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 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.

 

 

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."