Dusty Discs: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2

I’ve played games that I’ll never remember. Entire hours of my life are missing from my mind. Not because I have the brain of a 93 year old and keep forgetting my vitamins, but because some games simply aren’t memorable. Memorability is the key to success.

Not necessarily financial success. You’re unlikely to make much, if any, money from a game a few years after release - unless your name is Valve, Blizzard or Bethesda. But cultural longevity, induction into hallowed halls of fame and, more importantly, a lasting place in the memories of individuals for years to come - this is the path to true immortality.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (Neversoft, 2000) is the most memorable game of my childhood. Judging by metacritic scores, best-of lists, and the word on the street, I’m not alone in this experience. Many readers of this site will be of my generation - 90s kids! And you know you’re a 90s kid when you remember Pokemons and Digimons, you’ve got moderate coeliac disease and an old foot fracture that still hurts on winter mornings! Just me? Fine. Whatever ‘bro’.

Discrete, beautifully themed levels were a staple of the 90s. Technology couldn’t give gamers the open worlds that they wanted, so developers worked hard to create the illusion of geographic spread. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was no different - players could grind their way through airforce hangers, seaside hangouts, and schools closed for the summer. But this amount of variety was extremely common. What really set THPS2 apart was the gameplay. While games like Gran Turismo (Polyphony Digital, 1997) and Driver (GT Interactive, 1999) had players locked into their cars, this game had players locked to their skateboard for the entirety of the experience. This was a limitation that spawned a number of exciting totally radical opportunities.

Take Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, or any other game with good platforming controls. Players can go forwards, go backwards, step sideways, turn around, jump, crouch, and often scale walls and ledges. They can move quickly, slowly, or come to a standstill more or less instantly. These tight and responsive controls enable players to perform actions analogous to the ones encountered in their own lives, and this results in game levels designed around the player’s inherent ability to understand and navigate 3D spaces as they would in the real world.

In THPS2, you are on a skateboard. No more walking for you. Momentum is now your God. You can only go forward and backwards, and all horizontal movement is performed in curves with a minimum radius. You can’t climb surfaces angled at more than a couple dozen degrees, your ability to accelerate relies almost entirely on the use of downward slopes, and if you jump into a wall or land poorly, you’ll crash and bleed and cry.

Restricting players to this sort of movement might seem unusual ridonk, especially given gameplay conventions in recent skating games. But the levels in THPS2 were designed to work with this unconventional movement system in constructive and exciting ways, and I think this was the key to the game’s memorability.

It would have been for easy for Neversoft to take ten real-world, purpose-built skateparks, dump them into the game and leave it at that. While THPS2 does feature a couple of levels like this - including close replicas ‘Skatestreet’ in California, and the Marseilles Skatepark in France - the majority of areas are far more interesting and unusual: they’re built as though they belong in a good platformer game.

Players are taught early on that there are ‘gaps’ within the levels of THPS2 - certain areas where they may earn extra points by grinding over a specific rail or making a particularly challenging jump. There are also collectibles within the levels that players are required to pick up in order to earn the money that enables progression - collectibles such as floating letters that spell out ‘S.K.A.T.E.’, video cassettes, and location-specific mementos.

The twin goals that make up the gameplay of THPS2 - earning points and gathering collectibles - are used to invite players to engage with the levels as though they are playing a platformer. The game takes the core principles of platformers - exploration, adventure, and spatial dexterity - and blends these with skating to create a truly unique experience in which players must use their skating skills in incredibly acrobatic ways to further their mobility.

It’s wicked sick (sic).

Players are introduced to this idea in the first level, ‘The Hanger’. A collectible badge hovers over a propeller that’s mounted on the wall. If players grind along this propeller to get the collectible, the propeller spins, a door opens, and the players gain access to a narrow wind-tunnel area that contains a half-pipe and extra cash.

The next level, ‘School II’, takes some small, well-known real world skating locations and mashes them together in a fictional high-school. As players follow a predictable route through the level, they’ll likely see a thick wire running from one rooftop to the next. As they skate around the level, this wire and the rooftops that it connects remain relatively central, and it’s likely the player will realize that the wire signals that there is a route from one rooftop to the next. At a minimum, they'll understand that this wire or the rooftops probably constitute a 'gap', and they could earn extra points if they could get up there. There’s a large window overlooking these rooftops, and the player knows from the Hanger level that transparent glass may be breakable. 

And so begins a process of problem-solving, with the player skating around the area, looking at this potential bundle of points hanging above them, and figuring out how to reach it. In a regular platformer, the figuring-out would be the core challenge - the actual act of jumping from one ledge to another becomes relatively trivial, especially with the power-ups the player is granted in games like Crash Bandicoot Warped.

In THPS2, however, the movement system makes the challenge far more skill-based. Players must use (in a way that’s almost exploitative) legitimate point-earning trick techniques as well as their understanding of the laws of momentum in order to be successful. To reach the grindable wire in the example above, players must build a significant amount of speed in an improvised half-pipe, use this speed in conjunction with a small ramp to wall-ride up to a ledge, break through the window, survive a long drop onto one rooftop and and then maintain their speed through the course of several rooftop jumps. A tall order!

The game expands on this idea throughout, raising the stakes and the difficulty. Players are led, through the game design, to develop their mastery of the game’s unusual and initially difficult movement system to the point where they can traverse the levels with much the same skill and efficiency as a good platformer player dealing with normal platforming controls. Eventually, it becomes second nature, and players are able to add moments of flair to their acrobatics - a kickflip during a difficult jump or an unusual grind trick en route to their main objective.

For years I’ve looked back on Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 with fondness. I never really knew why it was so special to me beyond having nostalgic value. In preparing for this article, however, I realized that the success of the game was due to its purity. Neversoft took platforming conventions, added a unique movement system, and then designed the levels around that. There weren’t any power-ups or special abilities that made things easier for the player. Players ‘unlocked’ new gameplay experiences through their own personal upskilling, their own understanding of the game’s mechanics and their subsequent mastery of these mechanics.

And the result was totally gnarly.