Getting older all the time / feeling younger in my mind
Those lyrics from the 1999 ska song “Superman” by Goldfinger take on an entirely new meaning today. Activision has announced it will release a remaster of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 together as one game. All the old levels, the original skaters, and even most of the classic soundtracks are coming back on September 4, 2020, this time with a photo realistic art style that takes full advantage of the 4K HDR graphic capabilities of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. “It’s all there,” Jen Oneal, studio head at Vicarious Visions, told me when I spoke with her last week. “We really want to appeal to that nostalgic feel. It should feel like coming home, essentially.”
And that’s really what we’re looking for in a Tony Hawk game, isn’t it? A feeling. I don’t need a 60-hour campaign or VR support or a dedicated online community—hell, I don’t even need an online mode at all to enjoy a session of THPS (though this remaster promises a pretty great one). The game just needs to feel the way the Pro Skater games of the early 2000s did. “I think one thing that our fans remember about Tony Hawk is that you were basically this skating superhero,” Oneal said. “When we thought about this [remaster] and the sort of muscle memory that’s involved when you’re playing this game, we want to make sure that you’re able to do those crazy combo lines, and so we put in all the tricks that were necessary to fulfill that.”
With over a dozen titles and counting, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series has undergone so many facelifts that its foundations are barely recognizable anymore. But if there’s anyone who knows what tricks should still be part of the THPS broth, it’s the folks from Neversoft, the now-defunct label that was responsible for the murderer’s row of Tony Hawk 1, 2, 3, and 4, which established the series—and the skaters who starred in it—as household names. Though Neversoft was shuttered in 2014, some of the members of its Pro Skater family are working with Vicarious Visions, Activision’s New York-based development arm that is behind this upcoming remaster. Oneal herself was a producer on Neversoft’s Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, a late-franchise highlight and personal favorite of mine. “It’s definitely in our blood, and it’s a real point of pride that we got the opportunity to do this,” she said.
Back in early March, when I first found myself stuck inside my tiny studio apartment for the indefinite future, I had an itch to escape to the wide-open schoolyards and 30-set stairwells of a Pro Skater game. But the only one available for my PS4 was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. Reviled at launch, the long-awaited fifth entry was regarded as among the worst games of 2015. I bought it anyway—and it was somehow worse than I’d heard. Glitchy physics, a weird cartoony art style, and worst of all, they had changed how the special meter worked!
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When I learned about Vicarious Vision’s new remaster package, I was thrilled, sure, but it was hard not to be pessimistic. We’ve seen many attempts like THPS 5 to make the Pro Skater brand relevant again. There was Tony Hawk: Ride, the pitiful motion-controller disaster from 2010. After that was its equally stupid sequel, Shred, and then Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, a remaster project from 2012 that packaged the best levels from THPS 1 and 2 with some snazzy, current-gen graphics. But despite the familiar sights and sounds, it seemed HD had been made by people who had never played a Tony Hawk game before. There was no Create-A-Skater mode. No level designer. And one of the key links of the franchise’s combo chain, the revert, was not included in the initial release. Skating in THPS HD, developed by franchise newcomer Robomodo for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC, felt like returning to your childhood home to find it occupied by a different family.
Details are still sparse about this new remaster. (Oneal said Robomodo had nothing to do with it.) But Oneal was willing to speak at length about gameplay specifics. In terms of the revert, the essential combo mechanic missing from THPS HD that allowed players to string vert tricks to street maneuvers, she said, “My finger just automatically hits that trigger button. It’s just second nature, so of course we had to include [the revert]. So that’s basically our approach to how we’ve been remastering this game.”
Tony Hawk, the former Esquire intern (wink wink) who tweeted in 2018, “I am no longer working with [Activision],” was apparently “very much involved” with this production. “He’s not just a great skater,” Oneal said. “He’s also good at playing this game… I’ve got to tell you, one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever heard was him saying, ‘You guys got this.'” She watched Hawk himself play the remastered game, pull off “some pretty mean combo lines,” then tell the developers, “Yep, this feels right.” His reaction elicited a collective gasp of “fresh air.” What we’re seeing so far looks almost too good to be true, but if it’s got Tony Hawk’s seal of approval, it just may be the THPS remake we’ve waited so many years for.
The Pro Skater franchise, which skyrocketed to success in the early 2000s, was completely unique in its time, and it’s still kind of an outlier. It was categorized as a “sports” series, but the games were nothing like Madden or NBA 2k. They were closer to racing games, challenging players to avoid obstacles at high speeds, with some levels even resembling downhill races (those, by the way, are coming along with this package). THPS was much more complex than even that, though. Incorporating platforming mechanics and fast-paced button combos, it was almost like playing Street Fighter while (stylishly) falling down the stairs. You just didn’t get that sensation anywhere else.
And sure, in the past years, there have been a lot of games that have tried to reclaim the Pro Skater glory. There’s the minimal Skate franchise, which has accrued its own cult community. OlliOlli, a satisfyingly difficult sidescroller. Skate City, which debuted on Apple Arcade to some acclaim. And coming up is Skater XL, which touts a more realistic vibe, and its polar opposite, SkateBIRD, a silly-looking indie that’s exactly what its title describes: a skateboarding game featuring birds. I’ve tried all the copycats. I even picked up a skateboard and hit the neighborhood schoolyard in an attempt to re-learn the kickflip in real life (I still got it, kind of!). None of it, though, feels the way it did before. Maybe it’s like Oneal said. It’s not just that I want to relive a video game of my youth. It’s that I want to be a “skating superhero.” Which brings us back to the Goldfinger song:
Here I am, doing everything I can / holding on to what I am / pretending I’m a superman
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