The Abandoned Station

NOT NEWS

 

Exhibits
 

Videos
 

Writings
 

Larry's Wad
 

Topical Runoff
 

Bios

Details
Contact Us
F.A.Q.
Links
Nothing
Here's a Thought

Nothing



 

 All Your Article Belong to Us (so...Video Games Articles)

There is already the big Zelda series of articles (start here), and there is also a chunk of writing on gaming embedded within the big Here's a Thought Department (warp right to it), but here are other pieces on this wonderful art form.

 

 

Press X to Doubt: The Challenges of the Video Game Movie Adaptation

 

 

Spoiler Alert and TL/DR: Most stories in video games are simple/lousy. Which means making movies out of them starts off on a bad foot.

Here’s the handy Wikipedia spreadsheet, where the Rotten Tomatoes/ Metacritic scores don’t lie: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_based_on_video_games)

A vast majority of video game narratives are either fantasy-centric anime films for twelve year olds, or a re-hashed sub-plots from a sci-fi/western/post-apocalyptic movies and tv series.

We haven’t gotten to a point where there is the storytelling equivalent of The Wire or Apocalypse Now, and we might never get it until the video game medium itself changes in radical ways.

Why?

Time.

To get right to the existential heart of it, you only have so much of it to spend in your life, and only a fraction of that to spend playing video games (the exact fraction can obviously differ greatly from person to person). And your interactivity with this made-up world via the controller in your hand (or keyboard at your fingertips) is limited not only by the basic idea of providing entertaining interactivity (press a button to…let’s be honest…you’re probably expected to kill something), but the cinematic storytelling mantra of only showing the good and important parts.

Plenty of RPGs and action adventure video games give nods to influential pop culture material like Akira and The Walking Dead, but nowhere near that quality of narrative setup and pacing because you have to break up the story to let you…play. To do stuff. It might seem easy to just have you take control at the start of a gunfight just where one would be in any movie or tv series, but bland practicalities and baked-in expectations for video games quickly get in the way.

A two hour action movie might be half action sequences at most, with the rest being, y’know, acting. You can’t make a game that has that exact ratio, since that is an extremely short game, and a very, very short time of actually playing if you just have control during this planned hour of action sequences.

A ten minute cut-scene to build up character development and narrative tension? That’s eons of having a controller in your hand and not doing anything. And then ten minutes of gameplay (that is hopefully good) is ridiculously short, especially if it is followed by another lengthy cut-scene that is meant to once again reinforce the story and push it forward.

So problem number one: You can’t slice up an action movie or a tv series arc and make a video game out of it. Finding the balance of cut-scenes and gameplay is extremely difficult, and it is absolutely not 50-50.

The expectation is that you will let the player actually play the game for a vast majority of the time, and that means giving them stuff to do, and ideally fun stuff. In the film Die Hard it’s great to watch John McClane yell at Hans Gruber over walkie-talkie’s, but it doesn’t translate to good gameplay (even if you have a QuickTime event where you have to hold X or A for McClane to respond fast enough with a clever quip).

While John McClane kills twelve terrorists/thieves over the course of 2 hours in the movie, in the 1996 video game Die Hard (and yes, that is absolutely a thing) he kills that amount in about the first two minutes, because just killing twelve enemies in an entire video game is only okay if we’re strictly talking about amount of boss fights. So what else can John McClane do for all those hours of gameplay if you are trying to be faithful to the source material? Sneak around without shoes? Eat candy bars? Berate every cop outside except Al Powell?

Life simulator games notwithstanding, the most popular activity in all of video game-dom is grinding your enemies to dust, and in early titles there were just waves of alien ships and ghosts in arcade cabinets, and you never shed a tear for all the goombas and Koopas you stomped as Mario. Nowadays it’s still hordes of enemies, which can be a challenge if you want to tell a good, affecting story where the lead character has to slowly become an unstoppable killing machine. Doom Guy slaughters tons of disgusting evil demons with wild weapons. Not only is that a fun description, it’s also the entire plot of every Doom game.

John Marston and Arthur Morgan kill bank employees, policemen, innocent bystanders and anyone who might be leaning to close to the edge of a cliff, but then you can pay off your bounty for these crimes so that all is forgiven in the eyes of the law and society. Because the murdering must go on, especially if that’s how you advance the narrative the game is trying to tell.

