Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be grinding our way along Tony Hawk‘s halfpipe of history. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Table of Contents
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000)
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (2001)
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 (2002)
Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003)
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (2004)
Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (2005)
Tony Hawk’s Project 8 (2006)
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground (2007)
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 (2015)
Video game development studio Neversoft was founded in Los Angeles by Joel Jewett, Mick West and Chris Ward in 1994. While West had been programming video games since 1989’s Steve Davis World Snooker, Jewett came primarily from a career in finance and Ward had only begun designing art for games in 1993. All three had briefly worked at Malibu Interactive, a subsidiary of Malibu Comics known for a variety of action-adventure and sports games released between 1992 and 1995, before deciding that they’d be more successful on their own.
The gamble initially seemed to pay off when Malibu Interactive was shuttered by its parent company in 1995. After that, however, a succession of cancelled commissions by third-party publishers (including an abandoned Ghost Rider title for Legacy of Kain developer Crystal Dynamics) led Neversoft down the road to near-bankruptcy by late 1997. The only game that the studio had carried from planning to release was a lushly rendered but mechanically simplistic 32-bit platformer called Skeleton Warriors (1996).
In a sudden reversal of fortune, a contract with Activision brought wind to the team’s beleaguered sails in January 1998. Activision, which had experienced its own corporate strife during the late 1980s, had been steadily ascending as a major publisher since a rebranding effort in 1993 and sought a small studio to finish development on a long-planned vehicle for actor Bruce Willis and musician Poe. The result was Apocalypse (1998), a third-person shooter for the Sony PlayStation released to mediocre reviews but reasonably strong sales only ten months after the game had been assigned to Neversoft.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
Activision was sufficiently impressed with Neversoft’s preliminary work on Apocalypse to greenlight a second project in May 1998. The new title was going to be focused on skateboarding, which had skyrocketed to mainstream popularity across North America during the 1990s after maintaining enthusiasm among hobbyists for much of the preceding thirty years. Tony Hawk, a pro skateboarder since 1982, would serve as a creative consultant and the face of the game. An early prototype took shape using the Apocalypse game engine and Bruce Willis’ likeness as a stand-in character model.
In a respectful nod to skateboarding’s well-defined street culture, Neversoft strove for authenticity in its presentation. Jewett built a halfpipe in his backyard to experiment with the sport and the studio hired on developers who had a background in skating. Producer Scott Pease, who had grown up skating and would be responsible for getting much of the physics system just right, was so passionate about the project that he quit Activision to work full time on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater after serving as creative executive on Apocalypse. The game’s initial design emphasized racing through downhill obstacle courses, but the team soon discovered that real-world environments offering organic opportunities to grind rails and perform tricks were more appealing during playtesting. To enhance the sense of place and momentum, Neversoft added environmentally-relevant sound effects designed by Tommy Tallarico Studios Inc. and Joey Kuras alongside a button to kick the player’s board forward along the ground.
Licensing was the final piece of the puzzle in assembling Activision’s bold new intellectual property (IP). Jewett worked tirelessly to establish a driving soundtrack featuring a combination of well-known and underground punk bands, with some high-profile contributors like Primus actively pursuing the opportunity to include their music in the game. Tony Hawk regularly provided feedback on Neversoft’s work and recommended colleagues for inclusion in the playable roster. The game serendipitously launched on the PlayStation in September 1999, only one month after ESPN covered Hawk’s debut of an unprecedented 900 trick at that year’s annual X Games event.
Players choose one of ten real-world skaters – Bob Burnquist, Kareem Campbell, Rune Glifberg, Bucky Lasek, Chad Muska, Andrew Reynolds, Geoff Rowley, Elissa Steamer, Jamie Thomas, or Hawk himself – to tackle one of the game’s nine stages. Fully 3D settings include prosaic locations encountered in everyday life, like a warehouse, school, and mall, alongside a fictionalized interpretation of the US military installation at Roswell, New Mexico featuring a UFO and captured alien. Players control their character from a behind-the-back perspective, executing airborne tricks through a combination of face button taps and grinding along lengthy horizontal sections of pipe when not simply rolling along the ground. This effortlessly elegant control scheme would influence an entire generation of extreme sport games.
