The first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game had nine levels with five objectives per level. You were given two minutes per level to do as much as you could. There were 45 things to do, at least officially, and you had to play in two minute chunks. That was it.
It was sold for full price, of course, and people loved it.
This situation would never fly in a world where bullet points and pure numbers rule. We want more characters, more levels and more options. "Fans" release images such as this that go viral before anyone has even played the game in question, ignoring the reality of what it's like to make a high-quality character or level with the sort of visual fidelity we demand from big-budget games.
A modern version of the first Tony Hawk game, with that number of levels, objectives and skaters, would be seen as something akin to a betrayal. A game with such a tight focus would never fly in the modern market.
The second Pro Skater release was bigger, with ten objectives per level and more levels overall, competition events where you were judged on your performance, and create-a-skater options with a leveling system that allowed you to purchase skill points to beef up your abilities. The manual, which allowed you to extend combos much further, was brought in. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 was the perfect mixture of size and purity of the concept.
Losing the plot
The fourth game in the series introduced an open world, because every game needed an open world. Instead of a single, well-designed skate park with a set of understood objectives you had to explore the level to find your objectives and then complete them. This was great for stretching the amount of time people played the game, but was it any more fun?
The idea of the two-minute run to get everything done, or at least as much as you could, was gone. The tight, high-concept version of the game that launched the series had been ditched in favor of a game with a much larger scope, not to mention online play, and it was the beginning of the end.
Pro Skater 4 wasn't bad, but it was the beginning of things getting much, much worse. Underground introduced the ability to get off the board completely and ditched licensed skaters for the ability to create your own skater. A story was introduced, with characters that focused on your experience as a skater who rose up the ranks to become the best. In an ironic twist, the plot was about the dangers of giving in to commercialization; whether one skated for money, or for the love of it.
The text was that skating for the love of the act was the best thing possible, the subtext was that we would probably quit playing the game if we didn't have this terrible story to keep us going. The best way to promote skating would have been to get out of our damned way so we could skate, even if it's just in a video game.
Underground had a sequel, and then there was Project 8 and Proving Ground, and the game with the actual plastic skateboard because by this point Activision felt the need to chase every trend imaginable and plastic peripherals were a big deal at the time. There were motion-controlled games for the same reason. All told, there are 16 Tony Hawk games that have been released, if you don't count the ports and remakes.
The series was burned down, in other words. Everything that made it special was sacrificed in the face of fads and terrible sales.
So here we are
We know a new game is coming, and the teases make it seem like a return to form, but it's unknown whether the game's developer and publisher will be able to see through the haze of a ruined franchise with the clarity that's needed to remember what made the original so special.
The smell of Tony Hawk is the smell of sweat, cheap pizza and stale weed
The first few games took the players into something close to a meditative state; it was just you, your skater and the level. Everyone had the same chance to do something amazing, and you only had a few minutes in which to try.
The game's scope was tiny, but the number of things to try, and the attempt to perfect the best run, was nearly infinite. I remember entire summer days taken up with Tony Hawk played on a small CRT television next to an open door to try to fend off the heat.
The smell of Tony Hawk is the smell of sweat, cheap pizza and stale weed. Of course, with memories that strong you're feeling the pull of nostalgia, but that kind of deep connection to the game couldn't have happened if it launched as an open world, narrative game complete with silly stories about "soul skating." We didn't need to be told that's what we were doing, it was implicit from how the game presented the sport of skating.
And that's what I want from a sequel. I want well-designed skate parks, and a limited time in which to make the best run. I want a game that's small in scope but limitless in possibility once you get good. I want everything after Pro Skater 4 to be retconned out of existence, just like Disney erased the extended canon of Star Wars.
The first few Tony Hawk games were nearly a religion in my neighborhood growing up, and that level of worship was made possible due to their design and welcoming nature. Here is your board, there is your playground and this is the stopwatch. Now go do something amazing.
Capturing that feeling, that open door, isn't just possible. It's necessary if the series is going to be relevant again.