In many recent open world games (like the Red Dead Redemption series), stories are divided between main and side quests. The former involves engaging with non-playable characters (NPCs) and completing missions and tasks that will ultimately lead to the end of the game and the credits, whereas the latter deals with you throwing this responsibility by the wayside so you can make/tell your own story of discovering what the fictional world has to offer. Ideally the side quests will give the impression of a more authentic and in-depth setting, even if it’s just padding. You have to tell a story in a much more passive way while highlighting the unique aspects of game play (exploring the top of that mountain for treasure, killing evil people in the woods who are unrelated to the main plot, or maybe even helping people in town find their chickens or frying pan).

If the choice is not what to do, then it might be who to do it as.

Seeing the same story from other characters’ perspectives has been used to great success in a handful of films (from Rashamon to Courage Under Fire and countless police procedurals), and since video game have allowed you to play as various characters for many years now (although in the 80s it might just mean one character can jump higher, or has a stronger attack), it seems like it would be a great way to explore simple-ish stories in different ways.

Mass Effect is a sci-fi space epic involving humans traversing the galaxy and making alliances with alien races and fighting other ones, and while that sounds like…almost every other game with a spaceship…this one has one has old school RPG story choices that can change the path of narrative in big and small ways. You can chose different characters to play as so that NPCs react to you differently. Sometimes you wouldn’t be able to see where the other choice leads until a second playthrough.

Nier Automata does an excellent job at the pace of introducing supporting characters and transitioning to playing as them instead of the initial protagonist on successive playthroughs.

The slight caveat to this is the rising FOMO. You wonder what would have happened if you decided to accept Character X’s help instead of spurning him because of his previous lies, and then gamers remorse starts to bubble inside of you.

On top of this, from a developer’s perspective, multiple storylines and sequences can make game design much more difficult simply because it’s more game to design (and why text-based versions from the eighties could offer more branching ‘choose your own adventure’-like paths).

But overall very familiar narratives and themes can certainly feel fresh and exhilarating by the choices that video games offer players (you’re not just watching the hero and villain battle out, you’re playing as the hero!).

The flip side of this is best exemplified by Naughty Dog Games’ two best known series, Uncharted and The Last of Us, both of which are held up as paragons of video game storytelling, because there is only the main story to play through.

So of course they rip off generic film clichés hard. The fact that talking about these games means having to include a spoiler alert warning reinforces just how movie-like they are. Uncharted nicks Indiana Jones and The Last of Us is all zombie survival, best exemplified by The Walking Dead. The latter being the best example of leading players by the nose and seamlessly going from watching the characters argue to suddenly controlling them when soldiers or zombies suddenly attack, so that the overall experience is (mostly) smoothly going from movie to pressing buttons.

The first Last of Us was lauded for having incredible pacing and never having enemy encounters become too repetitive, but the flip side of that comes the light criticisms of the game being too short.

The sequel rectified this in a most ingenuous way. Play as a familiar character for half the game, and plays as the ‘enemy’ for the other half so you’ll generate sympathy for them, which will culminate in an interesting final showdown. And it almost worked.  While the success of the Last of Us proves that some players don’t want to weigh the pros and cons of big decisions if it can instead  be spent shooting zombies in the face, ironically, the story of The Last of Us Part 2 is about making difficult decisions and then regretting them, even though the player is never in the position to make any. It means Naughty Dog chooses to have a message about the cycle of violence through forced story cut-scenes over choices within gameplay.

Taken to the most extreme, there are games like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, titles that remove so much agency from the player that there is only ‘choosing’ to watch cut-scenes in a certain order (with the odd puzzle thrown in). They are referred to semi-dismissively as ‘walking simulators’, where any real challenge (the ‘game’ in video game) is not present at all. In Edith Finch your character is walking through a strange house full of family secrets, with the point not being battling anything at all, but simply piecing together the important life moments of your grandparents, parents, and uncles and aunts.

So while these are the most movie-like games in terms of telling a complex story, they are decried by many in the video game community as not being games at all. 

While everything discussed so far is how movies can influence stories in video games, going the other way is much more difficult. This is because most video game stories are 'high concept' pitches in their entirety, and having to flesh out a more detailed narrative around it (with y'know, well done plot twists and good dialogue) was not really a focus with the producers of video game-based films in the 1990s, because it was treated with the same care as merchandise like t-shirts, pens, posters and backpacks.

To go back to the 1970s, the earliest video games were electronic versions of real sports (Pong). The entire 'story' of Space Invaders was the title. Mario had to save the princess, but it was running and jumping in thirty-two well-designed levels (and seven 'princess is in another castle' plot twists) that made the game fun and memorable.

