By the summer of 2000, I had sunk more time into the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater demo than most entire video games (thanks Official Dreamcast Magazine!). I had missed out on THPS the first time around with the initial PlayStation release. Then I missed out again with the N64 port. It wasn’t until the Dreamcast version that I finally had a chance to properly fall in love with the game. Perhaps you could say the third time was a charm?
In some ways, Neversoft’s skateboarding opus was a novel reprieve from the types of games dominating the zeitgeist at the time. Around the turn of the millennium, gaming trends favored more robust, progression-heavy experiences that players could sink their teeth into over prolonged campaign/story/franchise modes. These trends emerged amid a diminishing presence of repetition-focused, arcade-style fare. At a time when elaborate simulations, cinematic narratives, online competition, and kinetic violence ruled the gaming world, good old fashioned score attack games were becoming depressingly niche.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was happy to rebel against — or at least delay buckling to — some of those influences. Punctuated by its (mostly) punk soundtrack, THPS gave few fucks what the other popular kids were doing.
As a phenomenon in gaming and broader culture, THPS buck(y lasek)ed those trends with a bold style of its own. Of course, the game’s approach wasn’t entirely new. It featured a platformer-like goal structure centering on exploration and collecting within its smartly exaggerated yet deceptively practical spaces. At its heart was a methodical sandbox of ramps, rails, and trick lines, all ripe for limitless trick combos and massive scores to entrench players in a perpetual cycle of can’t stop nows and just one more tries. Through its infectious risk/reward hook, Tony Hawk tapped into a rare confluence of strategy, improvisation, and greed to paint the thinnest and most thrilling of lines between triumphant payoff and abject failure. In many ways, THPS appealed more to the score attack sensibilities of NiGHTS into Dreams, Crazy Taxi, or chain-based shmups than other popular conventions of the era.
Fast forward a year or two and Tony Hawk 1 and 2 had cemented themselves as perennial personal favorites. You know how there are certain games that you can just boot up any time — regardless of what you’re in the mood to play — and your consciousness sort of evaporates into a familiar haze? Like, maybe you’re focused, maybe you’re not, but muscle memory always takes the reins to some degree and that’s kinda OK because you can zone out and decompress while playing half-mindlessly (or half-mindfully)? The early Tony Hawk games basically became that for me. And given their ludicrous popularity, they might also have for you (statistically speaking).
When the original Xbox launched with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x — a.k.a. the first updated rerelease of both THPS 1 and 2 — buying it was a no brainer…eventually. THPS2x received a fairly muted reception at launch, as the freshly-released third game had expanded the breadth and scope of the series considerably. With plenty of other, more uniquely next gen Xbox games to play around launch, 2x was not a day one purchase for me. I actually ended up buying it a few months later while on a weekend trip to Vancouver, BC. The Virgin Megastore (R.I.P.) had a small room of video games upstairs and — between a moderate discount and favorable exchange rates — I got a pretty good deal on it (for whatever reason you might care).
As part of this series of OG Xbox launch retrospectives, I decided to revisit that old copy of THPS2x to see if it’s everything I remembered. And for better or worse, it is. I loaded up my years-old career save and quickly shred the opening hanger level with a maxed-stat Tony Hawk and trusty S-type Xbox controller, which I swiftly handed over to familiarity and instinct. Just like the old days — and last year’s THPS 1 & 2 HD remake — THPS2x was perfectly enjoyable but I wasn’t really in it. I was so familiar with these games, it felt like I was playing them on autopilot.
I needed to mix things up, so I wiped that old save and started a brand new run where I’d stick to two sacred rules:
The Duke only: I’ve worn out my share of Microsoft’s sensibly comfortable S-type controllers over the years. The S is still a solid gamepad and I rarely use anything else when playing OG Xbox games. On the other hand, the notoriously bulky Duke controller has always been clunky and cumbersome, and it’s especially ill-suited for games requiring rapid, precise inputs like THPS. At the very least, I figured it’d at least inject a little chaos into the mix and jar me out of complacency with some added unpredictability between my actions and intent. On that, the Duke delivered.
No upgrades: Additionally, I’d continue to collect as much of the hidden cash icons strewn about the levels as possible but I would commit to spending nothing. Not on boards. Not on tricks. And certainly not on stat upgrades. In this playthrough, the Birdman would never learn to fly. Granted, even without upgrading any of his abilities, Tony’s default vert stats aren’t terrible. His respectable default air and spin abilities still made it easy to pull off 720 grabs on a whim in a half pipe, so that much didn’t change. However, his poor default street skating skills — particularly ollies and rail/lip balancing (some the first things I’d normally upgrade) — were very noticeable deficiencies.
Underfoot these handicaps, I actually felt less restricted and more surprised by how they forced me to approach the game in new ways. I immediately took less for granted. Unable to extend Tony’s hangtime and rail/lip balance forced me to make a lot more deliberate, moment-to-moment considerations based on what I could and couldn’t do. Any additional rotations I wanted to milk out of a grab trick or extra distance on a rail grind became a careful exercise in greed management. I couldn’t have it all, for once, and it felt good.
Sometimes my thumb would simply hit the wrong face button — awkwardly rounded and scrunched together as they are on the Duke — or I’d fail to press a button squarely enough for it to register and fuck up the combo anyway. Rather than frustrate, this tinge of unreliability simply felt like an extension of the game’s risk/reward system. Despite my best intentions, not everything was going to work out exactly how I wanted. Sometimes shit gets messy and there’s a certain freedom in being at peace with that. At the very least, every half-million-point combo that ended with Tony spurting blood chunks on the pavement made the ones that didn’t feel even more rewarding.
I also grew more spatially attuned to the environments I was skating around. This was particularly true of the later THPS2 levels — New York, Venice Beach, and Philadelphia — which seemed designed with the assumption that the skater’s natural progression of stat upgrades would better enable them to reach the more elaborately-placed goal collectables like “S-K-A-T-E” letters, hidden tapes, and cash icons. By this point, speed and air height were relatively rare commodities, requiring me to plan out how I could generate (and maintain) enough of both to reach higher areas.
It took me more than a dozen runs of exploring and experimenting just to figure out how to consistently grind the awning in Philly. I ultimately found a single quarter-pipe where I could gather speed, then circle the long way around an awkward grass patch to better align myself with a small ramp to reach the awning from a manageable angle. After that, maintaining enough balance when grinding the long cables suspended above the level to drain the fountain became another ordeal of its own. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t rely on a little luck (and some very generous hit detection) to nab the more elusive goal and cash items.
Overall, these limitations made me rethink my approach to fundamental aspects of the game. They forced me to do a lot more with less, and reckon with my inability to improvise with impunity. They encouraged me to plan and strategize my basic traversal around THPS 1 & 2’s spaces, and to be more intentional with the trick combos I attempted to pull off. More broadly, I’ve come to better appreciate how Neversoft’s brilliantly-crafted spaces flow and function as both platforming spaces and trick-attack sandboxes, on top of being practical, microcosmic depictions of real-life locales.
Twenty years onward, Neversoft’s design ethos endures as a masterclass in how games can let players spin infinite, memorable tales of their own triumphs and fuck ups, one more try at a time.