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My Top Ten: Tony Hawk Levels

When skateboarding video games used to be awesome.

I’ve stolen Peter’s regular slot this week because he’s currently busy smashing up our forums with the banhammer, but that’s fine, I’ve wanted to blog about Tony Hawk (the games, not the skater himself, or that dude that carries a fridge everywhere) for ages. If you think you’re a hardcore Killzone 2 fan, or you’re proud of your level in World of Warcraft consider this: when the demo for Tony Hawk Pro Skater came out I played that 2 minute loop endlessly for weeks. When Pro Skater 2 came out I bought a Dreamcast to play it on, and when the third game came out I bought the last-gen version to tide me over for a week until the PS2 version came out. Myself and the good lady could do multi-million point combos in Canada, destroyed Kona on a regular basis and even enjoyed THUG 2. Now that’s hardcore.

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But this is a My Top Ten post, so rather than me just posting my top ten scores, I thought I’d list my personal all-time favourite Tony Hawk levels. There are certainly more than ten that I play to this day, and most of the best are from the earlier versions of the game – this isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia, they simply were better levels, more often than not based on real life areas rather than ridiculous fun parks and Mayan temples – the days when Neversoft had just integrated the revert move were the absolute highlights of the series. Anyway, in an exciting chart-style reverse countdown, here goes:

10: Warehouse, THPS, THPS3, THUG2. It has to be there, doesn’t it? It’s the first level I ever played (in that famous PlayStation demo) and will have seen more grinds over the years than the rest put together. It’s notable that Neversoft like to keep coming back to the Warehouse as a retro level and a training level because it not only brings familiarity to seasoned gamers but also serves as a small, contained area for newcomers.  In the first game it was your initial taste of grinds, the half pipe and, better still, the omnipresent sense that Neversoft knew exactly what you were trying to do and let you do it – the hidden tape is the perfect example.  It might feel constrained now, but this small area of pure joy sums up everything great about the series.

9: Marseille, THPS2. Despite a revisit in a recent PSP Hawk game, this France-based level recreates the famous Marseille Skatepark to a tee.  Initially about the bowls and quarter pipes but ultimately about creating absolutely massive combos around the edge of the park, Merseille (in the game, at least) still gets regular play because it’s completely open ended.  Yes, there are certain famous lines that bag easy points, but hours of free skate have taught me that you’ll probably never find the perfect one.  Unlike Canada (next) there isn’t one way to own Marseille, and a mastery of the vert and the rails is required.  It’s also a really nice level to look at, it’s presence in the Xbox only Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2x was blessed with amazingly high res textures and the secret hidden section was a treat to discover.

8. Canada, THPS3, THUG2. It’s true, the Underground games were never as good as the originals and Canada explained exactly why: when Neversoft were busy adding verticality and unnecessary Parkour moves to Hawk’s repertoire the subtle inclusion of the classic Canada level meant that once I’d bombed through the story mode of THUG 2 I could relax in the visually updated splendour of one of the best levels ever created in the series.  Canada was snowbound and reasonably small, but offered huge lines if you could master the car park , the loop around the main skatepark area and then head back up through the trees near where you started.  You could, if you were good enough, continue this loop until your balance ran out, and the deft skill required to do this meant weeks of continuous attempts at this single line.

7. Los Angeles: THPS3, THUG2. Yes, another level from the third game (and, bizarrely, another one picked up for THUG2’s retro levels) but Los Angeles was an awesome, massively open section with a really nice selection of lines.  Whilst everyone went for the obvious mega points down the rail, through the glass, over the vents and across the fire engine a little exploration would reveal that taking a route through the centre of the map and over the structures was just as rewarding.  LA introduced level deformation into the mix, too, and although it was a one-time (and slightly tasteless) earthquake that you had to cause it was still a pretty cool example of where Neversoft could have taken the series.

