Version tested: GameBoy Advance
The legend continues
You're a gamer. You've come here to read about games, because you know and love games. We all do. One of the great things about being a gamer (besides the games) is that when you're sitting in the pub on a Friday night and somebody says "so, I've just bought Generic Platformer 4 for my Dreamcast, is it any good?", you can wheel round (if you weren't already facing them) and yell, "No! It's pants! You've wasted £35 on something that is better suited to dressing your tackle!" On the other hand though, your reputation as a gamer also singles you out as a fountain of knowledge on the subject of good games. So, while your blurry-eyed friend has to stare ashen-faced at the titles on display in his local gamery, you can glance knowingly at the shelves and spot the titles beaming 'Yes, I am good. Play me.' Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and its even finer sequel are both such titles which sit in this enviable position. They are the games which all the other extreme sports games so want to be when they grow up. Can the THPS series ever falter? With the release of the Game Boy Advance version of Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2, we're about to find out. The announcement of THPS2 on the GBA seemed a little strange to me, because back then I was slightly naive of the machine's capabilities and wondered how on earth the same fluid, energetic and (I'm going out on a limb here) almost balletic gameplay could be ported across to a screen slightly smaller than a cream cracker. The team in charge of the port, Vicarious Visions, have actually done a sterling job of recreating each of the PlaySation versions skating locales from a curious fixed isometric viewpoint. The packaging boasts "advanced 3D graphics", whereas the only actual 3D models are the skaters themselves - the levels are no more than pre-rendered backdrops. From this viewpoint, the feel of the game is entirely in the handling of your skater. The way the characters glide into the air out of half-pipes feels almost no different to its more mature console sibling, and this surprises me. A lot. The other major achievement is the control system, which is just as intuitive and easy to manage as you have come to expect from the series. The A and B buttons take care of the grinding and jumping respectively, whilst the shoulder buttons handle the tricks. If you're a THPS veteran, it's a combination that feels natural as soon as you start playing, although the slightness of the GBA's design can occasionally result in aching fingers as you try to get a decent grip whilst pulling off frenetic combos.
A fresh perspective
The game itself is exactly the same as in previous incarnations. You choose from a wide variety of skaters and then take them through a 'career' of seven different levels, each converted into isometric form from their 3D relatives. Every level has at least some of its secret little quirks and secrets intact, and once you're used to the perspective you'll soon be finding your way around them like you're arrived back in your home town after a few years. The tasks which you are required to fulfill in order to progress are also the same, although because of the limitations of your perspective and without the luxury of a fully 3D environment, the challenge is upped somewhat from the original. Gaps become a lot trickier to judge, ramps become harder to take straight, and even the simplest of rail combos is a major accomplishment. The task of locating all the money, letters and icons is still ever-present in the back of your mind, but the camera position practically encourages exploration before you even begin to attempt your tasks, which emphasises one of the stronger points of THPS2 - the level design is genius at work. The only obvious problem is that on structure-heavy levels, such as the school, your precise position in relation to the buildings can occasionally become a bit of a mystery as the roofs of some buildings blend into the adjacent ground, and it's not until your skater ghosts out to indicate that you're actually behind the building and you go careering into a wall you couldn't see that you realise what went wrong. Your limited viewpoint also becomes a problem when attempting a session in some of the games half-pipes, simply because you don't expect your skater to come flying up the other side of the ramp because you can't see it, however pretty much all of this is alleviated somewhat once you get used to the angle.
What's endearing about THPS2 on the GBA is that it's by no means original, and there aren't even any new ideas save for the admittedly very clever pseudo-3D, but it's almost like a new game - Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2b if you like. For veterans of the original, it's a chance to replay the game again from a fresh perspective and in a new style, and for those who are new to the game... well, they wont know what hit them. An impressive accomplishment.
8 / 10