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A skater does a lip trick against a sunset or sunrise Image: Vicarious Visions/Activision

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Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 review: Coming home feels great

An impossible game in 2020

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a series doomed from the beginning.

The idea itself was perfect: What if a game let you skate in all those amazing places around your city — and in some cases, around the world — that you’ve always dreamed of seeing while atop your board? What if your school, an airplane hangar, or the local mall were just yours, and you were free to try pretty much any trick you could think of?

Each round was two minutes of bliss as you tried to nail a longer combo, increase your score, or master the perfect run of tricks. It was all for you, and the limitations of each run were just as important as the possibilities.

The first Pro Skater was released in 1999, back when people still traded VHS tapes and kids got yelled at for skating in parking lots. If there were ever a game that introduced a mainstream audience to a niche lifestyle, this was it. Suddenly, the masses got an idea of why people skate, and saw a grinning, goofy face of the sport in Tony Hawk himself.

It was a series that arguably brought skateboarding beyond skate parks, empty pools, and zines. Everyone seemed to be playing it, in trancelike two-minute sessions over and over again. We learned the rhythm of the ollie, the difference between vert and street skating, and the joy of the endless combo once reverts and manuals were introduced.

The magic of the Pro Skater games was their intuitive controls, which invited creativity and experimentation as players skated through the games’ environments. You’d react to your own performance, improvising to keep runs smooth and clean. The best part? You didn’t have to risk life and limb practicing to feel like a skater. Play it enough, and you started to see the real world as one huge course, begging to be skated.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 joins a proud tradition of Activision selling us the same game in the same series multiple times; it’s the third attempt at remixing and re-releasing some version of this content, after Tony Hawk 2X on the original Xbox in 2001 and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD in 2012. But this is the first time anyone has been able to do it right in the past decade or so.

The controls and feel of the first two Tony Hawk games have been left intact, with a beautiful visual upgrade and a selection of modern improvements and sly edits of the original content. I think I feel a slight difference in keeping vert runs going, and things can get a little goofy — pardon the pun — after you level up your skater to jump much higher and spin for much longer than any human conceivably could, but these are also areas where I’ve always struggled with the series. I’m curious to read more from the ultra-hardcore players, but as a moderately serious player, I’m satisfied with the solid, if sometimes unpredictable, re-creation of the original skating engine.

A skater gets ready to explore a gym Image: Vicarious Visions/Activision

Which is just what the series needs. Pro Skater was never just about learning how to land signature tricks; it was about how to make your path through each level flow like water, creating something that looked and felt both effortless and beautiful. There was nothing realistic about it, but it matched how I felt skateboarding should be, based on my pop culture understanding of it.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 keeps that feeling, while adding to the fantasy through the rebuilt character models and levels. The updated visual fidelity isn’t a distraction; it adds to the fantasy of actually skating in these places, which is an important distinction when it comes to what “realistic” graphics do for a game. War games, on one hand, can get more disturbing as they approach photorealism. With more detail, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games deliver a better fantasy of skating through these places.

The Hangar is filled with shiny surfaces and detailed aircraft, and there’s something a little sad in how the new version of the Mall level now looks abandoned, with its stores boarded up. You can revisit your past, I guess, but things will have changed. I don’t remember drones from my original runs through Downhill Jam, that’s for sure.

Tony himself looks older, and maybe a little creakier, although his voice-over during the tutorials is infectious in its enthusiasm. Look at the cool stuff you can do, every emphasis seems to say, just look at it all! Learn a few tricks, and the world is yours!

There are nods to modern sensibilities here, though. The roster of skaters is notably more diverse. A trick has been renamed to address an ableist term and bring attention to the trick’s creator, and there are a range of assists you can turn on if you don’t want to worry about running out of your special meter, or never want to bail. Every park is unlocked to be played in free skate from the beginning of the game, and there’s a new Speed Run mode that tests to see how quickly you can finish every goal in each level.

The developer, Vicarious Visions, was wise enough to avoid being precious with the content, bringing more advanced moves like manuals to the first game, while also allowing you to turn those options off if you’d like — along with assists so that you’ll never wipe out or lose your balance on grinds — to keep the classical experience.

The most competitive players will never touch those settings anyway, or maybe they’ll just never find them in the inelegant menu system — for real, the menus are a mess — but newer players or those who struggle with manual dexterity will be glad they’re there. It’s been a joy watching my children fall in love with this game by going through the tutorials, exploring each park in free skate, and learning tricks with the virtual training wheels on. It’s 2020, and Tony Hawk and his virtual counterparts are still out here, spreading the gospel of skateboarding.

Which is worth spreading, especially in this form. I took to the first level of the first game in this collection as if no time at all had passed since I played it in high school. I slipped right into that same blissful state as I explored levels, reveled in secrets, and enjoyed existing in a world where the only “No Skating” signs existed to be destroyed in pursuit of your goals.

The first two Tony Hawk games were created before the series had story modes or sections in which your character got off the board. Even now, the levels explode with an aggressive ferocity filtered through elegant, versatile design that rewards players who go straight for each objective, while also holding surprises for fans trying to think outside the box.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 are the sorts of games you just couldn’t make anymore. The concept doesn’t really support ongoing content, as Activision found out by watering down what made the game special with sequel after sequel, year after year. That’s why the franchise was always doomed; it wasn’t an idea that did well as different teams bolted on more and more gimmicks and oddities.

But that only makes this remaster feel more miraculous — an act of driving through your old neighborhood to see what’s changed, back when a few skate parks and some inventive inside jokes were enough to support a full-priced release. No one would fund such a modest endeavor anymore; there’s no good way to add a season pass to Pro Skater, or fund continual development through selling skins. It always worked better as timed runs through limited environments, not as an open-world game with various missions to find and complete.

The series, when done well, is almost the opposite of a living game, which is a pretty punk-rock thing to be in 2020.

The soundtrack is still expertly selected, with enough of the classic songs included to bring older players back to their youth. The game’s controls and combo systems hew close enough to the originals that my old muscle memory kicked in immediately. I’ve still not unlocked every park, and I suspect there are more new secrets that I haven’t seen in the levels I have played, but the amount of content is almost beside the point.

Once I’ve mastered the game, as I originally did in my youth, I’ll likely return to it again and again, trying to improve my strategies and losing myself in the mechanical beauty of the level design and controls. Online play — which we haven’t tried before the public launch — plus the ability to create and share your own skate parks, the create-a-skater mode, and even couch co-op will also help keep this game active in my library for a long time to come. I’m also looking forward to seeing the secret skaters that have been hidden in this release.

After a few hours, I even got the same dull ache in the same parts of my hands, the parts that most other games don’t tax quite so severely as Tony Hawk’s games do. Everything I love about the original is still here; it’s just a little older, a little kinder, and a lot better looking.

Just like Tony Hawk himself.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 will be released Sept. 4 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was played on Xbox One using a physical copy provided by Activision. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.