It must be a cold day in the Devil’s den, because the unimaginable has happened – a handheld conversion of a console title that’s better than its console brethren has arrived. Today I shall declare the undeclarable – Activision’s Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land is infinitely more enjoyable than almost all the console Tony Hawk games. But rather than spending this review comparing the console Hawk title to this DS game, let’s just discuss why this game is so danged good.
When developing this handheld skating game, it seems that developer Vicarious Visions decided to do away with the usual “strip it down and cram it into handheld memory” modus operandi of most game ports and start from scratch. By doing so, they’ve created a unique look and feel for American Sk8land, while also managing to keep the spirit of the original Hawk games alive. The look and feel, for the most part, is borrowed from television animation, as Sk8land looks a lot like something you’d find on Cartoon Network. That’s not a bad thing at all, they’ve just ripped out the bland and insanely polygonal graphics the series is known for, and replaced them with razor sharp cel shaded graphics. By going with cel shading, it appears Vicarious Visions managed to optimize the graphics engine, since there’s never a slowdown, clip or graphical tear to be seen, even after a dozen or more hours of play, and frankly, still screenshots don’t do this game justice.
While the basic character designs are limited, there are tons of customization options in the form of clothing, graffiti tags and skate decks, so you’ll rarely, if ever, find a twin of your character online. If you’ve got a bit of the artist in your blood, you can actually use the touch screen to draw your own graffiti tags and deck designs.
Ah yes, the touch screen – it’s about time a U.S. developer made such good use of it, and boy, did Vicarious Visions make use of it. As already mentioned, you can use it to create custom skateboard artwork and graffiti, but you can also using it to trigger special tricks on-the-fly. If you’re the type who gets just a little upset after missing a trick, the “Freak out” function is available, which requires you to max out the three freak out meters on the touch screen by tapping them at just the right moment. Score high enough on the freak out meter, and you’ll watch your skater throw or break his deck, or get nasty in other ways, and if you freak out “to the max,” you get to keep some of the points you might have otherwise lost when you screwed up that mega eight-move combo. Not content to just use the touch screen, the developers also have set up the game so you can record comments for “good news” and “bad news” with the built in microphone. So next time your character bails on a huge move, he can spew obscenities with your voice.
Tricks, tricks, gotta love the tricks,and American Sk8land has bucketloads of ’em. If you want variety, you won’t be let down, as practically every trick from the original Hawk games is represented here — from grinds to lip slides, bert slides and boneless’, they are all available, along with the huge variety of aerial moves and kickflips. In many ways, Sk8land’s emphasis on ground tricks versus vert tricks (ramp tricks to you non-skaters out there) will encourage old school skaters to pick up and play this game. I found myself spending hours putting together flatland combos that, while they require some use of the much-maligned manual move, aren’t the ridiculous super-scoring combos of past games. It’s just a ton of fun to skate in the streets and tear up the terrain without the need of big air blasting ramps, pipes or pools. Thanks to some clever level design, there’s always something to grind, slide, ollie or acid drop from, and if one area gets too boring, you can easily skate your way into a new territory with no load times. It’s just a smooth progression from zone to zone, and each zone offers up unique challenges to your skater’s skills, so you can hang around the flatlander friendly areas to rack up points, or head to the big air-friendly parts of town if that’s your bag. Either way, you’ll have plenty to do.
The single-player game isn’t as linear as it is in the console game, rather, it’s much more free flowing. You typically just meet up with someone, they give you a task or two, and you move on. Mindy, the skate Betty from Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is here, too, but she’s nowhere near as integral to the gameplay. She’s more a helper than a taskmaster, which makes her eminently more tolerable. Unlike Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, you aren’t crippled by a reduced trick list. In Sk8land, you already know how to do all the tricks you’ll need for the tasks you’re assigned, you just need to know how to use them in combos or in special situations. So, for example, you start the game knowing how to do a manual, rather than having to learn it from a fellow skater. This makes it a whole lot more fun when you just want to cruise around town throwing out combos between tasks. If you’re not into the story mode, there’s always the classic Tony Hawk mode, wherein you’re given a series of goals for each level (score x points, find the hidden tape, find all the letters in “skate,” etc.), and Free Skate mode, where you can just cruise around a level for practice.
Now, single-player is all well and good, and it’s danged good in Sk8land, but multiplayer is really where it’s at. Vicarious Visions should win some kind of award for showing just how cool Nintendo WiFi can be. By simply firing up WiFi mode, you’re immersed in an online world where you can trade decks and graffiti designs, or play several game modes against anyone else who’s online at the time. There’s the “my score’s higher than yours” Trick Attack mode, along with Score Challenge (first player to a certain score wins), Combo Mambo (put together the most insane combo) and The Price is Wrong. The Price is Wrong mode has skaters trying to score within a certain range of a target score, and if you go over the target score, you can start scoring negative points to decrease your score and get you back in range. All modes are fun, and all run butter smooth online, though that’s it’s not too hard to prevent lag when you limit a game to two players at a time.
Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land has renewed my faith in a franchise that I dropped after Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2. This game is, quite simply, amazingly fun, even for the non-skaters out there. Being an old-school skater in the real world, I really appreciated the solid mix of flatland and vert moves, rather than the insanely over-the-top vert combos they were using to fuel the most recent console releases. Forget about Tony Hawk Underground or American Wasteland, because American Sk8land is really where it’s at. I may never pick up any of the console Hawk titles again.
- Gameplay: 8.5
- Every move is there, every control is flawless. The reduced focus on ridiculous “extreme” tricks lets old-schoolers enjoy this game.
- Graphics: 8.5
- Cel shaded graphics allow for smooth and fluid animation. While not extremely detailed, it’s still very easy on the eyes.
- Sound: 8.5
- A punk soundtrack even the oldest of Dead Kennedy’s fans could enjoy coupled with solid game sounds and voice work will make your ears very happy.
- Replay: 9
- An excellent mix of single and multiplayer options, and online gameplay that will force DS developers to try real hard to beat it
- Overall: 9
- Pure skateboarding joy
— Ted Brockwood