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.
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.
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.
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.