6. Skate Heaven, THPS2. I can’t believe Neversoft haven’t gone back to this one.  Hidden away at the very end of Pro Skater 2, Skate Heaven was utterly mindblowing.  Featuring sections from Hawk’s own backyard, the Sadlands and the cleverly hidden Animal Chin tribute (complete with ‘adjustable’ vert ramp) inside the volcano, Skate Heaven was routed in reality in the sense that it contained everyone’s favourite bits of skate parks from the real world but shoved them all into a single, utterly fantastic level that felt like a real treat when you finally unlocked it.

5. Kona, THPS4. Famous for its snake run (which the game accurately recreated) Kona is still up and running, albeit in a slightly amended layout since the game was released.  Kona gives the skater, newly equipped with THPS4’s advanced move set, a huge area to work with and each section of the map, from the top section with the aforementioned snake run to the lower area with the quarter pipes and the street section, required different disciplines.  THPS4 played host to a few great levels, this, San Francisco (up next) and the College all harked back to the classic design ethics that made the games so popular in the first place.  I’ve never been to Kona, but from maps and photos at the time it seemed like Neversoft did a great job of recreating the park – it doesn’t matter though, as a level in a skateboarding game it was pretty much perfect.

4. San Francisco, THPS4. I have, however, been to San Francisco, on more than one occasion, and yes, I did walk in the pouring rain just to see the famous Embarcadero Center sculpture.  The real world location had already appeared earlier in the series but it took the graphical grunt of the forth game to give SF an accurate depiction.  Yes, it managed to condense the Embarcadero and the Fisherman’s Wharf area into a couple of streets but the real beauty of this level wasn’t on Pier 39 but behind the warehouses, where a subtle but endlessly skate-able set of bendy rails and quarter pipes could produce scores into the millions within seconds.  A fascinating test of skill, this tucked away section would prove the highlight of the level but as a whole San Francisco stands proud as being one the best in the series.  You could see Alcatraz, too, which is good because that was a level too.

3. Skater Island, THPS3. The relatively small area precisely modeled on the real life Skater Island contained a complex yet flowing series of bowls and vert ramps alongside a beautifully designed street section.  Effectively split in half, Skater Island not only gave the best of both disciplines but also pretty much forced you to learn how to make the most of the flatland moves that the third game brought into the mix.  Rodney Mullen’s unique Pogo move aside, these new flatland moves (which started with the manual) would see much refining by Neversoft but nothing later in the series would ever really require you to be good at them aside from a few basic NPC tasks to ease you in.  Skater Island’s cool hidden pirate ship just topped off this level for me, and despite the real life park shutting down in 2004 the video game level will live on.

2. Venice Beach: THPS2, THUG. The top two here are interchangeable, and prompted much internal debate.  Venice Beach’s selection of real life locations were smartly integrated together here – I have photographs from the actual beach that correspond exactly with the places in the game level and even though it was little more than a collection of disparate buildings, ledges and palm trees this was absolutely perfectly done.  From Ollie The Bum to the graffiti-torn planters, Venice Beach was the perfect sightseeing level and a glowing example of how to create tight level design – surely the most grindable concrete ever translated onto disk.

1. School II: THPS2. A certain amount of nostalgia is the reason this is here, probably, because Venice Beach is technically a better level.  However, the bits that make up School II – the playground, the basketball gym, the map roof jumps, the secret Carlsbad area – are all endlessly replayable and although School II is harder to create the longer lines on it’s still the best example of how skateboarding games should be: open sections, little to get in your way when free skating but with enough to challenge you should you decide to up your game and go for some scores.  There’s lots in School II, much more than you’d initially remember, from the high speed roof section and the relatively large amount of secret areas and it’s actually quite a big level all things considered – the leap of faith into the Carlsbad railset was a surprise for me (things didn’t get leaked in those days) and that alone cements School II at the top of the chart.

So, Neversoft, there’s your Best of Tony Hawk collection all set up.  Drop Ride, and give us what we really want…

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