These early technological restraints (games could be 7 kilobyte files) characterized what video games were (it’s right there in the name: ‘games’) and what they were expected to be. Moving away from the repetition of arcade games and harder levels, mechanics and creative ways to manipulate the character was the focus. As the industry became very, very successful in the late eighties, that success meant what games were at the time became the template (call it the Miyamoto model, if you will).

Around the same time, table-top role playing games - lots of talking, lots of decisions around story developments, lots of dice rolls - made the transition to the electronic medium, because as long as it was kept all text it could fit in these meagre files (and run on the new and fancy home computers). RPGs could have more detailed and complex stories because words is what the developers stuffed the floppy disc or microchip with instead of other game assets like different levels or detailed animations. While the Ultima and Bard’s Tale Series were the big PC ones, because Japan was at the forefront of video game hardware and software development for most of the eighties (especially after the 1983 crash in North America), series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest became long running series that epitomized JRPGs (J is for Japanese, by the way).

As the tech got better in the nineties, suddenly you could have gameplay and story working much more harmoniously, but the latter was still primarily the territory of RPGs, with ChronoTrigger and Final Fantasy VII being clear standouts of the decade. These styles of games would continue to add more real time action mechanics while retain deep story, culminating with 2006’s Okami, which tells a mythic story of gods fighting as well as the doings of villagers in feudal Japan with the emotional connection being a mute white wolf with a chatty bug-sized ‘human’ for a sidekick.

These games felt like a seasons’ worth of anime episodes, which is a good indication that tv series might be the better choice for video game adaptations than two hour films.

Now it should be pointed out quickly that their level of storytelling was/is equivalent anime/kids tv series (even if the graphical content might be more violent or deadly), which is why the first and obvious step for video games was t0 turn them into kids cartoon shows. In the eighties there were many quick and cheaply made cartoons based on Mario, Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda. And they all ranged from forgettable to terrible.

But they were meant to be fun advertisements for the hardware and software, and that approach was...not used for the first live-action movie based on a video game, 1993’s Super Mario Bros. How do you turn a one line story and 32 levels into a ninety minute film? Not like this legendary disaster that abandoned the bright, cartoony atmosphere of the games in hopes that a more intense and darker tone would expand the audience (and box office receipts) beyond eight year olds. 

It didn’t.

The eight year olds were very, very confused:

Wait, King Koopa was now a human and a president…and played by Dennis Hopper? And the lizard-like creatures were called Goombas? And why is John Leguizamo playing Luigi as the cooler younger brother?

And anyone older thought it was confusing AND stupid, because it can be two things.

The movie starts in New York City, and while Bob Hoskins certainly looked the part of a middle-aged moustachioed plumber named Mario, it quickly went off the rails. The Mushroom Kingdom is not full of green fields, blue skies and several perky toads serving a Princess Peach in a castle, but cyberpunk sewers with the name Dinohattan, a Princess Daisy (but not that Daisy), a guitarist named Toad, and Yoshi looking like a velociraptor.

Oh and guns. Mario and Luigi shoot guns.

While some credit might be given to the set and costume design if you were completely unfamiliar with the games, the other important parts – story, dialogue, acting – were irredeemable.

Its failure both critically and commercially (cost$48 million, made $39 million) meant Nintendo would become even more protective over its IPs (intelligent properties, which really just means franchises) going forward.

But because the nineties was an even better decade for video game profits than the eighties, many other game franchises threw their hats into the cinematic ring, even if their narratives were no better than plumbers rescuing a princess in the mushroom kingdom.

Both Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995) worked better than Super Mario in the sense that it was easier to tell a story about world domination or a fighting competition with world domination on the line with a wider roster of human(like) characters compared to Mario.

But ‘worked better’ is not the same thing as good. The plots were dumb, the dialogue was as good as video game text, and the on screen talent chewed the scenery because this was still when no self-respecting and financially solvent actor would put on a cape unless the film had the word ‘Bat’ in the title.

But because the key tween and teenage demographics were not so discerning, they helped the films turn a profit (Kombat made $122 million, and so of course got a sequel a couple years later) and that’s all Hollywood needs to know to green light more projects as the century flipped. Some project budgets got big enough to compete with other blockbusters and drew in some quality talent.

