You know this: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is a benchmark. It has defined the standard that the majority of skating titles have aspired to since its release in 1999. Though the core concept of the title has stagnated a little with each subsequent rehash (a rot Neversoft hope to stop Tony Hawk's Underground), revisiting the PSone original again on a handheld feels... right. Well, almost.
Tony, meet Ollie
Say what you like about the N-Gage, but this is an achievement. After the initial massive disappointment that was Super Monkey Ball, I set the THPS card into the back of the phone with a sense of dread. Expectations were not high. But things quickly changed within five minutes of play as our old mate Tony ollied, kickflipped, railed and generally had a merry old time on his plank in a warehouse.
The prevailing feeling once you start your first game is one of surprise. Tony Hawk N-Gage is surprisingly complete; the frame rate is surprisingly smooth; the animation is surprisingly detailed and the levels are surprisingly all present and correct in their original forms. Couple all this with the licensed music backing up the scrapes and thuds that soundtrack the game, and it all feels surprisingly familiar.
Naturally, it takes a while to get used to the strange aspect ratio of the N-Gage's screen, but thankfully the skaters don't block much of your already limited view. The controls take some getting used to as well but they are at least thoughtfully laid out, with the raised 5 button handling ollies and jumps, 2 for grinds and handplants, and 4 and 6 for flips and grabs respectively. Once your thumb knows where to put itself on the cramped button layout, it becomes easy to slip back into those comfy old THPS skating shoes and start pulling ludicrously named acrobatics out of your repertoire once again.
The career mode forms the core of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, with players unlocking each level by collecting tapes in previous sessions. They achieve this by defeating various goals outlined in a briefing, and there are a number of constants that each level offers - high and pro score tapes, hidden tapes, collecting the letters S-K-A-T-E - as well as design-specific objectives like grinding picnic tables in the school, or smashing signs around town.
Veterans of the game will find themselves ploughing through the career mode extremely quickly thanks to prior experience, but I can imagine new players are going to struggle locating mission objectives on some of the more sprawling levels when they don't have memories of the original spread across a 21" TV to rely on. However, a problem that will be common for all players will be achieving the higher scores that the latter levels demand, as the buttons simply aren't conducive to the nimble trickery your thumb needs to perform. With the lack of moves like the manual or the revert (introduced in later titles, they allowed arrangements of tricks to technically be strung together indefinitely, resulting in some truly astounding scores), attempting to get those higher scores does feel more of a chore than it should.
Bird on a wireless
Tony Hawk's N-Gage incarnation does have a competent compliment of multiplayer capabilities and online features that extends the life of the game once you've exhausted the appeal of vandalising shopping centres, schools and town centres with your wheeled plank of doom. Sadly I wasn't able to get Tony Hawk's online features running properly on my mobile network, but it seems Activision weren't able to take THPS properly online over N-Gage Arena anyway, with scoring competitions against other players limited to playing against a pre-recorded ghost - the closest to online multiplayer that we're likely to get this side of a PS2 and Tony Hawk 3 or 4.
Still, as long as you've got a friend with an N-Gage and another copy of THPS (you have, right?), you have all the original two-player modes at your disposal: graffiti, high score battles, tag and SKATE race are recreated for wireless play over Bluetooth, and they work really rather well. The standout mode is undoubtedly graffiti, in which each player attempts to 'tag' the most areas of the level by performing the highest scoring trick, the victor being the player with the most tags. It‘s a great excuse to hurl frantically concocted insults at each other, but occasional frame rate problems threaten to ruin the party.
The frame rate isn't the only technical issue thrown up here either, as THPS' new engine - crafted by Ideaworks 3D - often mimics the PSone version (along with just about every other PSone game ever) with warping polygons and flickering textures when you get too close to flat surfaces, as well as some fairly ghastly pop-up on the more open levels. It should be noted that these glitches rarely detract from the otherwise smooth experience, and it's simply a wonder to see something like this even running at all on a handheld machine, but if there's one thing we've learnt writing about games it's that someone will always care.
Tony Hawk on the N-Gage is probably the best of an early bunch - it's faithful to the original, 3D without the gratuity and consistently rough frame rate of Super Monkey Ball, and it's a lot of fun to play - but it's also a four-year-old game, and one that has surpassed itself several times in the years since. Quite simply, there are things in Tony Hawk's 2, 3 and 4 that we have adopted as extreme sports law, and the original game feels hamstrung as a result. On the bright side, it's still more satisfying than any of the slightly dull GBA interpretations thanks to Ideaworks 3D's sterling work on the engine and mechanics, and it's unquestionably the finest game in the N-Gage launch line-up. Would I suggest you buy an N-Gage to play it? No, buy a PS2 and a bargain bin copy of the original. Or a bargain bin copy of the second, third or fourth. However, despite our concerns, N-Gage owners floundering for something of genuine quality need look no further.