How all the time in the world spoiled the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series

I’ve been trying to pin down the precise differences between console- and arcade-style games. I’ve never been especially confident in how to explain the appeal of personal arcade favourites like Time Crisis 2, House of the Dead 2, Metal Slug, and too many shooters to name, over the meatier games associated with consoles. It’s not that I don’t like console games – far from it! – but I associate the short, intense and replayable experiences of arcade games with gaming on a deep level. Analysing the qualities that make arcade games special is the main topic of this post, but it comes courtesy of an unlikely source: the console-only Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series.

In a nutshell: all play and no work makes Tony Hawk’s a dull boy.

Over the past several months, I’ve gone back through the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series from the second through to the fourth entry. I have serious adolescent nostalgia attached to all these games, and returning to this series’ heyday has been great. Seeing the changes throughout the series made me consider its evolution in more depth. Besides a new batch of levels to grind up, each new game added a new gameplay mechanic of note: the second game added manuals (major), the third added reverts (big), and the fourth added skitching and… spine transfers?

For the fourth entry in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, Neversoft also removed the universal two minute time limit from previous games to give the game more of an “open world” feel – a far more significant change than skitching. Freed from time limits, players were able to explore in larger levels and accept individual challenges from NPCs dotted around the level. This seemingly trivial move, away from timed levels and an always available checklist of goals, transformed the series in subtle but significant ways.

Tony Hawk’s 4 is a far cry from the early days of Spidey.

Having to seek out NPCs to obtain challenges and the lack of a universal timer removed the pressure, but also the focus, of the first three games. The old mantra of “I’d better get on with it then” was replaced by a new one: “I have all the time in the world to explore and unlock stuff”.

The two minute limit is the central arcade-inspired feature in the early Pro Skater games. From the moment go in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1, 2 and 3, there’s an impulse to maximise the time available to you. If you don’t get a move on, you’ll never score big or complete the goals. All objectives are available at all times, and you’re free to choose which one (if any) to pursue at any given time… but that timer never stops ticking. Crucially, every second counts. In their design, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1, 2 and 3 channel the concentratedness and competitiveness of the arcade experience.

ONE SECOND TO GO

By contrast, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 rarely provides any incentive to perform tricks or rack up combos during exploration. The game keeps track of a few stats, like your longest grind/manual, but there is no high score table. To participate in a score challenge, you have to first locate the relevant NPC and accept their challenge. It’s an opt-in challenge, and after you beat a predetermined score the challenge automatically ends. The game feels more free, but as a result it also feels aimless because your actions don’t count towards anything in particular, most of the time.

Obviously, people are drawn to different things in games. And there are many potential drawbacks and advantages to different design philosophies. Arcade games can feel overly restrictive and place intense pressure on the player. Console games can seem bloated, aimless or padded. Despite these, it is striking how strong the current gaming industry’s preference is for the console school of design. That sucks – a bit – and so does Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.

Sorry, my original plan was to publish the second part of “How I lost control”, but an unexpected setback (namely being sent a controller for the wrong system) forced a delay. Please look forward to that soon!

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5 comments

  1. Aether

    I’d agree Tony Hawk 4 felt a lot more aimless than the previous games. I think it’s more of a design issue than just the removal of time limits. But I don’t know. I wasn’t much of an arcade player, and that may affect where I’m coming from. I’ve been playing through a lot of games of that era lately, and finding myself chafing against the arbitrary time limits a lot of games used to provide challenge. Doesn’t really fit with the way I like to play.

    • veryverygaming

      True, Tony Hawk 4 may just not be a very good open world game! Out of interest, what kind of games have you been playing lately with restrictive time limits? What resonates with me in the earlier Tony Hawk games is being able to hop into a level and complete multiple objectives in one run. High score, pro score, sick score, SKATE, hidden tape in two mins… it’s incredibly satisfying. There are some goals though that are tedious with a time limit – stuff like ollie the magic bum, find 5 spray cans or whatever. For me, it’s all about the game stating your goals upfront and pushing you to complete them without delay.

      • Aether

        Simpsons Hit and Run and Destroy All Humans have been the worst offenders, in my recent playtime. So I guess it’s been the less polished open world games, come to think of it. Which is a style that Tony Hawk 4 fits into pretty cleanly.

  2. moresleepneeded

    I have only played one Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games and I think it was the fourth one (it was available on the GameCube). I did not realise that the previous games required the player to find and complete challenges within a time limit, I was used to exploring an area to find characters to issue a challenge. I have always found it interesting how the game creates challenges (along with a reason) based on Pro Skater techniques. I do not think I realised that the player was supposed to perform stunts while looking for challenges.
    How did the original games work? Did the player choose an area and given a time limit to find and complete challenges? Or did the player just have to perform as many stunts as possible within the time limit?

  3. Pingback: Lesenswert: Horror, Halloween, Orks, NPCs in Mittelerde, Zeitlimits, Sim City & Co. – SPIELKRITIK.com

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