In most Career Mode stages, skaters attempt to complete five objectives during time-limited exploration. Objectives – which differ in each stage – range from collecting the five letters comprising the word “skate” to destroying common objects found around the environment. The game tracks completed objectives for each character, so the player isn’t required or encouraged to complete all in a single run. Three special competition stages, which require the player character to amass a specified number of points by completing tricks while being observed by judges, confer bronze, silver, or gold medals on the chosen skater depending on their performance. New levels and equipment are unlocked by completing objectives and accumulating medals.
For players with only a short period of time on their hands, Single Session mode offers the opportunity to perform as many tricks and grinds as possible within a two minute time limit on any unlocked stage. Free Skate mode is the opposite, letting players explore and experiment in stages with no constraints at all. Multiplayer includes three separate modes of play. Graffiti sees two players competing to turn obstacles into their chosen color by executing tricks on them, Trick Attack is a straightforward race to accumulate points, and HORSE is an asynchronous mode in which players alternate attempts to perform tricks during eight-second rounds; the lowest scorer in each round is assigned a letter and the loser is the first player to spell out ‘horse.’
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater exceeded all commercial expectations by Activision, rapidly spawning ports on new platforms. The Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast versions respectively represent an upgrade and a downgrade, as the former slims the soundtrack as a result of cartridge format constraints while the latter noticeably enhances the game’s graphics. A Natsume-developed Game Boy Color adaptation swaps the behind-the-back point of view and textured polygons of the original game for alternating top-down and side-scrolling perspectives depicting lightly-detailed sprites. Multiplayer is still a key feature here, however, and two players can go head to head in competitions by connecting their Game Boy Color units with a link cable. An impressive 2003 Nokia N-Gage port managed to retain the look and feel of the PlayStation version while introducing elements from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000) alongside bluetooth-based multiplayer.
Nearly ten years later, Robomondo developed an Unreal Engine 3-based remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC. A selection of stages from the series’ first three entries returned in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD (2011), but much of the original games’ kinetic energy and its licensed soundtrack were conspicuously absent. This ill-considered cash-grab lacks even split-screen multiplayer, inexplicably offering less functionality than its decade-old source material.
In spite of the poor reception to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, Activision published a Vicarious Visions-developed follow-up titled Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC in 2020 and PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch in 2021. All versions were built in Unreal Engine 4 using a touched-up version of the original games’ still-extant code. This remaster accurately reproduces the mechanics and soundtrack of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 while integrating optional quality of life features from later titles and a diverse new generation of skaters who had been introduced to the sport by the franchise itself. The remake was a massive critical and commercial success, instantly hailed as a reinvigoration of the aging Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series twenty years after its debut.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000)
Neversoft was acquired by Activision and internally sub-divided into two production teams following the blockbuster launch of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in late 1999. While the first team developed a licensed 32-bit Spider-Man game using the ever-versatile Pro Skater engine, the second immediately began work on a direct sequel to the studio’s breakout hit. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 experienced no major delays and was published by Activision for the PlayStation on September 20, 2000.
As would be the case with most later series entries, it serves primarily as a minor iteration on its direct predecessor. The graphics are only slightly updated and controls remain more or less unchanged. New songs populate a reprise of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’s iconic soundtrack, but the tone once again captures the punk sound of late-’90s skate culture. The original game’s ten returning skaters are joined by newcomers Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Eric Kosten, and – who else? – Spider-Man. In a bid to increase the series’ profile outside of the United States, the game’s East Asian localizations feature playable members of South Korean girl group Fin.K.L.
The most significant new content is a new type of trick, the manual, and increased customization options. The manual sees skaters performing a wheelie using their boards and allows the player to chain grinds with air tricks through careful management of an on-screen balance bar. Skaters can now acquire new skills and enhanced stats through the accumulation of points earned from their performance. As though all of this content wasn’t enough, Neversoft also introduced character and stage creator tools (respectively named Create-a-Skater and Create-a-Park). The Pro Skater experience could now be adapted to the skills and preferences of almost every potential player; sadly, however, Create-a-Skater can only be used to produce male avatars.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 sold even more copies than Neversoft’s preceding release and remains one of the best-reviewed video games of the past quarter-century. A faithful Dreamcast port by Treyarch improved upon the PlayStation original with higher quality graphics in November 2000 while a Nintendo 64 port by Edge of Reality, which includes an additional stage but reduces soundtrack variety, was released the following year. More unique are a Natsume-developed sprite-based Game Boy Color version that improves upon their previous contribution and an isometric Game Boy Advance version developed by Vicarious Visions. Ports and remasters available on later hardware generations include an Xbox edition that added five new stages, scaled-down mobile phone and iOS adaptations, and reappearances alongside Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (2001)
Developed from the ground up for sixth-generation consoles, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 represents the franchise’s first major graphical revision. A new game engine – made possible by the project’s increased budget – allows for more fluid character animations at a native 60 frames per second and the brief appearance of blood when bailing off of a board. Real-world skaters and skate park designers were consulted to ensure that the game’s 12 stages feature the series’ largest and most interactive environments yet. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 launched to characteristically rave reviews on the PlayStation 2 and GameCube in Fall 2001; Xbox players received an additional stage, the Oil Rig, as compensation for needing to wait until Spring 2002 for a version launched on their preferred console.
