Reviewed: November 21, 2005
Released: October 18, 2005
It seems like it was only yesterday that Activision unleashed its Tony Hawk series of games on an unsuspecting industry. It hasn’t taken long for the series to meld from its original timed, objective-based design on the 32 bit systems to the RPG-styled stories of the current generation of consoles. What hasn’t changed over the years is the awesome gameplay that has become synonymous with the series – gameplay that really makes gamers feel a part of the extreme onscreen action.
Activison has recently released Tony Hawk's American SK8Land for the handhelds. Promising huge worlds, a full trick list, and an engaging storyline – SK8Land sounds like the perfect culmination of the Hawk history for one last romp on the GBA. Does it work? Not really.
SK8Land tries to emulate the current console iteration of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland for the GBA. What this means is that SK8Land features shrunken renditions of California skating hotspots – including Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Francisco – and plots the Birdman, a girl named Mindy, and a handful of other skaters into a weakly scripted storyline which finds the group trying to revive a legendary (but now dilapidated) warehouse skatepark called SK8Land. As always with the Hawk games, the story is merely a means to loosely tie together a bunch of fetch-quest and “can you do this?” style missions – so the weak dialog and silly humor are fairly disposable compared to the action.
And the action is where it’s at with Ska8land. Featuring 200-plus tricks from the console games, the player will skate his way through the eight seamlessly chained worlds on a quest to achieving the stats, money and respect required to reach greater heights and pull off more impressive combos.
This really was my first dive into a handheld Hawk game and I was very impressed with how true SK8Land is to console Hawk games. I came in expecting a dumbed-down trick structure, with a lot of omitted details that keep the consoles flowing so well. Boy, was I wrong. Even with the confusing button layout, I was quickly pulling off all of the manuals and reverts needed to satisfy 20,000-point trick combo objectives and fill special meters for special tricks.
And that brings one of SK8Land’s biggest downfalls – the GBA’s layout is just not the same as the console controller, and playing SK8Land with only four buttons total (two face buttons and two shoulders) is nowhere near as user-friendly as playing on a standard eight button console controller.
While you may think less buttons would be less confusing, with the complexity of the Hawk games – the grabs, the flips, the grinds, the spins, the reverts, the stalls, etc. – trying to pack all of these tricks into four buttons means you have a lot of “press this and that, press that and this” muddling things up. On the consoles, it’s is pretty straightforward, on the handheld it’s a bit murky. Still, the developers have done a commendable job with what they have – it’s just a bit less friendly than the Hawk series is known for.
Where they developers did screw up was the level design – which is very bland and without a lot of the little trick spots and details that make the consoles so much fun. I mean, we have all spent hours just tricking around the console environments without calling up any objectives – the levels were that good. In SK8Land, roaming around just isn’t all that fun.
In fact, other than some of the concentrated skatepark-influenced levels, there isn’t much reason to go wandering around the cities, because there isn’t a whole lot to do. I mean, you can only grind so many curbs or Natas-spin so many fire hydrants before you want to get to some real tricking – and finding the relatively-few awkwardly-placed ramps just does not make for an exciting – or extreme – experience.
Still, the game is quite solid for what it is, and being able to play in the classic Hawk mode – which gives timed runs in which to collect certain objects, pull of certain combos, or clear certain obstacles – is a great addition, and works well with the short gaming jaunts that the handheld is made for.
Graphically, SK8Land looks absolutely phenomenal for what it is. Sure, it is nowhere near what we find on the consoles, PSP or even the DS – but the isometrically viewed skatefest is sharp, crisp and colorful, and the animations flow smoother than I ever expected on the little GBA.
Even though the whole world is shrunken down to fit in your palm, there is seldom a moment where you cannot distinguish trick from trick, or person from person. The view can get in the way a bit, making some hidden corners a bit nebulous with regard to their layout, but overall the world is nicely presented on the handheld.
I do wish the game featured a more planar-perspective, or even a map, to view placement of objects in the classic mode prior to your run – because the isometric often leaves you wandering about aimlessly trying to find some far-off “K” for a “collect S-K-A-T-E” challenge.
The Hawk games have always been lauded for their musical offerings, and SK8Land features some truly rockin’ riffs – for a handheld, that is. But this is the GBA; so do not go expecting all of the tunes we see on the consoles.
The sound effects are very true to the console versions – with all of the slaps, snaps grunts and scrapes that have become trademarks of the series. For old timers like me, it is always really impressive at first to hear such realistic sounds coming from a cartridge, forgetting how far technology has improved in the past few years. Still, technology or not, there are no voiceovers in the game – all dialogue between the characters is played out in text boxes.
SK8Land features eight of the same kind of large, sprawling environments we have come to expect from the Hawk games – so there is no shortage of exploration to be had. Sadly, while the levels are definitely as large, they are nowhere near as loaded with trick items as Hawk’s console brethren – so there is little incentive to just kick around tricking for fun. The story mode may be lame, but the addition of the “classic” Hawk mode makes for nice bite-sized servings of Hawk.
Multiplayer is a romp, but finding a pal to link with is always a trying matter. DS owner get to link up wirelessly – even across the Internet – so they really do get the better end of the bargain. Still, passing the GBA back and forth does not play out so badly, although it is a bit uncomfortable when you can’t watch each other play without invading each other’s personal space.
SK8Land seems to have all of the right ingredients that should make for an awesome handheld Hawk experience - but for some reason, the final product just is not all that engaging.
I am willing to forgive the complicated controls – the developers have done a solid job with what they were given. But, the lame story, boring level design, and mind numbing pacing just did not have me yearning for Hawk like the console versions have in the past.