Fresh off her Oscar win in 2000, Angelina Jolie took the role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. ‘Female Indiana Jones’ was the elevator pitch for the 1996 video game (with particular polygons proving beyond a doubt that she was a woman) and 2001 movie alike, and both were massively successful. There were more of both, and more of the same in terms of reception (started good, got less good as they went on). Today the original game is held in much more high regard than the film, and just as there was a re-boot of the Tomb Raider game series in 2013, there was one (and just one) for the film franchise in 2018.

For entertainment based on video games made in America, it was a ‘wait and see’ approach, not green lighting similar content until there was some proven success.

Meanwhile, in Japan, where most of these games were developed and first released, they were churning out animated spin-offs for the big and little screen with regularity. Many of these films and tv series were actually based on the manga that were based on the video game franchises, so already there were slightly meatier stories than in the video games (while still being, y’know, comic book stories mainly for kids).

The most financially successful video game franchise of all time is Pokemon by a country mile, and that is largely in part to its success in other avenues such as tv series, films, trading cards, and oh so many bits of merchandise.

And just as each new game is a re-re-re-hashed version of the original Red and Blue from the late nineties, the animated tv series and movies re-re-re-hashed the same plot of Ash Ketchum trying to ‘ketchum’ all. But what do you want, right? Isn’t this just stuff for eight year olds?

Even if we reach a point where producers and studios want to make their video game adaptations…good…it’s not easy.

As technology improved, everything about video games got bigger and longer (ahem). 1997’s Final Fantasy VII was the biggest adventure in gaming up to that point, and many RPGs followed in its footsteps to create a huge cast of characters with long and winding main narratives plus side quests. Game stories that once could be summed up with a few sentences were now nearly novels. Instead of having to expand a two line story to make a two hour film, now it’s a matter of shrinking and cutting a thirty hour game down to that two hour run time.

But don’t ignore the lore!

How do you shoehorn in the quirky moments and miscellanea in the games that stans of the series expect as Easter Eggs to prove that the production really does ‘get’ the essence of the series?

You can feed the fan service flames of the ever-complicating stories in the games, especially as success breeds sequel after sequel. It’s not the main reason you’re in front of the screen, controller in hand, but it can absolutely give a bit more weight to every time you fire a pistol or use a grapple-hook.

Long-in-the-tooth franchises sometimes completely ignore what happened in previous games (Mario, Final Fantasy) or create convoluted explanations as to why previous games don’t matter too much (Zelda).

For those that run with one storyline…it gets messy.

Take Halo, please.

Xbox’s killer app has sold 81 million copies across the many, many releases over the last twenty plus years, with its multiplayer mode becoming more of a selling point than it’s ever-expanding sci-fi story (which still had plenty of fans who wanted to find out if Master Chief is ever gonna bone the Arbiter while Cortana watches, or something).

When making huge profits you aren’t exactly the victims of success, but it does make ‘always a bigger threat’ story-wise harder and harder to top.  After Halo 3 the development team did a prequel (Halo Reach), but that’s never as clear as numbers that move forward, so 4 and 5 eventually came down the pipe and it was a perfect example of diminishing returns.

How can you keep raising the stakes? How many planetary or galaxy-destroying threats are there going to be?

Halo: Infinite arrived in the fall of 2021 after substantial delays and a $500 million price-tag, choosing to focus on the multiplayer element (which was free to play) over the story/campaign (which was not). It minimized much of what happened in the previous two games and added another new villain that seemed very much like older ones.

A few months after this, the Halo tv series arrived and looked just as good as Halo: Infinite…and had a story that is just as good.

Since it’s the first season, it makes sense to start with the first game, and it’s kinda that, but also kinda about a brooding, masked/stone-faced killing machine that will slowly what it means to be human.

Wait, you mean The Mandalorian? Or The Terminator?  Or The Iron Giant? Or 2B?

Trying to make that trope fresh is not easy when millions of people already have a strong emotional attachment to the story and characters before, during and after the series’ development.

But critics at least agreed that the Halo series had the tone of the games, which is not always easy to do (or what the producers are even trying to do).

Plenty of games that have lighthearted, quirky or just plain silly moments (even if the game itself is quite dark and serious) typical lose them when they make the jump to movies and television.

Laughable moments from Monster Hunter or Doom are not allowed in the movie, lest they ruin the mood (sorry cute sidekick cats and John Romero’s head).

Doom and its many sequels (and rip-offs) were so over the top ridiculous and stupidly simple at the same time that the movie could not hope to match its laser/BFG-9000 focus on blood-splattering mayhem, even with The Rock at the helm.

