA’s Skate.
And Skate is a fantastic game, an at the time perfect complement to Tony Hawk’s more ridiculous approach, I’d love to live in the world in which both series kept going until this day. But in a world in which later series Tony Hawk’s exists as an evolution into something else entirely, and Skate exists as a far more effective version of these ideas, the original Pro Skater is unfortunately little more than a historical curiosity.
6: American Wasteland
American Wasteland comes from a place of extreme desperation. Maybe the desperation wasn’t as obvious at the time, but looking back it is palpable in every single decision the game happens to make. It came out in 2005, when skating culture was back to being a thing some kids did yet most ignored, and blink-182 were two years broken up. Yet instead of confronting the fact that the zeitgeist is long done by this point, American Wasteland reaches back into the past, drenching itself in nostalgia for the 80s west coast skater punk scene, complete with a narrative about bringing things back to the good ol’ days.
But American Wasteland‘s desperation runs deeper than its stylistic trappings; which despite their mistimed nostalgia give the game and its world a real sense of cohesion. It’s the fifth entry in as many years on the same engine, an unchanged foundation upon which every year has been built another three stories of increasingly complex mechanics. The game practically creaks with the weight of itself, trying to reach out to newcomers with the way the moveset unlocks gradually, but refusing to shed anything unnecessary. All this is compounded with yet another story mode focused on individually constructed missions; the game constantly limiting you despite the hilariously large moveset and the chained-together open world.
Despite this, I really like American Wasteland. It’s a grand tower, one in the process of falling down but one you can’t believe made it as high as it did at all. There’s something victory-lap esque about the game’s overstuffed systems, a culmination and celebration of the last five years of skating excess. Despite the tutorial attempts made in the campaign, the game is downright hostile to new players, but for the familiar it’s a bittersweet goodbye to what was and always be the heyday of skating games, to Tony Hawk’s on the PS2.
And then there are seeds. The way stats are upgraded with objectives that can be done any time in free-skate, the way the side missions are spread out around the map, the series beginning to finally work out how to incentive play within this open playground it has built. In 2005, with both wider pop culture and video games shifting away from the Birdman, would any of these go onto grow into something special in the later games, or would time wash Tony Hawk’s away from our shores?
That’s going to do us for part one! I love the series despite its rocky rocky journey, and I hope this exploration into my relationship with is leaving you with some skating food for thought as we head into a Skating Console Game release in 2015. Next time we’ll be back with a look at the best of the best of the Tony Hawk’s series, and we’ll really get to dig into, in my opinion, what makes a great Tony Hawk’s game.
See you then folks, and in the meantime enjoy the fact that every picture of Tony Hawk is one of the best pictures you will ever see.