15/09/2017

STREET SK8ER (PLAYSTATION)

This article’s all about a Playstation skateboarding game. Not that Playstation skateboarding game, though. However, please don’t take the fact that I’m writing about a much less well-known PS1 skate-em-up as proof that I’m purposefully choosing more obscure games to cover here at VGJunk. It’s just that if I tried to cover the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games I’d end up playing them for ages and getting nothing else done. Instead, I’m going to get my extreme sports thrills with Atelier Double and Micro Cabin’s 1998 big-air-em-up Street Sk8er!


Street Sk8er has a few names, actually. It was first released in Japan as Street Boarders, before coming to the US and being renamed to the much more “hip” and “urban” Street Sk8er. This was far too x-treme for the staid, reserved palate of European consumers, and so in PAL regions the name was changed again to Street Skater. Then the game was re-released as part of the Japanese “Simple 1500” budget range - the name once more changed to the rather severe-sounding The Skateboard. That’s a lot of different names for one game about rolling down hills on a plank of wood, so let’s hope the game itself contains just as much variety.


On that front, the early signs are not good. There are only two gameplay modes, Tour and Free Skate, and three courses, plus a couple of minigame modes. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad game, though. How many tracks did Ridge Racer have? Exactly, and that turned out pretty well.


There are also four characters to choose from, each with different ratings in a variety of skateboard-related stats. All the statistics are important for effective skateboarding, but given how likely it is that I’m going to spend my first few attempts at the game constantly slamming into walls I think that I’ll get the most use out of TJ here thanks to his high acceleration stat. Hopefully it’ll allow me to get back into the action that bit more quickly.
The character designs are about what you’d expect for a group of young skate punks, and you get the obvious mix of stat allocations (some slower but easier to handle, others faster but more slippery than a greased eel) with a design philosophy of typical late-nineties skateboarder gear.


That said, Jerry’s shirt is so violently unpleasant that having to look at it means I’ve got a decent case to prosecute him for assault. Also, I know “goofy” in this context means that he rides with his left foot at the back of his board, but that doesn’t mean I can’t chuckle at a character being labelled with “style: goofy” because I'm assuming they shout "oh, gawrsh!" when they fall off their board.


Okay, here we go with the skateboarding. I decided to give Free Skate mode a go so I could get used to the action, and immediate impressions are that it handles just as I was expecting. Left and right to steer, X to jump, hold circle to crouch and build up speed. All very straightforward, with your character having a good sense of momentum when they’re moving: enough that you can’t turn on a sixpence unless you come to a complete stop, but responsive enough to get you where you want to go, especially with a little forward planning. All in all, I think I’m getting the hang of this skateboarding lark and I’ll soon be impressing everyone with my sick moves.


Or perhaps not. Here’s the first ramp I saw, and rather than soaring majestically into the air and doing some kind of flip, I skated right into the side of it. If the commentator’s anguished cry of “medic!” is anything to go by, TJ’s bones now have the consistency of cat litter, but skaters are made of sturdy stuff and he’s soon back on his board, albeit with a -300 point penalty. I think that’s what they mean when they say “adding insult to injury.” Well, the joke’s on them – I didn’t even have any points to lose.


Okay, here we go – I’ve managed to pull off my first trick, a simple grind along the edge of brick planter. Simple is the operative word here, because all you have to do to grind is jump onto the grindable rail at a reasonable angle – that is, not perpendicular – and you’ll be “locked” on to the rail, scoring some points in the process.


Ramps took a bit more figuring out. Obviously you can do tricks off the various ramps and half-pipes that make up the course, but my early issue with the mechanics of doing so were twofold. The first was that it took me a while to realise that simply shooting off the ramp isn’t enough, and you have to manually jump at the ramp’s edge. Then the problem was that I kept holding down the jump button, something ingrained into my muscle memory through years of playing, you guessed it, the Tony Hawk’s games.


Once I’d got it into my thick head that tapping the jump button is the way to go, Street Sk8er’s gameplay clicked into place, and it turns out that pulling off tricks is extremely simple. When you go off a ramp or the top of a pipe, press jump and hold one of the directional buttons to do a move. That’s all there is to it. Up, down, left and right each perform a different trick. Like I say, it’s very simple and doubly so when you realise that unless you really mess up, for example by falling off the edge of a half-pipe and slamming face-first into the unforgiving concrete or jumping straight into a wall, you’ll always land your trick. There are no extra points awarded for a good landing and almost no mid-air adjustments to make, so as long as you’re going to land on a “viable” surface then you’re going to score points. The same is true with grinding, as there’s no need to balance on the rail and once you’re on there, you’re on there.