Throwing a ton of money at other successful leading men existing between A and B status became the way to do it, or at least try to do it in the mid-2000s, with hopes that their star power will bring in non-gamers. The budgets for the effects began to balloon, and they could afford the stars by paying them a pittance for the first with promises of bigger pay-days, points and producer credits if there were any sequels. See: Prince of Persia (with Jake Gyllenhaal), Hitman (with Timothy Ophliant), and Assassin’s Creed (with Michael Fassbender).

Despite the seeming straightforwardness of these games (doesn’t the title just say it all?), crafting a two hour max tale means you have to dump tons of backstory and sequel twists into the trash because the studio and producers are trying to expand the audience far beyond the people who just played the video game. The audience might read that it’s from a video game franchise, but is just there to watch an action movie ‘starring’ the Prince of Persia, an Assassin with a creed, or a hitman.

These movies are made because an established fan-base is easier to tap into than a non-existent one. And if there are guns and/or swords, then it’s just another action flick you might as well hope will break through and make bank.  This simplicity is not surprising when these are movies made for twelve year olds by…well who makes these films, actually?

While the typical studios are bankrolling them (Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, etc), it’s here where we note that the director of the first Mortal Kombat film is Paul WS Anderson (not be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), and he would go on to oversee all six live-action Resident Evil films, DOA and Monster Hunter, making him something of a video game film auteur.

For nearly two decades Resident Evil was the most successful film series based on a video game series, even though the movies can looks unrecognizable to the source material...despite both being a sprawling sci-fi zombie killing franchise.

What stays and what goes as you adapt? Keep the name Raccoon City and the Umbrella Corporation, ditch Leon Kennedy (at first) and spooky European villages, add a lot more advanced tech like evil AI, and split the difference by having gruesome kills of zombie mutants that any fourteen year old (at heart) will have to admit is cool.

But the execution of those moments is not a one-to-one. Many of the Resident Evil games are all about slow creeping horror in haunted houses, although the best one (4, of course) bucks this trend and is blueprint for the fast-paced third person shooter. So what do you use?

What might have been the coolest action segment in a video game (ideally around the climax) could come off as complete schlocky, mockable moment in a film.

Putting the feeling of interactive excitement into a movie is not easy. Do you just take story elements, or do you use variations on bullet time or first person perspective to give viewers a taste of what playing is like? The only first-person-perspective movie of note is 2015’s Hardcore Henry, as it was the only to receive wide-release…and it was criticized for the gimmick getting old long before the credits started to roll.

So much about these films felt like video games, for the worse, rather than the better.

In video games, players can choose (to varying degrees) how to balance the time they spend doing something serious or silly, tailoring the experiences the game offers to their wants and needs at the moment. Even 'walking simulator' games typically have some level of exploration to reveal the story at the player’s leisure. Movies typically don't have that luxury, as you can only be a passive viewer who is dragged along to watch one scene after the other.

But there have been some attempts to change this.

The 'Bandersnatch' episode of the bleak-comedy series Black Mirror allows viewer to choose different story options by pressing buttons on their remote, but even that got mixed reviews. Points for the attempt, but it wasn’t the sort of story that many people were eager to go back to and watch the different ways each choice would turn out (since some of them were deciding whether to rush a video game into production).

Complex video game plots had to be made simple for movies, and simple video game plots had to be complex for tv series.

But what if could be simple all the way through?

It’s Pokémon to the rescue.

2019’s Detective Pikachu was the first live action film for the series, and meant to be the video game movie that truly makes the leap from ‘meh’ to ‘hey, that was pretty good’. Based on a spin-off Pokemon game with the same name, it meant giving Pikachu a job (it’s right there in the title) and a voice that’s not just squeaking his name (and was provided by…Ryan Reynolds). More importantly as far as the production of video game movies is concerned…it did decent at the box office.

And it worked because it wasn’t too Pokemon-ish. The producers and writer(s) assumed that a good chunk of the Pokemon fan base (which is considerable) will go see the movie no matter what with only a few diehards abstaining, so they could then focus on making a movie about a young man looking for his missing father (with the help of a talking yellow thing in a detective’s cap). That alone made it more interesting and had a lot more emotional depth than any Ash-Ketchum-focused story, which was typically about foiling comical villains, catching Pokemon and winning a tournament.

Detective Pokemon was the one of the best reviewed video game-based movies of all time, which sounds great until you realize that’s just a score of 68% on the now indomitable Rotten Tomatoes aggregate site. It’s only one of five video game movies that have ever crossed 60%.

The others?

