Skater XL, which left Steam Early Access and was released for consoles late last month, arrived at an odd time. It’s the first proper new 3D skateboarding game since 2015’s disastrous Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, but it’s launching just months ahead of the incoming nostalgia hit of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remake. The game’s action is much closer to EA’s Skate trilogy, and that series, too, has recently announced that it will be returning for a 4th game, albeit not for a while.
After such a long wait, there’s something comforting about being back on a video game skateboard, kickflipping down staircases, missing the rail I intended to grind on, and stuffing up the landing so that my character’s knees give out beneath them. Skater XL’s unique control system (each stick controls one foot, and then need to be used in conjunction very precisely to pull moves off) is an interesting one, and it means that you really feel like you’re slowly learning to skateboard as you play. There’s lots to like about this technical approach, but Skater XL ultimately falls short in failing to connect the activity of skateboarding to any broader culture context in the way that its predecessors so famously did.
Skateboarding is (Unfortunately) Not a Crime
I’ve thought a lot about the Tony Hawk games as I play through Skater XL. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series managed to elevate its star to a household name while also inspiring a generation of new skaters. And it did so by selling skateboarding as both cool and punk, an activity where you might break your arm and get in trouble with the cops, but where you might also, say, make history by spinning around on your board a full 900 degrees in the air. The series dripped with adolescent charm, but backed it up with satisfying gameplay.
Skater XL‘s approach to the mechanics of skateboarding are similarly compelling. But the game as a whole is a bare experience, with no career mode, no customization, no online play (or any multiplayer to speak of), and no character creation. The levels are empty of human life, and there’s little sense of the locations being “real” as a result. Conversely, Skate and THPS drop the player into colorful, increasingly-absurd worlds.
In both of those series, skateboarding is a disruptive act. Consider Skate 2, a game that opens with you getting out of prison then skating through a city that has outlawed skateboarding in the wake of a transformative earthquake. At the time of its release, the game was criticized by some for filling its levels with cops that would try to end your run. But by approaching skating as inherently anti-authoritarian, Skate 2 properly sells it as an extremely cool thing to do. All three Skate games encourage you to make the world around you into your personal playground — to take environments that do not feel like they were built with skateboarding in mind and devise lines through them, getting that perfect shot or film for your reel. By skating, you make the city your own.
When the Superman Horn Intro Hits
When I think back on the levels from the original Pro Skater, a common theme many of them share is that they’re spaces you’ve surely entered illegally. An abandoned warehouse; a school and a mall, both after hours; Area 51, Roswell. As a kid, seeing these spaces reinvented as transgressive playgrounds was exhilarating — a new way of looking at the world. A huge part of the fun of the THPS series comes from how much you can damage the environments you skate through, smashing through glass, knocking down structures, and generally bothering the establishment. You might be Tony Hawk, the biggest skateboarder in the world, but you’re still a damn punk kid listening to Goldfinger.
I loved the first four Tony Hawk games not just as fun experiences, but as entry points into a wider culture. I’m not cool enough to know a lot about punk music, but I know that I love the tracks these games introduced me to. I watched the Rodney Mullen highlight reel video in Pro Skater 3 repeatedly, marvelling at his flatland expertise. The line between what real skaters could do and what I could do in the game was always clear — the Pro Skater games are not trying to be realistic. They’re trying to capture and exaggerate the sheer magic of an incredible trick and give that to everyone. I never wanted to pick up a skateboard after playing these games, but I absolutely gained a deeper respect for the lifestyle and culture they afforded me a window into.
Skater XL is a game about learning how to skateboard, but it’s not a game about what it means to be a skateboarder. You could say that those are different goals, and that it’s fine for a game to tackle the physics of skateboarding without the culture. But the emptiness of Skater XL’s levels, the pleasant but staid soundtrack, the lack of any sort of online community or fun Easter eggs — it all feels very buttoned-up. It carries none of the history or attitude of its genre forefathers. After a while of playing it I started to wish that, like in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Underground 2, the crew from MTV’s Jackass would show up and start hurling mousetraps at me.
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The Domestication of the Modern Skater
I went into Skater XL wondering what it is about certain genres that makes them feel closed off from new entrants. Why aren’t there more skateboarding games? Why can’t I write about Skater XL without, inevitably, bringing up these two other franchises, both of which have been long-dormant and are very different from each other? But perhaps it’s not possible to make a great, straightforward skateboarding game without directly copying what the Skate and Tony Hawk games have done. Between the former’s more grounded approach and the latter’s extravagance, it feels like they have everything covered, even a decade after the release of Skate 3, the last truly great skateboard game.
The worst thing that can happen to counter-culture is that it becomes the dominant culture — look at what happened to The Simpsons once it became too big a part of the society it was trying to satirize, for instance. Skater XL feels like a skateboarding game wearing a tie and picking up an extra coffee to give to its boss on its way to the office, nervously nodding at the cop it crosses on the street outside. All it cares about is how well you can do the tricks — but there’s more to skating than that, and Skater XL just doesn’t back up its simulation with soul.