With the basics of Street Sk8er’s action roughly figured out, I decided to head into the Tour mode, as that’s where the meat of the game’s content lies. I switched to the all-rounder character Ginger, because she’s the only one sensible enough to be wearing knee pads. The Tour is a series of score-attack challenges across the game’s three courses – New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo – interspersed with a couple of minigame challenges. You’re given a target score to beat before you can progress to the next stage (although you can retry as many times as you like) and a time limit to consider, which can be topped up by skating through various checkpoints.


Los Angeles is the first course, and because I’d already played it before I managed to get through it with the minimum of fuss… on my second attempt. The first time through, I spent too much time trying to rack up points on the half-pipe, which isn’t a great tactics for several reasons. One is that you gradually score fewer and fewer points for each trick you pull off on the same obstacle, forcing you to move on to fresh, ankle-shattering pastures. That makes sense, and it keeps the action flowing at a good pace. The other thing is that you get a big points bonus if you reach the goal with a lot of time left on the clock, and especially later in the game you need this big points bonus to meet the score requirement. So, Street Sk8er tries to squash two kinds of skating gameplay together: the trick-centric score-em-up and the straight race to the finish line, and it does an admirable job of combining the two into a game that’s fast-paced but still gives you a chance to show off.


After each of Tour mode’s main stages, you’re given some points with which to improve your character’s abilities. I decided to keep Ginger as an all-rounder, although it was tempting to slam it all into jump power and see if I could send her into a low-Earth orbit, or at least out of bounds.


Next up is the half-pipe minigame: thirty seconds to score as many points as you can without severely injuring your character by trying to get them to grind along every available surface. That’s definitely an issue with Street Sk8er, it’s often not clear about which ledges are grindable and which aren’t. Anyway, the half-pipe. There’s not much to it, but you should still try your best because the higher the score you get, the more bonus time you’re given to complete the next “proper” course and those extra seconds can be vital.


Here we are in New York, grinding our way to success and definitely not about to smash into that chainlink fence once this brickwork runs out. I’m sure I’ll avoid that hazard, have my time refilled and do a backflip off that ramp in the distance. That’s the plan, anyway. Because Street Sk8er only has three full stages, you’ll eventually come to learn the layout and location of every ramp and obstacle, and honestly the earlier comparison to Ridge Racer is a surprisingly apt one. Despite being a PS1 exclusive, Street Sk8er feels very much like an arcade game: short, score-focused stages where playtimes are generally under three minutes per course, bold, chunky graphics and not much else to it rather than the core gameplay.


Fortunately, that core gameplay is a lot of fun. Limited, sure, but it moves at a good clip and the feeling of nailing a series of tricks, grinding along a rail to the next half-pipe and backflipping over the finish line with time to spare is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back thanks to good controls and some fun presentation. There’s definitely room in my heart for an arcade-style skateboarding game, and that’s exactly what this is, to the point that I’ve almost convinced myself that there really was a Street Sk8er arcade cabinet with a motion-sensitive fake board for you to stand on. The brevity of a Street Sk8er play session relly works in the game's favour, too - keeping each run to a couple of minutes forces you to avoid getting hung up on the same areas of the course, being able to retry with no fuss prevents things getting frustrating.


The second between-round minigame is the bowl, which is functionally the same as the half-pipe. Thirty second timer, score points, etc. The main difference is the added anxiety that comes from constantly worrying I was about to smash Ginger’s head into this crane dangling over the middle of the bowl.


The final “big” course is Tokyo, and personally I found it the most fun of the three, probably because it’s a little less realistic than the other two, with menacing, vertiginous quarter-pipes and almost sci-fi themed tunnels – an aesthetic that fits nicely with the overblown, oversaturated arcade feel of Street Sk8ter’s action.


It’s also fun because while it technically has the highest points requirement to clear the stage, it also has the most ramps and jumps so you can score some big points without having to slow down too much. In fact, Street Sk8er’s Tour mode is one of those rare games that gets easier as you progress through it, mostly because of the bonus time you can get from the minigames which isn’t available to you on the first stage. This is especially noticeable once you’ve completed the Tour mode once, because the next time you play it the score requirements will be even higher.


It doesn’t take long to finish Tour mode, and you reward for doing so – the first time through, at least – is that some gates in the stages become unlocked, giving you access to different routes though each course. It’s a decent way to expand on the game’s replayability, even if it was surprisingly difficult to see the new routes when I went back and tried the stages again.


