There’s a very real possibility that I am the least qualified person to write about a skateboarding game. I can’t stand on one, I have a virulent disdain for the X Games and its “WHOOOA ACTION EXTREME SPORTZ BRO!” presentation, and I find way more enjoyment in watching someone screw up and land on their coin purse than on all four wheels. I’m probably more qualified to write about another cricket game (hey, there’s an idea…) because I will actually watch cricket.
That being said, I played the hell out of this game when it was new, so much so that I actually made an effort to try to watch skateboarding on TV, so in that sense, THPS probably opened up skateboarding to a large number of people who otherwise wouldn’t care. The flipside, though, was that people like me who tuned in were probably disappointed to find out that most of the stuff we were doing in the game was at best crazy difficult and at worst physically impossible…apparently you can’t ollie eight feet in the air, for one.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater presents ten of the top skaters from the time and allows you to embark on a rollicking journey across nine locales in an apparently alternate reality where cities are littered with quarterpipes and free of any and all pedestrians. Six of the levels ask you to perform various tasks like scoring a certain number of points or collecting the letters of the word “skate” within a two-minute time limit. While that may seem short, most of the levels aren’t terribly large and the tasks are relatively basic; in the course of playing through this, I got all five objectives completed on the first run in all but two of the levels. Even the “secret tapes” are shown to you, so all you really have to do is figure out how to get there.
The other three levels are competitions where you have three one-minute heats to rack up as big a score as possible for the judges, with falls taking points off and the computer randomly generating scores for everybody else (oddly enough, Tony Hawk will usually wind up at or near the bottom). As you complete objectives and win competitions, you’ll unlock new decks for your board and stat upgrades in categories like Air and Balance. Complete any skater’s career 100% and you’ll unlock Officer Dick, a rather stereotypical Keystone Kop-esque character who seems to enjoy skating and donuts.
Perhaps, though, the biggest draw of the game is the fact that literally everything in each level is skateable. If it has an edge, in can be grinded. If it’s sloped, you can launch yourself from it. If there’s a gap between two objects, it can be cleared, and in fact, the game probably has that gap coded and has a cute name for it. That asshole taxi that drives around trying to flatten you? Jump on him like Mario squashing a Goomba (it’s called a car plant, and it’s worth 1000 points). That kind of “if you can dream it, you can do it” mentality is really cool in a game like this, and it really allows you to get creative and think up new challenges for yourself and draw new lines to carve out.
Even better, all this freeform is tied to a really intuitive engine. Everything revolves around the C buttons here; bottom C builds up speed and triggers ollies, top C grinds and does handplants, left C triggers board-flipping tricks, and right C does board-grabbing tricks. Different moves are performed by pressing a direction and a C button, so Left and Right C does a Method, and Up and Right C does a Japan Air. Most of the moves are the same for everyone, although there’s a few differences between vert specialists and street skaters.
Each skater also has three special moves that you can bust out after doing enough tricks to fill up your Special Meter, that require an extra direction to be pressed. However, there’s a bit of overlap with specials; a couple guys have Kickflip McTwists and seemingly every other guy has a frontflip or a backflip. Grinds allow you to balance yourself with left and right, which you’ll get the hang of fairly quickly and be able to slide along huge rails, but handplants will automatically dump you on your head if you try to hold one for too long. Also, as you string together combos, your points multiply each time you add a new trick or clear a gap, to the point you can clear both score challenges on a level in one string if you manage to pack enough moves in, although moves will lose value if you repeat them, so it pays to have variety.
Aside from the Career Mode, there’s the option of a single session where you compete for high scores, a free skate mode that takes away the timer, and a handful of pretty fun multiplayer modes. There’s a two-player single session, a Horse-type game where you have a few seconds to come up with a chain for as many points as possible, then the second player has to beat that score or get a letter, and the frantic Graffiti mode, where you and the other player compete to “tag” as much of the landscape as possible by doing tricks on them; grind a rail first and it becomes your color, if your opponent does a higher scoring grind on it, it’ll go over to their color. Graffiti is probably the best of these games for its perfect combination of pure competition and potential douchebaggery, although the Horse mode gets quite intense if you’ve been swapping big scores back and forth.
Visually, everything’s pretty sound here. Skaters are good-sized and detailed enough to notice things like how Andrew Reynolds needs to pull his pants up. You can see your selected deck and wheel color easily, and animations are believable, considering the insane stunts you’ll be pulling off. The levels look a bit goofy, but that kinda had to be done to make them a bit more skater-friendly. As I said before, there’s no pedestrians, and your only company is usually a vehicle that drives around looking to splatter you in the San Francisco and Minneapolis stages, so it kinda feels like you’re skating around an empty movie set more than an actual city, but hey, that’s just more room for you to go crazy.
As for sound, the in-game sound effects are fine, but I need to address the soundtrack. This game has a could’ve-been-spectacular soundtrack, with kickass songs like “Police Truck” by the Dead Kennedys and “Superman” by Goldfinger, as well as appearances by Primus, Suicidal Tendencies (JUST ONE PEPSI!) and the Suicide Machines. Now, before you look at that lineup and hose yourself off like I did, lemme tell you, a horrible combination of cartridge space issues and Nintendo Censorship™ absolutely CRIPPLE it. Superman only plays up to the first chorus and repeats, and Police Truck NEVER GETS PAST THE INTRO. There are no lyrics to be found here (which, if you’re familiar with the song, you knew Nintendo would never, ever have allowed on one of their games). I kinda understand, but at the same time, that’s…disappointing.
I do have some other nitpicks. For one, there’s no create-a-skater mode, and very little editing of any kind to be done here. Everyone has basically the same tricks, tied to the same button combos, and your stats just get generically better as you progress. Also, two of the levels are basically downhill runs, which takes away some of the free-roaming creativity the regular levels provide, and none of the challenges are particularly challenging in any level. Perhaps most importantly, the Super McVarial 900 is not in this game…bastards. That aside, most of these were thankfully fixed in the sequel.
I feel confident that most everyone who reads this review played this game at some point. If you had a console around this time, or you knew someone that did, you played it, or you’ve at least played one of the other dozen or so sequels. But looking back at the original, it’s still fairly strong in and of itself. They got most everything right the first time, at least gameplay-wise, and only needed to add a new feature or a couple new moves each time. It may not be the definitive Tony Hawk game (for my money, THPS2 takes that crown), but it’s a strong first effort, and it was good enough to win over total non-fans like me, and that’s as high of praise as a game can get.
Tight play control combined with an engine that allows you to do damn near anything you can imagine.
A bit too simple objectives, no Create-a-Skater, POLICE TRUCK HAS LYRICS, NINTENDO! Police. Truck. Has. Lyrics.