Sometime between muscle memory returning and getting frustrated enough to almost throw a controller this week, why I loved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 13 years ago hit me. I can’t set up a 40-hit combo in Marvel vs. Capcom nor do I have the wherewithal to play through an entire season of Madden, but successfully cramming kickflips in between grinds and Christ Airs was second nature. For whatever reason, virtual skateboarding clicked for me. I could even beat my friends at it.
I spent most of high school playing the original incarnations, with two solid years devoted to the fourth—and best—entry. The series waned after that and went down some unfamiliar paths, trying to please everybody and as a result not pleasing anybody. Cutting back to the most important features is the M.O. for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD. Gone are superfluous absurdities like bulky plastic peripherals or tuner-car racing that plagued later entries in the franchise. What’s here is a distillation of everything that made the series awesome in the first place: addictive one-more-try action, tight level design and a rockin’ soundtrack. Developer Robomodo’s laser-sharp focus on recreating the original experience that not only launched careers but a cultural shift is apparent everywhere; there’s nary a milligram of fat to trim. This is a near-perfect cut of gaming history.
What speaks loudest is just how well it’s aged. Visuals and modern amenities like online multiplayer, leaderboards and posting high scores to Facebook aside, the underlying mechanics and level designs are well over a decade old. That they still work as well today as they did over a dozen years ago speaks to the chops of the original developer Neversoft. Playing most other games from that era isn’t a pleasant experience today, but nailing a perfect trick line coming off the initial ramp in “Warehouse” is as fiendishly addictive now as it was sitting suffocated by Febreeze in my parents’ den all those years ago. Even more impressive is how adding mechanics introduced in THPS 2 to levels from the first game doesn’t break or exploit them in any way. THPS 2 added the ability to link tricks together over the ground by doing a wheelie. Its levels were designed to accommodate this and thus were, comparatively, less dense, giving players more room to experiment with how many tricks they could fit into a combo. Here it makes high scores and trick lines I never knew existed in levels from the first game possible.
Making changes to the original level geometry is tantamount to sacrilege, so Robomodo left their mark in unobtrusive ways. There may be a certain irony in collecting five boxes for a digitally distributed game, but, for the most part, only diehard fans will recognize new goals as not being in the originals. Where the developer’s creativity shines most is in unlockable modes “Hawkman” and “Projectives.” With the former, colored pellets are scattered throughout an area, only collectible by doing the proper trick through them; yellow for grinds, red for air tricks, etc. What’s genius is how it lays out exactly where the best lines are for each area—in order to complete a level you need to collect them all under a time limit. It’s the simplest presentation of THPS’s core: combos, tricks and perfectionist stress. The latter is a callback to THPS 4’s end-game Pro Challenges. They unlock once you nab 100% of the goals in each previous level but there’s a twist: the usual two minute time limit is halved and the challenge is doubled. Collecting S-K-A-T-E letters in any order is one thing, but can you nab the C-O-M-B-O letters strewn across “Venice Beach” in a single combo? Just when I thought I’d seen everything THPS HD had it surprised me, revealing yet another layer.
THPS HD isn’t a quick-and-dirty up-scaled port cashing in on nostalgia like so many other HD re-releases, it’s a masterful presentation of one of gaming’s true timeless classics with a few new wrinkles. No, it doesn’t include a create-a-park or create-a-skater modes, but it’s hard to complain when it gives so much and in return asks only for your patience and skill.
Timothy J. Seppala is a Michigan-based freelance writer. You can find his work in @Gamer magazine, Sound + Vision, and elsewhere. For profanity and Arrested Development references, follow him on Twitter.