Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It turned out to be a shockingly big week for the vaunted Tony Hawk franchise of skating games, huh? After slumping into a sickened and wheezing coma for more than a decade, the series not only got some forward movement on distribution of its long-in-the-works documentary, Pretending I’m A Superman, but also saw news break that the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games would be getting a 4k restoration later this year, just in time for the 20th anniversary of Pro Skater 2. It’s enough to make anyone feel that familiar, nostalgic rush, sending them hunting for a decent way to play any of the series’ classic titles, preferably via one of the 8,000 or so digital storefronts that have become an insidious part of our online lives. It’s then enough to make that same anyone say “Fuck,” loudly, because the only game in the entire 16-title franchise currently available for (legal) download is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, and that thing’s the goddamn pits.
We could ask what happened, but the answer is pretty obvious: Neversoft, the company that rose to prominence with the THPS franchise, died several years back, not long after handing the reins off to Robomodo, a group of probably very nice developers who spent the next 10 years pumping out Tony Hawk mobile games, motion-controlled spin-offs, and remakes, before culminating their careers—literally, it killed the studio—with 2015’s THPS 5. Given that that game has appeared on more than one “worst game of all time” list, it’s difficult to tell, right now, whether Robomodo was especially bad at making Tony Hawk games, or Neversoft just especially good; in addition to lackluster graphics and level design, THPS 5 was heavily criticized for lacking “flow,” that all-important, intangible sense of rhythm, control, and instinct that made the classic games in the series feel so good. Either way, the truth remains: With Robomodo and Neversoft both gone, there was nobody around to stump for those older games—the first 4 Pro Skaters, plus the Bam Margera-ified Underground games, American Wasteland, Project 8, and Proving Ground—and push workable version of them onto the PSN store or Steam.
Meanwhile, other franchises attempted to fill the gap—most notably EA Black Box’s Skate and its sequels, which purported to inject realism into the genre by planting foot controls in the controller’s analog sticks, rather than just assigning them to buttons the way the Hawk games did. But while they’re interesting experiments (and sometimes even fun) the Skate games could never match the arcade game joy of blowing through a two-minute THPS level, collecting secret tapes, smashing through windows, and executing ludicrous telephone wire grinds. (For whatever reason, the indie scene has adopted realism as the go-to model, though, with both Sessions and Skater XL battling it out for fans on Steam.) Anyone who has a (legal, we’re sure) copy of Tony Hawk Underground 2 installed on the computer can indulge in the multiplayer mayhem of diehard mod THUG Pro, but the irony is that the truest inheritors of the Tony Hawk legacy that you can easily play right now are Roll7's OlliOlli and its sequel, which at least capture the “I can definitely fit one more kickflip into this combo” tension that made THPS such a series of delightful tooth-grinding moments. (Also a candidate, bizarrely: Goat Simulator, but that’s so filled with parodic elements and loose physics that it’s difficult to say it counts.)
It’s going to be fascinating to see whether Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will be able to reclaim the crown when it arrives this September. Vicarious Visions, the studio developing it, actually has a deep catalog with the franchise, having previously developed most of its GBA and DS versions—interesting games in their own right, insofar as they’re pretty good executions of the very weird idea of making a handheld, isometric Tony Hawk game. It’s possible that we’ve been giving Robomodo too hard of a time, and that the crispness of modern graphics just don’t jibe well with the forgiving, cartoony feel of classic Tony Hawk action. The new/old game is a huge question mark, one that a whole generation of hopes are resting on—especially since Activision refuses to just drop emulated version of the old games anywhere we can get them.
But hey: At least we know the soundtrack will probably kick ass.