It was a review of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins that got me a job writing about video games, but it was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 that fired my brain and helped me realise there's more to this journalism lark than describing the various ways in which you can stick a sword through someone's neck.
This game told me to stick around video games, that they're important and thrilling and this is an industry that will lead the way in entertainment. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 is an iconic piece of pop culture.
The gameplay is that classic arcade experience with two minute bursts of adrenaline and challenge. This was the PSone era where I'd played a million games in which I felt herded through an experience, controlling an elite killing agent unable to step over a knee-high fence. It was a frustrating world.
But into that came THPS2, and it gave me the tools to not just interact with the environment but to attack it, to see what would and wouldn't break and eventually change the very environment I'm playing in. Grinding the helicopter blades in The Hanger to send it smashing through the roof and leave new objects to trick off in the bowl was revolutionary to me.
In a time before Grand Theft Auto 3, the levels in THPS2 were huge and open to exploration, where working your way onto the roof of the School felt like you were actually skating outside of the level, getting a blissful few seconds to look down on the beauty that Neversoft had created before smashing back to the concrete. We were going places we had never been before.
It's the same enjoyment people get from a 2D fighting game, that quick burst of manic, wild gameplay that's sucks you in and keeps you focused purely on the experience. You're forced to react quickly and as efficiently as possible but you're also free to challenge the environment, be creative in your play and mess around with a huge trick set. Now we control things with a single touch of a screen or the wave of a silly remote, but THPS2 transplanted a ludicrously complex world of skill onto a joypad with ease.
There is so much to do in each level - whether that's just bagging a little extra cash, nailing a gap or discovering a completely new hidden area - that every two minute run feels like you're getting a welcome reward for all your effort. This isn't a cruel and stingy world - it's a generous and welcoming one. This game loves you playing it; see if you can work your way up there, here's some tweaks to your player stats to get a little better, and why not unlock some more moves to break out once the Special meter fills? Have it all and enjoy it. Fill your boots.
Aside from being a superbly tuned game, it also captured a moment and helped document a real-world scene. Skateboarding had been an underground influence on popular culture for a long time but it was now establishing itself as a true industry.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 took the world that had only previously been represented honestly by magazines like Big Brother and Thrasher, or VHS tapes like Hokus Pokus and Now N Later, and gave it another platform to grow. It was a genuine representation of the sport, the attitude, the fashion, the music and the madness. It was Jackass before Jackass. It was waking up early on a Saturday morning and taking a broom to the local half pipe to brush the rain off so it would dry a little quicker and be ready for skating. It was the scraped shins and grazed fingers and ollie patch on your favourite Airwalks.
We take real-world labels and music in our games for granted now but the first Tony Hawk's Pro Skateboarding and THPS2 nailed that from the off and repeated it multiple times after. While we quite rightly hated the idea of in-game advertising in our games, brands like World Industries, Girl, Hurley and Toy Machine were in our faces and had every right to be. It was perfectly natural for them to be there.
The soundtrack, too, was and still is just as important as the game itself. A few years previously I'd set up my own business producing a hiphop magazine, and the artists that had inspired me to do it were right there, on the soundtrack. Holy shit, that's Might Mi and Mos Def slamming out the speakers while I'm grinding the skate comp in Marseilles.
This just wasn't what I was used to hearing in a game, not one bit, and in return these music artists were hitting audiences they had never previously reached, opening up more ears than any release on CD ever could. This is the franchise that shook up the music industry and gave it a whole new world to interact with. Video games saved the record labels.
Once Neversoft and Activision were working on the third Tony Hawk title the bandwagon was thundering down a hill, with endless extreme sports knock-offs being announced and churned out at a ridiculous rate. Tony Hawk wasn't the first but it was the best skating series and it made all others irrelevant, kicking off an entire extreme sports genre that would eventually eat itself.
And working as a reviewer on a PlayStation 2 magazine at the time, I played every single extreme sports game going, whether another from Activision's roster of stars or a lesser publisher grasping to be down with the kids. Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer was good. Wakeboarding Unleashed was great. Jonny Moseley Mad Trix was all the fun of bailing on a rail slide and crunching your testicles. Also, who the f**k was Jonny Moseley?
So inevitably, like Elvis forced out to Vegas shows twice a day and overworked to death, the extreme sports genre collapsed wheezing, and Tony Hawk games went from bad to laughable. T.H.U.G., Project 8 and Wasteland had decent elements but were swamped with nonsense, where they even took the skateboard off us and asked us to walk, or even worse, drive. And who honestly thought using a plastic skateboard to control a video game was a good idea? I can't skate - that's why I'm playing a video game, you idiots.
And now we're back with the first two games getting a re-release in HD. I woke up at about 3am the other night and couldn't get back to sleep because I can't decide which version to buy. Part of me says it should be the PlayStation 3 version because of the controller, but I never play games on the PlayStation 3 because it's an awful machine. I still don't know what to do about it. But 12 yeas later and I'm still excited about the game.
The first two Tony Hawk games gave me something that I've only ever found in a handful of other games since (Def Jam: Fight for New York and DJ Hero, if you're asking). We slag publishers off for being money making machines and I'm sure there was plenty of dollars made from the Tony Hawk partnership. But by creating such an incredibly tuned gameplay experience with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, coupled with a true and respectful representation of a culture, Activision gave something back and helped a scene continue to grow.
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