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (sorry, Angry Birds Movie 1), Werewolves Within (based on a VR game that is based on the Werewolves real-life (!) party game) and both Sonic the Hedgehog flicks (which stars Jim Carrey as Dr Robotnik).

Yes, even though Mario had Sonic beat in terms of critical and commercial success in the Console Wars in the early nineties, the Blue Hedgehog had the plumber beat when it came making a successful jump to the big screen.

But now we are on the cusp of The Super Mario Bros Movie, a 2023 animated film that is expected to be huge because after all these years the titular character remains a pop culture icon, more so than anyone else in video games (except Sans, obviously), and the same studio that made Despicable Me and Minions is going to turn it into a typical kids flick.

That the previews have looked so, so, so much better than the thirty year old live action film is a good sign. It’s even a plus that the only so-called minus is the unexpected announcement by Miyamoto himself that Chris Pratt is voicing Mario, which led to plenty of mockery online. But hey, if a Hollywood leading man can voice an electrified gerbil in Detective Pikachu, why can’t another Hollywood leading man voice a goofy Italian plumber?

While veteran voice actor Charles Martinet has done an iconic job playing Mario for his comparatively few and brief lines in many Mario games (ranging from ‘okay!’ to ‘let’s-ah go!’), the gaming community acknowledges that this particular voice would be difficult to stomach for ninety minutes, and thanks him for his service.

The Super Mario Bros Movie will probably be under two hours long, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to finish the original Super Mario Bros game from 1985, and about sixth of the amount of time it takes to do all the stuff in the plumbers latest big adventure, Super Mario Odyssey.

It all comes back to the true challenge of adapting modern video games to the film. While the two entertainment mediums are borrowing liberally from each other (some superhero movies look like video games), it comes down to the challenge of adaptation, which comes with different issues for each project.

Clearly the success of Pokémon, Sonic and (maybe) Mario reinforces the idea that at the moment video game movies are a children’s experience. But that’s how people felt video games in general in the eighties and nineties. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as until someone cracks the code and makes a video game film that is absolutely worth two hours’ of our time.

 


 

The Curious Case of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

 

The first thing people point out about Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 (originally released on the Playstation in 2000) is that it is right behind The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the second best-reviewed video game of all time on the de-facto video game review aggregate website, Meta-Critic.

And hey, as far as ‘first things to point out’, that’s pretty damn good one. It certainly buoys the reputation of the title, along with the genre itself.

Skateboarding games are not exactly niche, but they don’t have the same popularity as other sports franchises like Madden, FIFA and NBA2K. While the Tony Hawk series has several entries, it was never an annual ‘holiday’ series like the aforementioned games (or Call of Duty, if your preferred sport is hunting man).

But in the way that most people can’t play sports at a professional level, neither can they simply get on a board and do a kick flip. Video games have always made it easier to become a virtual expert at a real life activity, but compared to the other sports titles mentioned, Tony Haw’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is…hard. In this respect, it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty and frustration of actually learning skateboard tricks in real life (minus the broken wrists).

Since the nineteen eighties video games have by and large only gotten easier, but in the initial movement away from designing games for arcades (where the point was to have the player die quickly so they throw in another quarter) and instead focus on consoles, these changes were slow to come by. As different generations gave us the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis and Sony PlayStation over the years with improved graphics and gameplay, there were still parts of seemingly fun-for-all titles that could be downright difficult and unfair (thinking your Mega Mans, your Super Goblins and Ghouls and of course the proto-Dark Souls, King’s Field).

Even when there were options, it would boil down to choosing between ‘easy’ (hard) or ‘hard’ (impossible). In action adventure games this meant the enemies would have a lot more health and do a lot more damage, and in sports games, it meant your opponent was just much, much better at whatever you were playing…since they were, y’know, an early form of AI.

Sports games were some of the first video games (y’know, ‘cause they were ‘games’), and while Pong (that is, table tennis on your tv) is the best known, there were also boxing and racing games galore. Some had you aim for the fastest time, some were for the highest score, if you could mash the buttons in just the right way to land a key punch (in the sensibly titled Punch-Out)  or well-timed boost (like in Excite-Bike way back in 1984, which was a huge early critical and commercial success designed and directed by…wait for it…Shigeru Miyamoto).

As the bytes slowly went from kilos and megas, better graphics and more options for things to happen when you pressed buttons in a particular way (hold down, press repeatedly, tap two at the same time) became available.