The series’ third title also features a handful of mechanical improvements. The debut of pedestrians, meandering throughout densely packed urban settings, offers a new obstacle for skaters to overcome. Neversoft once again expanded the trick system, allowing players to string together more tricks through the revert technique. Reverts chain vert combos with manuals when the player taps a button upon returning to the ground after ascending a half-pipe. Finally, the PlayStation 2 version introduces online play through the integration of that platform’s ethernet functionality. Online and offline multiplayer include previous modes alongside a new mode, Control Zone, in which players compete to claim stage regions after they acquire an associated key.
Bob Burnquist is absent from the roster due to his appearance in Konami’s ESPN X Games Skateboarding (2001). The only new pro skater added is Bam Margera, but a host of unlockable novelty characters makes up for the lack of new blood. All versions of the game include Star Wars’ Darth Maul, Marvel’s Wolverine, Neversoft’s Eyeball mascot, a demoness, and surfer Kelly Slater; some ports and localizations received exclusive bonus characters, including the skeletal X-Ray on the Xbox, id’s Doom Guy on the PC, snowboarder Shaun Palmer on the Game Boy Advance, and three Japanese pro skaters – Junnosuke Y, Shin Okada, and Hiroki Saegusa – in Japan. Create-a-Skater Mode has thankfully been expanded with the ability to create female skaters.
As with previous titles, numerous ports made their way to other consoles following the game’s initial release. In contrast to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, however, Neversoft developed three of these internally rather than contract them to outside studios; these include a PC edition that closely resembles the PlayStation 2 original as well as ports for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 built in the previous-generation game engine. A Game Boy Advance version by Vicarious Visions, which uses the same isometric perspective as their adaptation of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, was regarded as an impressively ambitious translation of the sixth-generation console version’s features to portable hardware.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 (2002)
Competitors began to catch up with Neversoft’s runaway hit after the turn of the century. Not all were cheap cash-ins like ESPN X Games Skateboarding, either; Acclaim’s Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX (2000) and Electronic Arts’ SSX (2000) were so successful at using the Tony Hawk model to support other sports that Activision directly responded by publishing Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX (2001) and Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder (2001). A year later, Aggressive Inline (2002) seems to have impacted the evolution of the progenitor franchise itself.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 – developed by Neversoft and released on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox by Activision in October 2002 – draws its most noteworthy structural departure directly from Acclaim’s inline skating simulator. Rather than selecting a stage and completing standardized objectives within a fixed time limit, players now explore expansive environments at their leisure and receive goals from nearby pedestrians to grow their characters in Career Mode. Completing challenges often opens up additional objectives in a manner reminiscent of contemporary computer role-playing games (RPGs).
Outside of its Career Mode overhaul, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 features little that long-time fans hadn’t experienced already. The return of Bob Burnquist and addition of unlockable pro skater Mike Vallely make this the largest roster of any series entry so far, but its novelty characters – while still amusing – can’t help feeling a bit formulaic. Star Wars’ Jango Fett and Iron Maiden mascot Eddie the Head are highlights, while fictional porn star Daisy (based on real-world entertainer Jenna Jameson) and a clown called Little Person come across as exploitative. Mechanical refinements are numerous, including the ability to reverse momentum away from a wall using the wallplant trick, but the only genuinely new mobility option is grabbing the back of a passing car in a technique called skitching.
