The skateboarding genre might have started with many contenders, but when the dust settled you pretty much had one choice: Tony Hawk or nothing. And it's been that way for more than half a decade. Last year, however, Electronic Arts decided we've had enough of the same ol' Tony Hawk Neversoft design and developed an ingenious skateboarding "simulation" called Skate for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The way the designers made you work for basic skateboarding maneuvers gave a sense of satisfaction when you successfully complete it. Skate was good. And you know what happens with successful games, right? They get sequels, and more importantly, they get ported to the handheld. Skate It isn't exactly a port of the original game, but it is a conversion of the unique experience in a stylus driven design. The DS game is incredibly ambitious and is also a lot of fun. It's just a little too rough around the edges to give it high praise.
The Nintendo DS game lifts the same title as the Wii game released day and date, but the portable version doesn't really share a whole lot beyond the core concept of skateboarding and offering a unique way of controlling your skateboarder. In fact the DS game feels a little more along the lines of the original skate does, as there are many similarities to the locations and challenges from the console original in the portable rendition.
Skate It's development duties fell upon Electronic Arts' dependable DS team over in the UK: Exient. With the company already working on top handheld projects like Madden, FIFA, Need for Speed, and Tiger Woods, it's not surprising to see that the studio was put to the task of bringing the ambitious skateboarding design to the dual-screen handheld. And for the most part, the team got it down. Not only is the 3D tech solid with open environments, detailed visuals, and realistic skateboarder animations, but the game feels right in controls, too.
Performing skateboarding maneuvers is handled entirely on the touchscreen with handwriting and flicking gestures taking the place of the analog trick stick of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game. The lower screen has an image of a skateboard which is used as a sort of guide to let you know an Ollie from a Nollie -- by default it's displayed at an angle, but you can orient the controls to be straight up and down if that fits your fancy. Flicking from the bottom up performs an Ollie (a nose-up jump), top to bottom a Nollie (a tail-up jump). Skewing the angle causes a kickflip, and adding a bit more curve or angle points will add more flair to the move. The game has dozens of moves to master, and luckily the in-game trick list does a great job showing the exact drawing points to do with the stylus in order to pull them off. Combining those moves with a left/right on the D-pad will add the 180/360s, and a shoulder button will include a grab to the performed move.
If it sounds a little intimidating, don't worry: it is. This game isn't easy: just like the console game the DS version is actually enormously challenging but it's also amazingly satisfying due to its complexity. Skateboarding isn't an easy sport to pick up and play, and Skate It does a great job representing the sport in a game that has a learning curve to match. But once you get it, there's almost no going back to the alternative; Tony Hawk, you had your day in the sun, but we've had our fill of auto-combos and grinds that can go on forever. The Nintendo DS game is a little more forgiving than the console versions, but that may be due to technological restrictions than actual, intentional design choice. Grind rails are a little more magnetic than in other Skate games -- it's not quite as automatic as Tony Hawk because you still have to have an accurate jump move towards the rail you want to boardslide.
Many of the game's challenges are similar to what you already found in the previous skate games. There are races and games of "S.K.A.T.E." (the skateboarding equivalent of basketball's "H.O.R.S.E") against computer AI opponents, as well as simple "score XXXX amount of points in a set amount of time" levels. There are also competitions against three computer opponents where you try to rack up the best move or best score in a specific location in one of the many skateparks in the game.
What the Nintendo DS game's missing is a sort of coherent presentation. Instead of an open world you simply jump from location to location via a graffiti-style menu system and see which events have opened up to try. Once in the area you can skate to the other events already opened up, but once you complete the available tasks you're whisked back to the overview menu to find a new challenge. It's also missing those console bells and whistles, mostly in the form of voice over and a licensed soundtrack. There are only four songs in the entire game, and you'll be hearing them over and over and over again. Curse those cartridge size limitations!
It's also a little too glitchy to forgive. While Skate It on the Nintendo DS is very playable, the game is a little rough in places and the development team didn't squeeze out all the bugs in time for the game's release: you'll find yourself leaping into trick boxes or through walls, and occasionally a really awesome move in S.K.A.T.E. will go unrecognized. And the "rag doll" effect during bails is almost laughable -- I'm sure the developers could have come up with something a little more realistic than your rider slamming onto the ground like he landed in industrial strength glue.
Which is a shame because the rest of the package is absolutely top notch. You can customize your character with a ton of premade parts, as well as add a handful of user-generated textures doodled up in the game's paint program. There's also a huge focus in multiplayer, with single-cartridge support as well as Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection features for online play. And, maybe most importantly, you can create your own skate park! This is a big deal because we've gone through three Tony Hawk games on the DS with this important feature missing, and Electronic Arts offers it up in its first try. Great stuff.
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