Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 was never a good skateboarding simulation. The award winning game prepared you for real rail slides and ollies about as well as Call of Duty prepares a private for boot camp.
Like many games, THPS simulates an attitude rather than a skill. And when you let yourself believe what the high scores and impressed friends are telling you, you’re in danger of delusion. If you’re not careful, games like Tony Hawk will turn you into a poser, like it did to me.
Where THPS truly succeeded was in mimicking the swagger of skateboarding, not the sensation of using a wooden board with wheels. I experienced the thrill of landing impossible tricks without any real skill and I adopted the rebellious punk world-view without any real conviction (I didn’t know who “the man” was).
The simulation created a world where skateboarding was easy because Tony Hawk made it easy. I liked the crunch of rail, the agonizing sound of steel on steel, the way the score counter would climb as each trick, each grab, rail grind, accumulated and multiplied it. I liked the punk rock music that blared in the background; I liked the two-minute sessions to accumulate the highest score. The tight mechanics created enough realism to make you feel in control at all times. Over rotating, under extending, or even losing your balance on a rail were all your fault. Yet, for every perfect rotation, perfect landing or balanced manual, you felt you could take all the credit.
The game was so good and so effective at making me feel like a skateboarder that I bought a skateboard. I found the cheapest board at the hardware store, and all summer long I practiced real ollies. Almost every week, I’d stand on a half pipe, board edge sandwiched between my shoe and the wooden lip. “Stomp it,” the real skateboarders would tell me.
I was so caught up in the skateboarding culture and the feeling of landing these sick tricks that I found myself at the edge of a half pipe without a helmet. I couldn’t even ollie.
That is the legacy of Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
Unlike on the hot pavement or the creaking wooden half pipe on my church’s parking lot, I felt like skateboarding was within my reach in Tony Hawk’s world. I balled my fists and “stomped it” adjusting my center of gravity to compensate for the change in motion and rolled down the wooden ramp. I did my best to avoid other ramps, rails and skaters until I coasted to the edge of the parking lot.
I picked up my board and realized I had better learn to ollie. Going down a quarter pipe is exhilarating but I don’t remember earning any points for it in THPS.
I never learned to ollie (it’s hard) and I haven’t touched a real skateboard since. I never seriously played another skateboarding game, perhaps because my real skateboarding days revealed I was a poser, or because the games began to grow more complex. I was among the scoffers when Tony Hawk returned, claiming the newest revolution in gaming had arrived: An expensive plastic skateboard that supposedly mimicked the player’s movements.
Tony Hawk developers had lost touch with what made them great. All this mucking about with open worlds and innovative hardware isn’t what drove me to actually purchase a skateboard. It was the faux-simulation, the clever illusion of accountable controls and virtual skill that makes you feel like a badass skateboarder.
It was no surprise when game developer Robomodo recently released the HD remake of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 and 2 in an attempt to recapture the magic of the long running series. I picked up my Xbox controller and for the first time in ten years, started thinking back to the day I stood shaking with excitement and fear on a wooden half-pipe in a parking lot.
The feeling was back. In the perfect virtual skateboarding playgrounds the game’s functionality and fantasy coalesce to form the pure spirit of everything great about skateboarding. I took Tony out to the half pipe until I hit the high score, and I kept playing because I didn’t want to leave.
I caught myself wondering if I still had my old skateboard.