No piece of media, no matter how technically accomplished or creatively satisfying, can ever really be “perfect.” Even if something has no recognizable faults, it’s absurd to think that it can’t be improved in any way whatsoever. What happens if something else comes along that’s better? Is it more perfect? Does the first thing then become less perfect? That’s to say nothing of the inherent subjectivity of critique, meaning that “perfect” to one person’s eyes might inevitably not be “perfect” to someone else.
So it should be taken with an absolutely massive grain of salt—and complete disregard for any experience I may have as a professional critic—when I say that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is absolutely perfect. In terms of background, I should note that I loved the Tony Hawk games back when they were new, as everyone who played them did, because they were extremely fun and massively popular. (I also played and wrote about all of them, even the awful ones, for a now-defunct sports game site.) But what the developers at Vicarious Visions—previously best known for the shockingly good Game Boy Advance ports of the Tony Hawk games, taking over for original series creators Neversoft—have done here isn’t just a mechanically competent re-creation of a pair of video games that are now over two decades old. It’s also the perfect modern update to those first two Tony Hawk games, coming at the perfect time, and handled with the perfect level of respect that the series and its long-suffering fans deserve.
When I sat down to play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 for review, there were a few things I wanted to keep an eye out for. First was “the feel,” which seems like a pretty straightforward thing to get right—but which was also exactly what Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, from 2012 (the last attempt to keep this franchise in the air), completely botched. The skaters in that game felt stiff and awkward, a far cry from the boneless superhumans flying through the air and twisting at impossible angles of the original games. THPS1+2, by contrast, feels as close to the originals as realistically possible, given the changes in video game technology over the past 20 years. That sense of speed and motion was aided by the fact that Vicarious Visions retconned history a bit by adding in abilities from later games in the series, like the manual (a wheelie that lets you chain street tricks together) and the revert (a little spin move that lets you chain a vert trick to a street trick), that really help the flow of the skating. So I can’t really criticize that.
The next thing I looked for was “the vibe,” which should be harder to immediately get right, since it’s a little harder to define. In these early games, before Bam Margera turned the series into a Jackass spin-off, the general aesthetic of Tony Hawk was basically a “skateboarding is not a crime” sticker slapped dead center on a piece of public property. The only antagonists, if you could call them that, were people and things that impede your ability to skate: security guards, speeding cars, and big sandy beaches. You can’t really fight any of these things, but you could sort of stick it to them by skating really well, doing tricks off of a taxi, or unlocking a secret cop character named Officer Dick. (Get it? Because he’s a dick.)
THPS1+2 still has all of that, except now it just looks better: Levels are covered in HD pro-skater graffiti, it’s sweeter than ever to smash the lights on a cop car with a sick grind, and a classic downhill run in an empty shopping mall now makes a point to show that the mall is completely abandoned and overrun with skater stuff—as if to say, “We outlived you.” It would be very easy to have crapped this thing out mechanically while sanding over any rough aesthetic edges (“ollie the magic bum” is still a thing you’re asked to do in one level, as non-PC as that language may be), but Vicarious Visions didn’t do that. Instead, it seems like they did their best to lovingly re-create the tone of those old games, without seeming old-fashioned or soulless. So that’s “vibe” nailed, too.
Finally, I wanted to explore how well THPS 1+2 tapped into my nostalgia for this series, since nostalgia is presumably a huge part of why this project exists. (It’s timed to the 20-year anniversary of THPS 2.) I loved these two games originally, but is a graphical upgrade enough to make me want to play them again in 2020? Yeah, as it turns out, it absolutely is. 2020 has been a miserable shitshow of a year, making it the ideal time to release such a faithful re-creation of a thing that made me and a lot of other people happy 20 years ago. I wasn’t even a teenager when I first played these games. COVID-19 wasn’t a thing, and Donald Trump was still the punchline to a joke instead of the joke itself (the punchline now being “We’re all going to die”). It feels really, really good to tap back into the part of my brain that remembers how to hit the line to open the dam valves on the Downhill Jam level, just like the first time I did it while playing on my friend’s N64 in middle school. And it feels especially good to do it while listening to the same dumb ska-heavy soundtrack that was plastered all over the old games. I don’t have to kill anything, nobody gets hurt or upset, and I know that I won’t be letting anyone down if I do a bad job. This is a game about self-improvement, hitting an obstacle head-on and finding a way to overcome it—usually with an ollie—and then skating away as a slightly better person.
So how the hell do I judge that? How do I judge a game that does exactly what I wanted it to do, does it exactly as well as it needs to, and has come at exactly the right time? There are things I would’ve liked to see—like more secret characters and a more robust option to make your own skaters. (There isn’t even an option for glasses!) But not having that stuff doesn’t really bother me. This is a better version of those games I loved 20 years ago, and that’s exactly what I needed. So I can’t judge it. It’s perfect.