Genre: Extreme Sports
Release Date: November 15, 2005
Pushing sports to the portable platforms has always been one of those things that give developers fits. Even simple things like soccer or football translate poorly on small, low resolution screens with their tinny audio and simplified controllers. The arrival of the PSP and DS have made things some what easier, but it's still an uphill struggle to get from the grande latte of an Xbox version to a demitasse of the portable variants. Tony Hawk has been a member of this struggle since the earliest days of the Game Boy Advance, trying desperately to convey high-flying acrobatics and slacker lifestyle in limited real estate.
American Sk8land is the most recent volley in the campaign. The entire game is an unabashed conversion of American Wasteland, the most recent entrant on the console line. As an anonymous kid from Podunk, New Ariutah, you're just fed up with it all and head back to the birthing grounds of everything that is skate punk — Los Angeles. Of course, once you're there, reality sets in: you're a pretty lame skater with no fashion sense, a ghetto deck, and most of all, no street cred whatsoever. And there is where the story, such as it is, kicks itself into full flower, as you and your skater persona cut a swath of extremely dangerous mayhem throughout the various districts of Los Angeles.
Amazingly enough, most of the concepts from American Wasteland come through almost directly. You hook up with the same characters at roughly the same times, pull off a great many of the same stunts, and even get to use a control scheme very similar to the PlayStation 2 version of Wasteland. (Gone are Off The Board mode and the not-exactly-lauded BMX, though the Bert Slide gets to stay around.) The maps are low-detail remakes, every bit as playable though somewhat cramped, with elements placed far closer together. Tricky controller patterns for Specials are removed for the first time ever in a Tony Hawk title, replaced with a simple tap of the touchscreen. It's awkward at first, but works better on the NDS controller than the complex Street Fighter II-style patterns of any other installment. Rotation is smoothly handled, and all the stunts and chains flow with the exact same feel any veteran is going to feel comfortably at home with.
Graphics on the DS are not often awe-inspiring, particularly in the 3D arena, given the comparatively low power of the machine. Neversoft has done an impressive job, pulling together a cel-shaded city that, while lacking in details, is smoothly rendered at all times. It's not the beautiful thing to ever come about, but in this case, it works very effectively — objects are sharp enough, draw-in is no issue, and there are few issues, if any, with the camera handling. Character models are a different bag entirely, rendered in sparse colors and with structures more like gorillas than skate punks. Even the women look like men, a minor caveat of an otherwise strong system.
The walk-in shops dotting the landscape of Wasteland's Los Angeles have gone on a permanent vacation in Sk8tland. Many of the purchasable items don't translate well (like tattoos); those that are left are converted into a simple Skate Shop, accessible at any time from the Pause menu. It's a spartan interface, but the point is covered more than adequately. The touchscreen gets some play in the Design A Tag and Design A Deck modes, both of which are surprisingly fluid and useful. Even a non-artistic type like myself was able to toss together a wicked board design in no time flat. The interfacing for Warehouse Editor (you may know it as Create-A-Park) is no where near as friendly as it should be, though, featuring unlabeled icons, confusing arrows, and (unless I'm mistaken here) no way back to the main game without powering down.
If any intrinsic element falls short, it's the audio. While spartan sound effects are to be expected — skateboarding is not a very loud sport — the rest of the sounds lie a bit flat. Your skater sounds very generic, making no more than an occasional grunt or "oh!" usually just after you've plowed their face into the pavement for the eighth time tonight. The music, admittedly, is spectacular — the first time through the playlist. The soundtrack based on the console versions, played back in spectacular quality. Things like "Holiday" or "Champ" are almost as good as the big versions (what you hear of them). In order to compensate for the much smaller size of a DS chip over a DVD, the music in Sk8land is clips, fed in extremely high quality but generally all lasting less than 90 seconds. There's not a very long list of tracks, either, so they'll likely cycle through several times per play session (especially since moving through menus tends to move to a new song).
Multiplayer, as it is for most of the Tony Hawk series, is nothing to write home about. Head To Head modes allow you to connect, either locally or over the internet, to multiplayer online games. Each mode is relatively simple, usually based on scoring. There's also Download A Goal and Classic Modes, each of which play generally like offline modes (Story and Classic respectively). Download A Goal lets you play a level which doesn't feature in the traditional Story levels, while Classic Online is a ranked system where players submit their scores for, well, rank. Sk8land is the third game so far (after Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing: Wild Wood to support Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection system; it's easy enough to set up and get on the Internet WPA play, assuming you've the proper wireless networking equipment or the Nintendo Wi-Fi Adaptor and all the proper settings and network configurations. This is not the easiest thing in the world, but Nintendo does go out of its way to help out novices.
Sk8land is the best attempt yet to convert the old boy of skateboarding to a portable. While that may not overall be saying much given previous attempts, it's still worth at least a look to see how The Hawk has been compressed into a tiny package that finally manages to contain most of the excitement of its big brothers. The console version stomps its portable offspring into the pavement, but that's comparing apples to cannonballs — on its own and even with its imperfections considered, American Sk8land is as much fun as any Tony Hawk has been, and that's a good thing.