Though Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 launched to generally positive reviews, a contemporary article by IGN’s Aaron Boulding drew attention to the series’ annual release schedule as evidence of potential stagnation. Even so, Windows and Mac ports by Canadian developer Beenox once more replicated the home console experience and versions by Vicarious Visions delivered engaging experiences on weaker hardware; their PlayStation port retains most of the sixth-generation features at a lower visual fidelity while the version published on Game Boy Advance represents another successful isometric adaptation rather than a direct port. This creative interpretation would be the basis for a later port to the short-lived Tapwave Zodiac portable console.
Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003)
Perhaps sensing that the franchise was growing stale, Neversoft dramatically upended its formula for Tony Hawk’s Underground. The Career Mode character roster is jettisoned entirely in favor of a customizable player avatar which, in the PlayStation 2 release, could even feature a digitized version of the player’s face if he or she submitted their photograph to an associated email address. Pro skaters still appear as non-player characters (NPCs) in stages and are available to control in the returning Free Skate Mode. Create-a-Park Mode, returning with more architectural options than ever, is joined by Create-a-Trick Mode and Create-a-Goal Mode; the latter allows players to program challenges and NPC dialogue into their own stages.
Centering the action on an avatar enables Neversoft to present a narrative in which the player character gets into a variety of often-illegal hijinks from New Jersey to Moscow as they improve their skateboarding skills and reputation. Stages are as expansive as possible on home console hardware, with programmers stretching them to a point at which performance began to buckle before slightly scaling them back during development. The introduction of on-foot travel opens up areas that would be difficult to access on a skateboard while the opportunity to drive cars – likely inspired by the larger stages and the sudden popularity of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001) – is undermined by loose controls and poor hit detection.
As had been the case in the last two Tony Hawk games, the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox versions were all developed internally at Neversoft and are roughly equivalent. Due to the studio’s concerns about patching content using Xbox Live, however, only PlayStation 2 owners have access to online multiplayer. Beenox and Vicarious Visions were again tapped to respectively produce a PC port and an isometric adaptation for Game Boy Advance. The most interesting version is a side-scroller developed for mobile phones by JAMDAT. Though JAMDAT had been contracted to develop Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 for this platform, that game’s apparent cancelation in late 2002 made Tony Hawk’s Underground the first Tony Hawk title since Natsume’s Game Boy Color entries to feature fully sprite-based graphics.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (2004)
The changes in Tony Hawk’s Underground were so well-received that Neversoft immediately began work on a direct sequel, which launched on the same platforms as its predecessor in October 2004. Activision’s Tony Hawk brand had seemingly outlived its Pro Skater line of titles. Unfortunately, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 would be a negative turning point in the series’ fortunes.
Mechanical changes from the preceding title are scarce. The wall-plant is replaced with a sticker slap, in which the player’s avatar appears to slap a wall to bounce off of it, and walls can likewise be spray-painted when the avatar is on-foot. The game’s most significant new trick type – the Freak Out – is a garish pantomime that can be performed when falling off of a skateboard. Finally, players can now hurl small objects at pedestrians and fellow skaters to interrupt their activities.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 is best-known for its radical tonal shift from previous series instalments. Career Mode centers on the antics of Jackass alumnus Bam Margera as he and Tony Hawk coerce the player character into participating in their World Destruction Tour, a series of events aimed at causing the maximum amount of environmental havoc; the competition’s losing team will be forced to pay for all damages. Even Underground 2’s presentation reflects a shift away from the realistic style of earlier games, as characters are now rendered in more cartoonish proportions and the soundtrack skews less heavily towards punk.
Controversial stylistic updates aside, the stage and character rosters are more robust than ever. The Career Mode offers a variety of real locations around the world, including Berlin and Sydney, as well as a bonus stage set in a fictionalized version of the Bermuda Triangle. Classic Mode, on the other hand, revives six stages from the series’ first three titles. Skaters available to control are too numerous to list, but highlights include Shrek, aliens, zombies, Bigfoot, a construction worker, a Call of Duty soldier, and nearly every pro skater featured in prior releases.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 received a mixed reception. Reviews were more positive than negative, emphasizing the game’s still-tight core gameplay and praising Classic Mode, but the lack of meaningful evolution from Underground and Career Mode drew widespread criticism. Windows, Game Boy Advance, and mobile phone adaptations were joined by a PlayStation Portable (PSP) port called Tony Hawk’s Underground 2: Remix (2005). This Shaba Games-developed version is largely faithful to the home console release outside of reduced graphical fidelity, a handful of additional stages, and the omission of Create-a-Park Mode.
Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (2005)
The franchise’s faltering review scores would not keep Activision from releasing Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox in October 2005. An Xbox 360 port published a month later features Tony Hawk’s first high-definition graphics and includes online multiplayer for the first time on Microsoft hardware; Vicarious Visions’ cel-shaded Nintendo DS port – titled American Sk8land and released alongside a traditional isometric Game Boy Advance adaptation of the same name – likewise integrates online multiplayer using subsequently-discontinued wi-fi functionality. Lest longtime Sony players feel shortchanged, the PlayStation 2-exclusive Collector’s Edition package of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland adds additional stages.
Neversoft infamously promoted Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland by claiming that its sprawling Los Angeles setting had no loading screens. Though this is technically true, the city’s neighborhoods are separated by lengthy featureless corridors that mask each local area’s rendering process. Focusing on a single location is a similarly mixed bag: like Super Mario Sunshine (2002), this enhances visual coherence at the expense of stage variety.
The decision to fully commit to open-world stage design has several other interesting effects on Career Mode. The narrative is more down-to-earth than either Underground title, telling the story of a player character who relocates to Los Angeles and slowly rebuilds his life as a skater after fleeing his Midwestern hometown. NPCs created for the game are supplemented with fully-voiced cameo appearances by pro skaters old and new. Tony Hawk’s interest in exploring the sport’s West Coast history, professed in a charming behind-the-scenes documentary found on American Wasteland’s Collector’s Edition, is reflected through the inclusion of 1970s skateboarding pioneer Tony Alva and a soundtrack composed primarily of 1980s punk songs covered by modern artists.
Reviews for the latest Tony Hawk title fell short of expectations. Press outlets like Gamespot appreciated the implementation of new BMX biking mechanics but criticized the randomness of the unlockable characters (which include musicians Li’l Jon and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), the lack of any meaningful mechanical updates, and Career Mode’s low level of difficulty. Activision’s steadfast adherence to an annual release schedule was beginning to take a toll.
Tony Hawk’s Project 8 (2006)
While a version designed using the American Wasteland engine was published on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, Neversoft’s next title would serve as the debut of a new game engine on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware. Motion capture, which had been attempted but abandoned during development of the franchise’s first entry in 1999, finally replaced traditional animation on playable skaters at the request of Hawk himself. Tony Hawk’s Project 8 launched in November 2006 with an eye towards improving on the foundation laid by its direct predecessor.
Open-world design returns with a large, fictional city containing common settings found in the series’ classic titles (e.g. Suburbia, Skate Park, and School). The seventh-generation iteration of the game sees these “stages” flowing organically together rather than being separated by long hallways, as had been the case in American Wasteland. Stokens acquired from pedestrians impressed by the player’s tricks can be used to purchase upgrades from storefronts scattered around the city. The scripted narrative of recent Tony Hawk games is eschewed in favor of a less linear Career Mode featuring one of several customizable premade avatars who compete with NPCs across the city to raise their rank from 200 to 1, eventually becoming one of the titular Project 8. Completing goals identified by environmental graffiti tags opens up access to new areas as the player character accumulates points.
Nail the Trick, a slow-motion sequence in which the player actively moves his or her avatar’s feet around in mid-air to execute a complex trick combo using twin-stick inputs, represents this title’s largest overhaul to the franchise’s trick system. Bailing from a skateboard integrates a revision of Underground 2’s Freak Out, as the player can make up for a lost combo by intentionally breaking their avatar’s bones to raise an associated ‘hospital bill’ score. Project 8’s new engine otherwise improves the weightiness and responsiveness of traditional tricks.
For the first time since Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, nearly every port is a more-or-less faithful translation of Neversoft’s PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 original. Aside from a visual downgrade, Shaba Games’ sixth-generation home console version and Page 44 Studios’ PlayStation Portable version primarily differ from the source material in their replacement of world interconnectedness with a stage selection screen and – in the latter only – a retooled Nail the Trick system. Infospace’s highly stylized single-button 2D mobile interpretation is the lone exception to this otherwise unadventurous slate of ports. All versions of the game received relatively muted praise, as reviewers appreciated Project 8’s mechanical refinements while criticizing its bland stage design and the omission of long-running customization options like Create-a-Park and Create-a-Trick.
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground (2007)
Neversoft’s final Tony Hawk game would be published by Activision for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in October 2007. According to a contemporary interview with project lead Chad Finley, it was designed as a response to fan feedback about Proving Ground. The previous game’s engine was tweaked to improve framerate while revisiting the more realistic visual style of pre-Underground titles.