But it took the historic 2D to 3D jump for everything to be more realistic (even if the polygon counts for every sprite and graphic were still damn low) and immersive because, hey, we live in a 3D space (plus 1D of time). The more games were like how we moved around, the more we could make the impossible seem possible, like everyone becoming a pro at couch-based skateboarding.

While ‘going fast’ might mean that the Pro Skater series has more in common with racing games on the surface (whether the realism of Gran Turismo or psychedelic silliness of Mario Kart), the challenge of button inputs and entering them at the right time to properly execute a combo in a half pipe or off a jump makes it a bit more like a fighting game.

Whether trying a kick-flip or a front foot impossible, positioning yourself and your skateboard in just the right spot to land it is not easy, and crashing  sends your energy meter down to zero and eats up valuable time.

Yes, time. 2 minutes seems like a cruelly short amount of it when the goal is to have fun in a skateboard park or empty cityscape no matter what you’re doing. But it becomes even harder when you have to collect hovering letters (the magic word is ‘SKATE’) and cassette tapes (remember those?) and nail combo after combo to get the sick score (50,000?!), especially after they throw in a guy driving around in golf cart trying to mow you down while screaming punk-inspired non-sequiturs (they change it to a guy in a taxi for the New York City layout because of course).

Despite the re-mastered versions of Pro Skater 1 + 2 coming out in 2020, it is still not always clear what buttons you have to exactly press to accomplish a 900, sending you and your popped kneecaps to an online guide.

Even when you get the basics down, there is a strong temptation to button mash, especially when it worked that one time and you’ll spend plenty of runs trying the exact same thing at the exactly same moment as you go off a ramp but with little success.

Griping about difficulty may elicit eye rolls from developers, who will quickly point out that they stuffed the game with plenty of different modes of play and easily changed settings to make Pro Skater 1 + 2 accessible to all skill levels.

Difficulty and video game critics don’t always line up perfectly. Gamers who can zero-death-run Dark Souls might not be able to write a coherent paragraph on what makes it so challenging, and a writer who can make any topic sound interesting might not be able to shoot enough baddies to reach a mid-game checkpoint in Uncharted.

Most forms of culture and entertainment have a long history of criticism and analysis for many students and scholars to learn about and adhere to (or thumb their nose at) when talking about a painting, a poem or a movie.

Video games do not.

These traditional examples of cultural content just require all interested parties to just stare at it, listen to it, or read it to be able to take it in and reflect upon the material. ‘Getting it’ in terms of what the piece is trying to say is subjective, based not only on the viewer’s personal life experience but their association with that form of culture as a whole (the more movies you watch, the better you can appreciate what works in them and what doesn’t).

But video games require critics to be good at not just typing with their fingers to write about the title in question, but at manipulating a controller, keyboard or glove to continually interact with the game, because… that’s what playing a game is.

The lexicon for video game reviews and analysis has of course made leaps and bounds in the last several years in terms of critical analysis (ah, ludonarrative dissonance!), but video game reviewers of the late nineties and early two thousands (when Pro Skater 2 was first released) were not getting the same sort of attention as they are today, in part because the video game industry is so much larger than twenty years ago. While the internet was obviously already becoming a dominant force, the monthly magazine cycle of EGM, GamePro and Nintendo Power meant people weren’t expecting an onslaught of day-of-release reviews and commentary.

While the video game industry has only grown and embraced the internet in a myriad of ways, the overall journalism industry has crashed spectacularly thanks to the internet (classified and retail ads were dependent revenue sources that vanished), and video game journalism is teetering between these two realms.

Today immediacy in reporting and reviewing is seen as essential. You cannot afford to avoid participating in the latest/constant discussion of the news a week after a game has released.  Sure, if it’s a big triple-A game that is getting great reviews and is selling like hotcakes it’ll be trending for longer than most titles, but you would still need to have some sort of ‘first impressions’ take to keep the eyes and clicks fresh.

On top of this, retaining access to get future review copies of games before the general public means staying in the good graces of gaming companies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews of games have to be complimentary, but it means the editors will have to (re)consider publishing stories that expose these companies to the type of bad publicity (because there certainly is such a thing) that might ultimately affect sales and investment opportunities.

So there can always be a bit of a chin scratch when the opinions found within reviews don’t seem to match the number given at its end or your own experience with the game in question.

Fortunately, aggregates are here to save/damn us all.

While there can be plenty of criticisms levied against numerical ratings, it can be a lot more nuanced and specific when compare to just good or bad. Roger Ebert himself came to detest the absolute starkness of good versus bad duality he became famous for: thumbs up and thumbs down.

