Ride On


Before I sat down to write this article, I wanted to beat one particular challenge in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. To reminisce, to get myself back in the mindset of Tony’s Pro Skater days and to ensure my memory wasn’t failing me.

It’s only on the third level that you get an opportunity to try it, but Escape from Alcatraz is one of the hardest missions in the entire game. After only a few hours in Tony’s latest playground, the game grabs you by the short and curlies, pulls you in real close and asks “do you really know how to ride that thing, sonny?”

It’s this ridiculous line that, in about 40 seconds, barrels you from a lookout point atop Alcatraz’s roof, down past two pools, over the construction site, through the haunted baseball yard, down to the destroyed entrance buildings, through a row of tourists and onto a boat at the prison’s jetty. Along the way you collect 33 little floating icons, and no less. There’s no silver medal for getting 32.

It’s absolutely unrelenting; you move at such a high momentum that any blunder sends you too far off course for correction, and the line has such pinpoint pacing that any attempt to rectify a mistake will obliterate the intended flow and cause imminent failure. It’s brutal, it’s demoralising and it’ll probably take over 100 attempts.

But the room will erupt when you beat it. You’ll pump your fist with satisfaction and reward, your onlookers will cheer and you’ll never say “Yes, I want to save my game!” with such gusto, ever again.

But I mean, what does this ludicrous event have to do with skateboarding, anyway? You move far too fast, leap way too high and grind with too much speed for any kind of realism to be granted, but it’s Tony Hawks at its best; lines, reflexes, memory, patterns and unfathomable digit dexterity.

As every Hawk game introduced some new key moves, Pro Skater 4 said hello to “Skitchin”; its missing ’g’ a disturbing omen of the franchise's future

Besides, the original games were as much about skateboarding as Street Fighter is about fighting or Track and Field is about running; it’s an almost unrecognisable abstraction built with enjoyable gaming in mind, rather than a realistic portrayal of the sport. Every Etnies logo, every professional skater and every unlockable deck decal is inconsequential window dressing, be it the sporting elegance of Pro Skater or the anarchic rebellion of Underground, to the main event; an abstract experience about rhythm, reflex and muscle memory, that just happens to feature skateboards.

I can’t just Ollie into a grind anymore; those days are over. With 8 years of Tony Hawk etched into my brain, I have to punctuate every leap with a score-increasing, combo-incrementing flip trick, even if there’s no score to chase. And since Tony Hawks 3, I can’t fly off a quarter pipe without reverting into a manual on the way down. Those movements are just part of my subconscious now; my thumbs perform the button combos (R1, Up, Down for the latter) before my brain can even engage them.

This level of micro-managed combos and muscle memory repetition means Hawks’ closest living relative isn’t EA’s Skate franchise, but something more along the lines of Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. The most popular Skate videos are beautifully filmed gaps and subdued, refined movements, but Pro Skater’s best flicks are billion point combos and impossible body contortions that might resemble some real skate tricks, in isolation.

A couple of years ago, Sega showed me a run-through of The Club (one of my favourite hidden gems this generation), and when they said “it has a real Tony Hawks like addictiveness”, they sure weren’t talking about putting the protagonists on skateboards.

Halo’s online mode isn’t really about shooting, Street Fighter isn’t really about fighting and Tony Hawk’s isn’t really about skateboarding. They’re about rhythm of movement, proficiency over technical controls and reflexes to situations. You wouldn’t play Halo with a lightgun or Street Fighter with Project Natal reading punches or kicks, and you certainly wouldn’t play a game with the Tony Hawks name, with anything but an analogue stick (or a D-pad, if you’re a real purist), a few face buttons and the shoulder bumpers.

Funnily enough, a skateboard is the last thing that comes into my mind when I think about Tony Hawks' games







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