The series’ roots also inform its stage design, which offers a combination of multiple real-world and fictional locations for the first time in three years; these include Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Transport, the Skate Lounge, and the J.R. Interchange. Career Mode, however, sees players customizing an avatar as they had in Project 8 and attempting to improve their reputation in the skateboarding world by completing goals and accumulating points. Neversoft adds a character class system for the first time here, too, requiring the player to determine whether his or her avatar is a Career Skater, Rigger Skater, or Hardcore Skater. These three classes can respectively execute complex tricks, construct environmental features like rails and ramps, and aggressively interact with other skaters and pedestrians. Nail-the-Trick returns as part of the Career Skater’s repertoire alongside new Nail-the-Grab and Nail-the-Manual abilities.
Online features, which had allowed multiple Xbox 360 players to simultaneously explore an instanced version of the world in Project 8, was extended to PlayStation Network subscribers. The debut of a video editor tool simultaneously tapped into the online video-sharing zeitgeist of the era. These structural improvements seem to have come at the expense of character roster creativity, however, as multiplayer offers virtually none of the goofy unlockable skaters that had characterized the series’ earlier entries.
Page 44 Studios’ PlayStation 2 and Wii ports scale back the openness of level design and drop Nail-the-Manual, but the latter compensates for this with the addition of motion controls. Vicarious Visions’ American Sk8land-esque Nintendo DS version replaces the graphics of that studio’s previous DS game with a realistic visual style more closely reminiscent of its home console cousin. In contrast with Infospace’s Tony Hawk’s Project 8, In-Fusio’s mobile port of Proving Ground features challenging button prompts to execute tricks rather than the former’s simple one-button mechanics.
Sadly, Proving Ground would be the most poorly-reviewed series entry so far. Activision’s insistence on annual releases had made individual games feel formulaic even when they included noteworthy new features or visual overhauls. Burnt out after nine continuous years of Tony Hawk games, Neversoft moved on to the Guitar Hero series with Guitar Hero 3 (2007). The staff would continue working on this property until studio co-founder Joel Jewett and original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater producer Scott Pease left in 2014, after which Neversoft was merged into fellow Activision subsidiary Infinity Ward to aid with the development of Call of Duty titles.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 (2015)
Though the Tony Hawk IP had faced diminishing sales and a mixed critical reception since 2004, the worst was yet to come. Activision handed its skateboarding property off to Chicago-based Robomodo and gamely attempted to maintain an ongoing annual release schedule without the involvement of Neversoft. A host of poorly-received spinoffs, which will be discussed below in their own section, drove audience interest into the ground by the early 2010s. In an effort to secure one final release before a licensing deal with Tony Hawk expired in 2015, Activision rushed development on the first series entry to bear the Pro Skater name since 2002. The results were nothing short of disastrous.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 – published for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in October 2015 – could not actually be completed by players at the time of release. Owners of the physical edition were only able to access a tutorial area and Create-a-Park functionality without the application of a massive patch made available via Sony and Microsoft’s online distribution services. A second patch, which launched a month later, added a smattering of content and unsuccessfully struggled to resolve its Unreal Engine 3-based physics problems. Even after applying both patches, the content on offer was slim and frequently broken.
A Career Mode narrative is jettisoned in favor of the stage-select system and goal structure found in the series’ earliest entries. Ten initially-playable pro skaters – Tony Hawk, Lizzie Armanto, Leticia Bufoni, Chris Cole, David Gonzalez, Riley Hawk, Aaron Homoki, Nyjah Huston, Andrew Reynolds, and Ishod Wair – are joined by unlockable characters King Graham, Li’l Wayne, Tyler the Creator, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Unfortunately, upgrades on offer do little to differentiate the performance of these figures as they progress through a single-player campaign.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 abandons nearly every mechanical update Neversoft had made to its formula since Pro Skater 2 (2000): gone are pedestrians, walking, skitching, wall-planting, bailout recoveries, and Nail-the-Trick. While these changes were ostensibly made to return the series to its roots, Robomodo made the baffling decision to introduce power ups akin to those found in Mario Kart. These are used to complete stage objectives or disrupt rival skaters dropped into the player’s game using online functionality.