Rotten Tomatoes is the most popular site, combining how approved critics (a label that comes with its own baggage/challenges*) thought of a movie (or tv series nowadays) into one easily understandable percentage.

*What does it take to become a professionally recognized critic? A professionally recognized platform. In the past it meant newspapers and other forms of print journalism, soon expanding to television (and typically those that appeared on screen cut their teeth first with newspapers and magazines), but with certain page counts/clicks on popular movie news/reviews sites that might just be one person, its become easier than ever to disagree with the critics because its truer than ever that everyones one of them.

But that percentage is actually hiding something. If a movie brags that it has a 97% fresh rating on the site, it doesn’t mean that on average all critics are giving it a 97%. It means that 97% of critics are simply giving the movie a positive rating (which could still be 3 out of 5).

As always, let the buyer beware.

The similar website Meta-Critic compiles reviews many different forms of culture and entertainment, and is the best known one for quickly figuring what a bunch of critics and a bunch of fans think about a new video game. Even the name of the site suggests that it is above the opinion of any one person, and beside the number that averages out all the critics’ ratings is the rating of the audience, which is susceptible to review bombing (both good and bad). These two separate ratings lead to another divide between the critic and the audience, with both sides being suspicious of the intentions and abilities of the other. If you agree with the experts, maybe they ain’t so bad, but if they like a game you hate (or vice versa) then you might think they’re a punch of paid-off hacks. And critics who are paid to review video games as a living can look at the audience rating and see a bunch of unenlightened rubes who just want another CoD game.

All this is to say that while the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 has a 98 score on Metacritic by the critics, it has a 74 by everyone else.

So is it one of the greatest video games of all time, one of the greatest sports games of all time, one of the greatest skateboarding video games of all time, or is it just – to use that tired, cheap, argument-ending term - overrated?

These qualifiers are certainly helpful, for reader/potential player clarity and critic reputation alike.

Sports games are easy to dismiss and pigeonhole, especially as the genre is dominated with annual releases of Madden, NBA, and FIFA that have very slight improvements over their predecessor. Sometimes there’s little for a reviewer to simply write about.

How do you compare a fantasy adventure game where you have magical attacks and can travel through time to a sports game where you skateboard in essentially real life locations in California?

Back to the helpful Roger Elbert: He noted that when he awarded stars to various movies, he does not necessarily give them on a cumulative scale. When he gives three out of four stars to Hellboy II, it is not meant to suggest it is just one star off from being up there with Citizen Kane or The Godfather as the all time greats, but compared to similar movies of that genre and time (other comic book flicks from around 2008).

But at least those are all movies.

Comparing different genres of video games can be much more complicated. Yes, there might be quite the gulf between Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Spy Kids 3D but both just require you to sit there and let your eyeballs take it in. Video games, on the other hand, require your hands and your brain working in tandem.

Maybe you have to figure out the best way to slaughter a gaggle of monsters, maybe you have to rearrange falling blocks, maybe you have to decide the best way to respond to someone who is dying of a mysterious illness. That there are frequently elements of storytelling within the game complicates matters entirely. And these tales can be as nuanced and complex as a great television series or as simple as ‘go rescue the princess in that castle’.

Even the way you play asks a lot. The ‘A’ button in one game might have you jump, another game it might have you fire your weapon, and in yet another it might be the one to talk to someone or open a door.

Juggling all this is something you take for granted the more games you play, just as a cinephile gets used to various tropes and clichés the more films they watch. And the more you play/watch, the more you can appreciate when certain titles do certain things exceedingly well and become a pleasure to experience.

It’s why Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 has endured (and certainly why it was re-mastered twenty years after its initially release), even if many gamers weren’t big into real-life skateboarding or even virtual-life skateboarding. If there was one title you were going to try, it quickly became universally agreed that this was the one.

And hey, what both versions offer the player is undeniably fun, and the wide array of challenges make you want to try achieving them over and over again, because finally nailing down that elusive trick or scoring the necessary 70,000 points in two minutes…really makes you feel like Batman Tony Hawk.

Is it perfect?

Well no game is (not even Ocarina of Time), since there is a level of repetition to this game even as you unlock new maps that take you around the world…as long as your idea of the world looks a lot like a skate park.

Fortunately there is one thing about Pro Skater 2 that nobody can deny and makes it worth playing no matter who you are or your video game skill level:

The soundtrack kicks major ass.

 

 

 

"Did you have fun? Then you won."