Reviewed: November 22, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
When it comes to creating fun and playable Tony Hawk games on handheld gaming systems nobody does it better than Vicarious Visions. They’ve been doing it since 2001, so it was no surprise to learn that they were heading up the latest Hawk installment for the NDS.
Tony Hawk's American SK8Land is so much more than just a dual screen port of the GBA version or even American Wasteland that console owners are enjoying. This is a completely re-imagined game that not only changes up the artistic style, but also makes clever and integrated use of the custom features of the DS…all of them.
SK8Land offers the traditional gameplay options including a surprisingly rich Story mode, the two-minute challenge Classic mode (which is perfectly suited for spontaneous handheld gaming), and the relaxing Free Skate mode. SK8Land also stakes its claim to fame as the first Internet supported title on the DS allowing you to play wirelessly with anyone in the world.
While not as deep as the console version, the story mode allows you to explore several distinct areas around L.A. and perform various skateboard related tasks to earn cash to help rebuild your own custom skatepark. While these areas eventually combine to create one massive playground, unlike the console version, there is a short loading time as you transition between these areas.
What really brings this game home are the outstanding controls. Often the topic of major system war discussions, it seems that every Hawk fan has a preference for the system they skate on, and while the PS2 remains the popular choice, the DS manages to pull of some surprisingly intuitive controls that are as easy to learn as they are to master, especially for veteran PlayStation gamers.
The B button prepares your skater by having him crouch until you release the button, which will have him ollie (or jump). Once in the air you can tweak your tricks with the A button to grab the board or press Y for a flip trick. The X button will allow you to grind or rail slide on any nearby grindable surface after you have jumped to it.
You also have a full array of balancing tricks and body movements like spins and manuals that are performed with the D-pad, and you can create advanced tricks like Reverts, Nollies, Wallrides, Wallplant, and Boneless with combinations of the various controls and shoulder buttons.
You also have a Special meter that slowly fills as you do tricks. Once filled you can enter Focus mode and perform some really spectacular combos and trick lines in slow motion. The new tricks from the console version including the Bert Slide and Natas Spin have all made the trip over to the DS. There are more than 150 tricks in SK8Land including a few DS exclusives that you’ll want to look out for.
When it’s not showing you a map, dialogue, hints, or other useful information, the touch screen is put to excellent use by allowing the placement of virtual buttons like the Focus mode. You can also use this screen to execute special tricks rather than memorizing lengthy button combos, or even play a quick and addicting “Tantrum” mini-game to do a “Freak Out” instead of mashing on buttons.
The touch screen and stylus also come in handy for using the virtual keyboard to chat with players online, or creating your own custom artwork in the graffiti editor, or your own skater or skatepark in the Create modes. You can even customize your deck with custom art. This really helps set you apart when you go online.
Along with the smooth controls is some smooth animation. Thanks to the wonderful choice of creating a cel-shaded world for Tony Hawk on the DS, we now have these spectacular comic book levels that scroll by at a fluid 60fps. The SK8Land engine was built entirely from the ground up and it shows.
The animation is flawless and all of the tricks merge together surprisingly well, even during the most complex of trick lines. All of the body movements look natural and real and the camera does a great job of keeping everything in view.
The top screen is reserved for the action and everything springs to life with amazing color that a visual style that is reminiscent of the 80’s surfer style that was used on the console version. It’s all very “punk” and the cel-shading makes SK8Land a totally unique experience on the DS.
For the first time in handheld Hawk history, Vicarious Visions has been able to bring over a portion of the licensed soundtrack that console owners have been enjoying for years. There are at least 13 full-length licensed songs providing upwards of 30 minutes of diverse music perfect for skating.
There is also a sizable amount of voice acting to bring the cutscenes to life, and the rarely used DS microphone is put to good use by allowing you to record your own custom voice work for your skater and attach those sounds to special events in the game like performing a special trick or bailing off your board.
While the 8-10 hour story mode is relatively short (and easy) there is no denying the replay value of this game, even if you just go back and replay the same story over doing things differently. Plus, all of the story settings are available in classic and free skate modes opening up huge gameplay potential. Those two-minute challenges are back to test your skill and patience.
But where SK8Land truly shines is in the multiplayer, both local wireless, and for the first time on the DS, Internet play. There are four challenging game modes available for online play not including the Free Skate. Trick Attack, Score Challenge, Combo Mambo, and the Price is Wrong will all test your skating abilities.
And for some online icing on the cake, Activision will continue to support this game through the official website by allowing you to post “ghosts” of your best runs, as well as tracking all sorts o data for leaderboard style competition. They are even providing aftermarket artwork and new downloadable challenges to guarantee you will be playing this game long after you finish it.
Tony Hawk's American SK8Land is without a doubt the finest handheld version of the franchise you can currently play. It might even be one of the top five DS games released to date. The visual style is excellent, the music is great, and the controls are a near-perfect recreation from the original PlayStation days.
And with enough solo content to keep you playing for weeks on end and more online attention to detail than Nintendo bothered to put into their own Mario Kart DS, this is one of those games that is impossible to put down.