Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Or, as I like to call it, Tony Hawk's Pro Fever Dream.
Think about it. As a real-life pro skater, you might spend three hours out of every day practicing. Three hours trying new tricks, screwing up and the ground abruptly slipping out from under you. Imagine living your life in that fog of frustration, embarrassment, adrenaline and pride. Now let's imagine you got really sick, swallowed, like, nine Paracetamols and passed out in bed.
THPS2 is what you'd dream.
You're fastened to your skateboard. There can be no leaving the skateboard. Do not leave the skateboard. You are alone in an empty school, skate park, or maybe someplace more surreal - an airport hangar or Spanish bull-fighting arena that's full of rails and half-pipes for some reason. There isn't a soul to be seen, yet when you pull off a trick you can still hear the roaring of the crowd. Where could they be? Maybe Tony Hawk knows.
There are objectives, of course. Not that anybody tells you them. It is simply very important that you crash through barrels, collect floating letters, do tricks, score points, jump this gap, grind that rail, wallride the bells, drain the fountain, collect the secret tape. You want to be a pro skater? Then you must ollie over the magical bum, five times.
"Of course," you say, no longer sure if you're controlling the skater or the skateboard itself, which would make the human on your back some unknowable, silent burden who (if the dream scientists are to be believed) probably represents your mother.
But there is more dream logic to THPS2 than its cavernous levels and strange objectives. At odds with the bland, real-looking world, the way the game controls and your skater's velocity are exaggerated. It's more like what a pre-teen skateboarder thinks is possible if they just believe.
It starts off slow, with reality maintaining a half-hearted grip on you. Your ollies are little things, and your grinds and wall-rides end quickly. But every half hour that you invest furthers your Karate Kid-like mastery of the controls, and all those points and dollars that won't stop tumbling in are hoisting up your skater's stats.
In a twisted interpretation of the fact that the best part of real-life skating is learning to do something you couldn't before, THPS2 ends up pushing you so high it's ridiculous. By the end of career mode you're capable of getting 25 feet of air off the tiniest quarter pipe, and stringing six or seven different tricks together before landing. You're not skating, you're soaring, and the few objectives in your list that seemed laughable at first are suddenly within reach of you and your magnificent talents.
Not only does THPS2 let non-skaters skate, it lets skaters and non-skaters alike push against the envelope of what's possible in reality. If real-life skateboarding can be compared to a hopeless battle against friction and gravity, THPS2 uses the fact that it's a videogame to actually let you win.
As an aside, what on Earth is this year's Tony Hawk: RIDE? Does it even know it's a videogame? I was originally going to say something about how RIDE 2 will come with an even more advanced peripheral with working wheels known as the Activision Realboard(TM) and that the included game DVD will fold out into a series of rails to distribute around your garden, but it's too obvious a joke now. However, I would love to meet the demographic Activision is aiming for with RIDE. You know, all those people who enjoy skateboarding games, but what they'd prefer is a mass-produced piece of plastic they can wobble around on top of like a jerk.
But to say THPS2 got the scores it did (choice pullquote: "It's so good it should come with a warning label - or at least some methadone!") because of its interpretation of skateboarding as a game isn't the whole truth. Mostly, it got the score it did because back then Neversoft was capable of creating something that felt tactile to the point of crunchiness, with breathtakingly tricky challenges and perfect controls.
To put it another way, what's the most important part of any skateboarding videogame? If you think it's the falling over, you're half right. If you think it's the getting back up, you're correct. It's certainly not the £60 plastic skateboard.
Failing a trick and faceplanting the ground is an intrinsic part of skateboarding. Its potential occurrence is what makes the activity exciting, and it not happening is your goal for any stunt. Few videogames offer such a stark contrast between success and failure as the almost binary division of skateboarding. You either pull off an amazing stunt, or you fall right on your ass bone and walk funny for the rest of your life.
Therefore in a good skateboarding videogame there's no room for unfairness, awkward controls or soft, unpredictable physics. When the player falls over, they have to know it was their fault. This is what makes you get back up and try a trick over and over for upwards of 10 minutes. This solidity; this knowledge that it's not you versus the game, it's just you.
THPS2 has a world as hard as diamond. It has controls which are easy to learn, take a good dozen hours to master and work 100 per cent of the time. And while its physics are exaggerated, they are consistent. These are the fundamentals you need in a skateboarding game before you can start worrying about quests or destructible environments or Nail The Trick or hospital bills or plot or any of the other ridiculous additions the Tony Hawk's franchise has spent the last few years dicking about with during its downhill jam.
THPS2 has no plot, objectives that made literally no sense, and the PSX version went on to score 98 on Metacritic. Here's what you've got to do, Activision: get Neversoft, put them in a room, sit them down, maybe get them a drink, and write the following on the whiteboard: "Super Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2". I mean, hey, a guy can dream.