Every so often a game comes around which forces me to re-evaluate all of my preconceptions. Sometimes, a hardcore gamer becomes so sure of his or her discerning tastes that the mere mention of something like "Tony Hawk's American Sk8land" or "Fire Pro Wrestling" will send them reeling into a frenzy of hate. At best this hypothetical gamer will politely nod and walk away.
But at 8-Bit City our minds and eyes are open to the possibility of greatness in an unconventional form. T.H.U.G. and American Sk8land certainly qualify. There have been a long string of Tony Hawk games on the GBA, starting with Pro Skater 2, then a flurry of other titles: Pro Skater 3, 4, Underground (T.H.U.G.), Underground 2, Downhill Jam, and finally American Sk8land. Most people would be quick to dismiss the isometric action as simply "not as good as the console versions." And they'd be correct, but only in a limited capacity.
What makes these games great--and I've already started talking about all of the GBA games despite my sincere effort to focus on one--is solid isometric gameplay, a great skill/trick system, and solving all the world's problems with the power of SKATE. Instead of hate and violence, in Tony Hawk you use your trash talking and sidewalk shredding to solve any potential problem. The stories which accompany these games are nothing short of absurd, but the absurdity creates a hilariously positive world. It's a world in which the skateboard reigns supreme, and in this world the player can become like a god.
That's not to say these games are perfect, but when one is in the presence of such greatness complaints seem trivial and besides the point. For example, all of the GBA games use the exact same set of 10 boards to choose from. It would take exactly no effort to change the graphics up from game to game, yet for about a decade the GBA releases would continue reusing these boards in every single release. Not cool. However, in later games (Underground and Sk8land, for example) you can create a custom deck, which mitigates the problem to a degree.
Similarly, player models and clothing options get recycled through all the games, with occasional variation added to the genepool every so often. But so what? Are you a fashionista poseur more concerned about your slick looks that your skating skills? I didn't think so.
You came to skate, and you came to the right place. Other skateboarding games on the GBA, such as the ESPN X-Games Skateboarding, stick the player in a halfpipe and that's about it. Tony Hawk gives you free-roaming worlds in which to explore (in the later games), with skating-based goals, multiple modes, and almost perfect controls.
I should probably stress the "almost" perfect, but as far as isometric skating goes, the Tony Hawk games are the best. Consider another isometric GBA game, Jet Set Radio. Despite the potential, to skate forward you have to press "UP" on the D-Pad. This is awkward as all hell. In Tony Hawk games you hold B, the same button you use to ollie, and like the console masterpieces it works like a charm. One still has to steer with left and right based on how one's character is oriented on the screen, but for whatever reason as long as "B" is the "GO" button, everything is silky smooth.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skate 2 launched with the GBA, and stunned the world with actual 3-D models being used for the skaters. It's this little innovation which made the entire GBA series possible, and it's thankfully unchanged over the course of these games. Downhill Jam is the exception, but I haven't had a chance to really dig into it just yet.
To be blunt, the games are cheap as hell. I picked up carts of Underground and Underground 2 today for $2.50 a piece. Underground 2 was complete with the box and manual even. I really can't complain, and you've really got no excuse not to play these games. Especially considering GBA emulation is basically flawless and GBA roms are everywhere online. Just use "Virtual Boy Advance CE" and you'll be shredding this afternoon.
One of the best features behind these games is the "RPG system" by which you level up your character's stats. In the earlier games this is accomplished through collecting stat points, but in Underground it's closer to Oblivion. Want to level up your manual stat? You'll have to pull off a series of longer and longer stunts in order to increase your balance. Want to learn how to kickflip? You'll have to do 2 pop shove-its in a combo. It's surprisingly brilliant and fun.
Sk8land streamlines the formula somewhat, and levels up your stats after complete quests, but it still maintains the fun of building a skater up from nothing into a Titan of Trucks and a God of Grinds & Griptape. If the price is right, buy whichever of these games you can find. Skate to heaven on the golden rails of isometric glory.