Unsurprisingly, the last core Tony Hawk entry at the time of writing was roundly panned by the press. Its plainly unfinished status made it hard to see as anything other than a cash-in by Activision, and a comparatively polished port to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 by Bucharest’s Fun Labs did nothing to salvage the game’s reputation as one of the worst AAA titles of the decade. Robomodo was so badly impacted by the poor sales of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 that it shuttered slightly less than a year after the game launched. For now, at least, new titles in the series have been discontinued.
Tony Hawk’s failure to capture new audiences or retain longtime players during the late 2000s and early 2010s is partly down to Activision’s willingness to dilute their brand with poorly-conceived spinoffs.
Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam – respectively developed for the PlayStation 2, Wii, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS by SuperVillain Studios, Toys for Bob, Visual Impact, and Vicarious Visions – seemingly takes more inspiration from SSX than its own source material. In a direct contradiction to the series’ foundations, the primary game mode sees players racing one another down sloped courses rather than trying to accumulate points on a relatively flat stage. Perhaps due to its pick-up-and-play nature, the Nintendo DS port was the only version to receive positive reviews; the Game Boy Advance version, noteworthy for Visual Impact’s ambitious implementation of 3D graphics on hardware designed for 2D sprites, is rendered functionally unplayable by poor draw distance and inconsistent controls.
Like the Game Boy Advance port of Downhill Jam before it, Creat Studios’ Nintendo DS exclusive Tony Hawk’s Motion (2008) feels more like a novel tech demo than a fully-realized piece of software. Players use the Motion Pack, a gyroscope peripheral packaged alongside the game, to turn their in-game avatar while skateboarding around parks or snowboarding down hills; tricks are performed using the device’s face buttons. While its visual design is impressively faithful to the series’ home console roots, the imprecision of its motion controls scupper the gameplay experience.
Tony Hawk‘s most notorious pair of spinoffs seems to have drawn inspiration from Activision’s Guitar Hero franchise. Whether playing the Robomodo-developed Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 version of Tony Hawk: RIDE (2009) or the scaled-down Wii port by Buzz Monkey, players were required to use a pack-in motion-sensing skateboard peripheral that inflated the cost of the game to $120. As with Tony Hawk’s Motion, this bid to attract players outside traditional game hobbyist circles fell short due to its high price tag and loss of accurate controls. The game was such a critical failure that its 2010 sequel, Tony Hawk: SHRED, sold an abysmal 3,000 copies during its first week on store shelves and the series was placed on hiatus until 2015’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5.
Tony Hawk spinoffs designed for the mobile market experienced a similarly mixed reception. The first of these, Glu Mobile’s sprite-based Tony Hawk: VERT (2009) sees players controlling a skater who performs vertical tricks by launching himself upwards from a half-pipe. Despite its limited ambitions, or perhaps because of them, this Java game received higher critical praise than any preceding spinoff. Sadly, a free-to-play lane-runner sequel designed for iOS by Big Bit was canceled in 2014 following its short-lived soft-launch in select territories.
The series’ most recent iOS and Android title, Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam (2018), is less successful than VERT. Inspired by their own Skateboard Party games, Maple Media worked closely with Tony Hawk to make Skate Jam the most faithful translation of Pro Skater to smart devices yet. High-definition graphics and a punk soundtrack, however, fail to mask poor touch controls and a preponderance of predatory microtransactions.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was an entrancing breath of fresh air when it launched on the PlayStation in October 1999. Unfortunately, Activision’s punishing annual release schedule drove developer Neversoft into increasingly iterative sequels and burnout over the following decade. Hastily-developed spinoffs and a disastrous reboot by Robomodo seemingly ruined what little goodwill remained for the franchise by 2015. With the hugely positive reception to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 in 2020, though, it seems that the series might finally be coming out of hibernation once more. It’s hard not to hope that a team of developers can yet again harness Tony Hawk’s infectious passion for skateboarding and give his brand a proper revival in the 2020s.
What do you think about Tony Hawk? Which is your skater or stage? How about your favorite soundtrack or song? What do you think the future of the series looks like. Let’s discuss in the comments below.
You can find me here at The Avocado or on Twitter as @SinginBrakeman. Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series; Season 2 Episode 1: Resident Evil is now available!
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As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #105: Shenmue – July 23
- #106: Spider-Man (Part 1) – August 6
- #107: Spider-Man (Part 2) – August 20
- #108: Advance Wars – September 3
- #109: Monster Hunter – September 17