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‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’ Is Harder Than You Remember

The remastered version of the skate-game classic is plenty fun—and plenty humbling

Activision/Ringer illustration

Aristotle defined envy as pain at the sight of another’s good fortune, but I think I can be more specific.

Envy is seeing the successful landing of an impossibly antic and improbably clean line in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater through a PS4 Share. A huge combo with tens of tricks that scores in the hundred-thousands in Pro Skater is like a lucid dream: You are only ever right in the middle of it, with no recollection of how you got there nor any inkling about how you might pass that way again. Also, while this version of reality does have its own rules, nothing quite obeys our laws of physics. A created skater in tailored black cargos, with artfully strewn tattoos clears over 20 feet in the air with a single-legged wall plant and glides straight into a one-footed impossible flip, kissing the rail at just the last second. A dizzying flurry of twists, reverts, manuals, gap clears, and lip tricks that lasted over a minute and a half later, he lands with a final park score of over 2 million points. Quoth the look on Will Smith’s face at the Red Table Talk show in early July, “Pain.”

Last Friday, Vicarious Visions Studio, a subsidiary of Activision Games, released its remastered Tony Hawk Pro Skater tour collection gathering the first and second entries in the series, which were originally released in 1999 and 2000, respectively. My clearest memories of Tony Hawk center primarily on unlocking and then grossly overusing the Darth Maul novelty character in the third Pro Skater, which was released the following year: You can only play as the (resplendent!) villain from Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace after 100-percenting the game’s career mode (getting all the gold medals, completing all the challenges) as Tony Hawk himself who, as a normal human, couldn’t get as much air, and didn’t have as much hangtime. Still, linking a BS Noseslide to a double-inward heelflip and then landing with a second or two to spare wasn’t at all out of the question—and then I gained the force. I flicked off 900-to-McVarial-McTwists and “Force Grabbed” hundreds of feet above the deck of a “Cruise Ship” in international waters to Bodyjar with the Dathomirian Dark Lord of the Sith. That’s how I remember Tony Hawk.

And yet, a sizable portion of my first hours with the remastered game this past Labor Day weekend were spent horizontal; as in flat on my face, possibly injured. Despite it being a distinct possibility that staring at screens for two decades has degraded my eyesight and thus, my hand-eye coordination: Tony Hawk is harder than I remember.

Tony Hawk is more of a game of rhythm than more realistic skate sims like the recently released Skater XL or 2010’s Skate 3. Both place a high value on the feel of the road, so to speak: These titles have more of an over-the-shoulder, peripatetic quality and stay tighter in on more pronounced, sinewy character models that thud and crash, channeling the style of actual skate mixtapes. In Tony Hawk the models are spindlier and seem almost hollow, as if they were made out of aluminum, floating high above the maps, which are splayed out over concrete acres and lit up with neon stat points and other glowing objectives. Once I unlocked “School 2,” and watched the park goal camera pan across its lips and drops and iron culverts, I noticed how much the pool on the far end of the school grounds resembled a dancefloor. In fact, if you can manage to become adept at timing the stop-gap moves, which lengthen combos in the game— wall-plants, manuals, reverts—after a while, rolling up the walls of that pool can start to feel a bit like dancing. Continually completing tricks without biting it is how you fill your “special” bar, which makes your skater, really, more manic—they push faster, they ollie higher, and thus, they’re able to try even more foolhardy and perplexing “special” tricks like “The Coffin,” which is a no-handed grab and not a grind this time around. This heightened state of feeling “special” is amplified by the game’s sound design: As you get into a groove chaining combos together, the music gets simultaneously closer and further away, as if it’s thundering directly in your skater’s ears. When your special bar is full, and you’re dropping into a bowl as you hear “Ring, ring [this game is rated T for Teens], it’s shutdown,” that’s when the game is at its best.

The soundtrack was the source of some consternation regarding the Tony Hawk remake among fans of the original series. It is difficult to understate, much less fully understand, the lasting cultural impact of a Black kid in South Louisiana and a white one in Australia being able to skate around identical virtual skateparks to the same Dead Kennedys song that was before our time. And so, yes, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 had a high bar to clear.

Over the course of 10 or so hours with the game I’d say it meets that bar—favorites like The Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, and Rage Against the Machine return, while new, market-tested additions to the counterculture like Skepta’s “Shutdown,” which came out in 2016, are sprinkled throughout. At the risk of sounding like I’m biting the hand that finally saw fit to feed me after 20 years, this, and other soundtrack moves like it, feel as though they follow the form of a skate video game that features edgy music, but not in the culture-breaking spirit of one that changed the lives of some of the biggest skaters, and some of the youngest millennials. The skate videos I encounter on my Instagram explore page and in YouTube auto-playlists these days are alternately scored by dusty oddities from record store closing sales or the strangest rap music available on the internet—the music in the Tony Hawk remaster occupies an awkward no man’s land in the middle. Sort of like having tattoos as a customization option, but none that don’t resemble stickers. Trading on nostalgia, and sneaking in new Papa Roach songs.

Still, the scratch of wheels on back alley pavement and the light scritch of vulcanized rubber on grip tape set to tinny ska music (the game’s title screen) are strangely comforting. Tony Hawk is a spastic, acrobatic rhythm game, yes, but it’s also meditative: Just as long combos spent inside half-pipes can feel like dancing, laying those combos end-to-end across channel gaps after several park runs can feel like fixing a roof. Menial, rewarding, and totally mindless. You do tricks to be able to do more tricks so that you can gain enough experience to do better tricks, all so you can acquire enough money to buy newer clothes and skate decks for your skater, so they can look cooler doing tricks.

So envy is also a great motivator, and maybe the sole driving force of the game: Since seeing that video, I’ve done two 100,000-plus point runs and purchased some checked pleated trousers that pair well with my checkerboard Sk8-His. I still can’t find any tattoos that don’t suck though.