And I did go back, because I was having so much fun playing Street Sk8er that I figured I’d try to unlock a few more things. I hit a bit of a stumbling block when I went back into tour mode and the point requirements had been increased, mind you – especially on the first course, where there simply aren’t that many things to trick off and to get through you have to nail every available point-scoring opportunity and get to the goal as quickly as possible. One thing it took me a while to realise is that when you level up a character’s stats, it also increases the “level” of tricks that they can perform. You start out with fairly “standard” skateboarding tricks like kickflips, but once you’re up to level eight you can pull off ridiculous helicoptering moves, mid-air handstands and the like, all of which get you the extra points that you’ll need to meet the new targets. While there’s not really a combo system as such, it does seem that you can only perform the bigger tricks after knocking out a few of the smaller ones, making hitting as many potential jumps as possible very important.


Another reason to keep playing Tour mode is that you can unlock some new characters, with a couple of stand-outs. One of them is a bonobo ape called, appropriately enough, Bonobo. Who could fail to be charmed by the concept of a skateboarding chimp? Especially in a videogame, because this way you get the fun of seeing a monkey busting out killer backflips without any of the ethical concerns you might feel when viewing, say, an old PG Tips advert. More skateboarding monkeys, that what videogames need.


The other “weird” character is a ninja lady called Saho, who’s unique in that she rides rollerblades rather than a board. It doesn’t affect the gameplay any, but it’s a nice touch and I assume the thinking was “ninjas stab people, so she should use rollerblades, ah ha ha.” Once of Saho’s moves is a jumping board-grab where she stretches her legs out like she’s doing a flying kick, so she’s worth unlocking for that reason alone.


By this point, I’d spent a good few hours playing Street Sk8er, and I was having a lot of fun. More fun than I expected to, if I’m honest. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated but action-packed and very engaging piece of arcade excitement, and part of me wants to describe it as the skateboarding equivalent of Crazy Taxi. It’s a particularly impressive achievement when you consider that it’s one of the first – if not the first – fully 3D 32-bit skateboarding games, preceding even the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.


Ah yes, that game. Well, there was always going to be a point in this article where I had to compare Street Sk8er to Tony Hawk’s, wasn’t there? However, it’s not a fair comparison, because they’re very different games. Street Sk8er’s all about straightforward, uncomplicated action, while THPS simply has much more to it. That said, I’m still going to compare them by saying that THPS is the better game, because it has even sharper controls, more locations, bigger combo potential and (starting with THPS2) the Create-A-Skater option... but Street Sk8er offers a nice change of pace, and is a fun game for when you’ve got twenty minutes to spare. One thing that THPS did that Street Sk8er doesn’t quite manage is that it made regular suburban kids feel as though they were, in a small way, a part of a cool “underground” subculture. That might sound like I’m taking the piss but I genuinely think that’s a good thing - I’m sure there were kids out there who got into skating and other related topics because of the THPS games and I think that’s neat.


On the theme of comparisons between this and THPS, I should mention Street Sk8er’s soundtrack, which is probably exactly what you’re expecting – licensed pop-punk and ska tracks from lesser-known bands of the time like The Pietasters and I Against I. The exception is a couple of tracks from Less Than Jake, including “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” which later graduated to the big leagues by appearing on the soundtrack of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Obviously it’s all down to personal taste, but I enjoyed the soundtrack and whatever your feelings about ska-punk I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say it’s the perfect genre to soundtrack a 1998 PS1 skateboarding game. Personally, “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” comes attached to a lot of fond, alcoholically-fuzzed memories, so I was glad to hear it while I tried to steer a monkey in a baseball cap around a half-pipe. There’s nothing quite as iconic as holding on to what you are and pretending you’re a superman or as straight-up good as Adolescents’ “Amoeba,” but yeah, I enjoyed the soundtrack.


That’s Street Sk8er, then. If you’ve read through this article and spotted an instance where I typed “Street Sk8ter” and forgot to fix it, feel free to let me know because I’m sure I did it at least a dozen times. It’s a really enjoyable little game with a pleasingly straight-ahead arcade feel, and it’s particularly impressive when you consider when it was released. Honestly, I'm struggling to think of anything negative to say about it besides the lack of content. There's a stretch or two ineach course where there's not much to do besides "go fast," and it could maybe do with a button to reset your position when you get stuck in the smaller crevices of the play area, but other than that it does what it does very well.
So is it inferior to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? Just about, and especially when compared to that venerable franchise’s later sequels, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  And hey, skateboarding ape. You can’t argue with that.

4 comments:

  1. Good review! I always saw Street Skater cheap in the shops and wanted to buy it...but never did. You've kinda made me wish I had now.

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    Replies
    1. Well, you can get it pretty cheap on eBay...

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  2. If you haven't played Skate 3, I think you'd have a lot of fun with it. I got it just for the character creation; the sociopathic freaks I added to my skating team made for some great screenshots (that I wish I had on hand).

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    Replies
    1. I think I've only played the first Skate game, maybe I'll keep an eye out for the 3rd one because I can't resist a ridiculous character creator.

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