Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land
I adore the Tony Hawk’s series. I mean, I REALLY adore the Tony Hawk’s series. They played a seminal part of my life, giving me one of my first experiences with a game going “here, this is a playground. Do whatever you want”, a thing that I personally value in a game above other things – it’s the reason I preferred Mirror’s Edge Catalyst to the original, the reason Ubisoft’s clear-the-map-em-ups are perfect for me… I love them.
And Tony Hawk’s always did it in style. Not only did you have a playground, you could do tricks in it. Mindlessly. Forever. You might even unlock new areas if you do specific tricks in specific places – who can forget the baffling way to unlock the gym portion of School 2 in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, where you had to grind a very specific rail while the school bell was ringing?
Well, recently I’ve had a hankering to replay some of the old games – including variants I missed. One of these was American Wasteland (the seventh main Tony Hawk’s game), a game I completed fondly on PS2, but instead on Xbox 360, bringing with it cleaner graphics and achievements. I started playing that… and then my Xbox 360 red-ring-of-deathed. In 2017. 12 years after my unit was manufactured. A true blast from gaming’s past. With a taste for the world of Los Angeles but also a desire to stray off the beaten PS2-shaped path, I turned to Wasteland’s portable sibling, Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land.
I’d never touched the series’ DS instalments, which also include Downhill Jam, a version of the 9th game Proving Ground, and Motion. The reason for this was that I was disappointed with the GameBoy Advance instalments – Underground 2 was a really horrible attempt to port the console version onto a unit with limited power, ending up with an isometric game that was difficult to play, and the GBA version of Downhill Jam, while technically impressive, was also fairly weak, not feeling like a Tony Hawk’s game (in part due to the lack of face buttons on the handheld’s hardware, meaning the tried-and-true control scheme has been changed around).
So imagine my surprise when American Sk8land for DS, while looking primitive as all heck, absolutely nails the feel of a Tony Hawk’s game. Like, perfectly. In the controls department and in the physics, it’s bloody perfect. It also manages to bring almost every skating feature available in American Wasteland over – Natas spins and body flips are both in, as are a lot of the newer Tony Hawk’s additions such as tweaking manuals, lip and grind tricks with face button double-taps – even when there’s only about 24 polygons on the entire screen, you can bust out a manual to Pogo. To think that the DS instalment of a game series is more feature-complete, and feels better to play, than a version released on PlayStation 4 ten years afterwards is absolutely baffling.
One key difference in American Sk8land’s engine, though, is that it’s very forgiving. Instead of having editable/improvable stats, you are simply superhuman at skateboarding from the get-go. You can perform a double impossible from a standing ollie – in some of the games, you couldn’t even do a single impossible unless you’d improved your jump height or flip speed. It also takes a lot more in THAS to bail – you will land a backflip if you’ve only done half of the flip, it takes actual effort to bail from being misoriented on a landing (instead only receiving a “Sloppy” point deduction), and balance bars are far more forgiving than the console Tony Hawk’s games even when you’ve maxed your stats out – I managed a grind in THAS that lasted over two minutes, I can barely go 10 seconds in some of the console versions. A side effect of this easiness that I adore though is that you can go so maniacal with the backflips, frontflips and rolls, that at points American Sk8land begins to resemble SSX. Triple-backflip-double-rolling while also doing a special grab off of a weedy little quarter pipe may be stupid, but it’s also awesome.
There are compromises to be had with the DS counterpart to American Wasteland. BMXing, a new addition to American Wasteland (and essentially the same as Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX in functionality), is unsurprisingly absent. So is walking, which in turn knocks out the parkour that THAW also dabbled with. Neither of these are really bothersome – American Sk8land never feels like it needs walking, especially since you can skate up flights of stairs in the game. Another omission is the “open world” thing THAW cheated by stitching levels together with loading corridors, although it’s worked around in THAS with short loading segments accessible through entrances in-game, so you still don’t need to enter any menus.
The biggest place the game is lacking is in what you actually have to do to complete it. American Wasteland featured an eclectic variety of missions that largely focused on breaking and stealing things around LA to take back to the “American Wasteland”, a skatepark that starts out barren and has pieces added to it related to each mission you complete. Sk8land seems to want to emulate the idea, but in the most basic of fashions – you get a set of 17 or so goals in each level. After completing some of them, a famous skater comes along and has a new goal – and if you complete that, they’re so impressed that they tell you to buy something for the “Warehouse”. You’re then free to complete the last of the goals in this level or move onto the newly-unlocked next level where you rinse and repeat.
There are some big problems with this. One is that the game locks off the Warehouse until you’ve beaten every pro’s challenge in every level – so unlike with American Wasteland where you can keep going back and seeing your park progress, you never get a sense of the Warehouse being empty at first, it’s always just full when you’re there. Another is how cut-and-paste it all is in American Sk8land – you get three options of what to purchase for each of the 10 or so spaces in the Warehouse, and everything looks like it was custom-built for skating on and nothing else. There’s no feeling of anything being dynamic like in American Wasteland, even though the game’s styling suggests that’s what it’s going for.
Lastly, the goals are boring. There are about the same number of goals in every single level, and none are really unique – the game has a pool of concepts (collect SKATE, collect COMBO, score X points do an X point combo, do this gap, do this trick while doing this gap, collect other items etc) and every goal uses that pool – even the earlier Tony Hawk’s games with the “Classic” formula mixed up levels by having some unique goals to go with the formulaic ones, such as unsticking a man’s tongue from an icy pole in THPS3’s Canada. When you complete goals in THAS, you’re given an amount of money – $250 for pretty much all of them – and off you go.
It’s disappointing for the game to cheap out on the actual story and activities when it has such a technically sound base engine. Not only does American Sk8land feel correct to play, it also has a fair chunk of American Wasteland’s LA levels present and correct, but it feels like Sk8land fails to utilise them well.
An odd point in the level pool – the penultimate level in the game (the last being Warehouse) is suddenly, and out of nowhere, Alcatraz from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. When the game does its best to make it seem like the transitions between levels are, in world scale, right next to each other, having one of the transitions take you 400 miles away from LA is weird to say the least. It makes me wonder if they tried to port over one of THAW’s other major levels, such as the Casino, couldn’t for some reason, and had to panic-add the closest thing to LA from an old Tony Hawk’s game that they could.
So overall, my recommendation is to grab American Sk8land and blast through its story mode as fast as you can (it only takes a couple of hours) so you can unlock the whole map, and then mess around in it. Go wild with the backflips. Have fun with spine transferring. American Sk8land represents the ugliest version of Tony Hawk’s that still feels like a Tony Hawk’s game, and it feels like a pretty damn solid one at that – and it’s nice to have something a bit different in a world unlikely to ever get a new, competent Tony Hawk’s again.