IGN Review of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
In the Game Boy Advance system's half-decade of life, we've seen, on average, one Tony Hawk title a year on the platform. Heck, one of the system's original launch titles was a portable rendition of the classic Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Each of these games were produced as overhead, isometric trickfests by handheld-centric Vicarious Visions, but Activision and Vicarious Visions has outsourced the series to a different team for what could be Tony Hawk's final hurrah on the GBA. This drastic change in development is pretty awkward as the game has now gone completely 3D on the handheld, something that's not exactly "friendly" to the hardware. If you can turn a blind eye to the technical limitations (i.e. the in-game graphics are ugly as sin), Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam didn't turn out all that bad. It's just nowhere near the quality the series had been in the GBA's past.
When the Game Boy Advance was just coming out, everyone knew what it was capable of: it was, essentially, kept in line with Nintendo's early 90s Super NES console in terms of videogame standards. If you wanted 3D graphics, well...stay off the handhelds. Developers, however, took the system's inability to render 3D as a challenge, and the 3D wars had begun. Studios from all over the world pushed polygonal engines of varying qualities, and honestly as impressive as these were, you could still see that there were limitations going that route. Five years later, we're at the point now where 3D on the Game Boy Advance no longer impresses us. Yes, great, you're doing something the hardware was never meant to do. But at what cost? Low resolution imagery, incredibly short draw distances, and, many times, a framerate that's choppier than a butcher shop's worktable.
And that's the initial problem with Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam on the Game Boy Advance. This game, developed by the GBA SSX team, Visual Impact, is a tremendous step back from the handheld Tony Hawk series as a whole. While it's certainly nice to see a game that's not a five-time rehash of the same assets and design, we at least knew that what was made on the GBA worked in practice -- it put the GBA's limitations to work and recreated the Tony Hawk gameplay in a 2D environment. For Downhill Jam, it's the first time that the series brings the camera behind the player on the GBA; to do this, you need a 3D engine to generate the environment. To do 3D on the GBA, you need to work within tremendous limitations.
So, with all of that said, we've now established in so many words that Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is a choppy, low resolution Game Boy Advance game that looks and plays nothing like the previous incarnations on the handheld. Got it? Great. Let's move on.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, however, isn't as bad as the first impressions lead us to believe. Because of the limitations of the 3D engine, the developers of the game have created a very Out Run style race: head down the forced scrolling slopes, crossing checkpoints before time runs out. If you manage to beat each course's leader, you'll snag their board and its added skating attributes, and monetary winnings can be used to increase your skater's abilities as well.
The Nintendo DS and Wii versions of Downhill Jam put focus on the huge assortment of the familiar Tony Hawk trick system. And while the GBA version has some jumps, grabs and flip moves, much of the game is focused on grinding. There are grindrails all over the place: ledges, trolley tracks, bridge supports. They'll even be grindrails in the middle of nowhere for no other reason than the course designer saying, "too empty...lets put a grindrail here." They're important because you can't earn a boost without tricking, and grinding is not only the easiest trick you can pull off in the game, it's also the most rewarding: you don't have to do much course maneuvering if you're rail-grinding around a turn since it simply guides you in the direction you need to go.
Yes, the game looks bad. And yes, like many 3D games on the Game Boy Advance there are some glitches that affect gameplay...like grindrail collision that's really wonky and sometimes won't let you "cling" onto the rail properly, or make you go through objects. But the biggest issue is in the way the game cheats: It's a race against four other opponents, all computer controlled, and all having some of the most blatant rubberband-AI routines ever seen in a videogame. If you keep screwing up, they'll slow down to a crawl to wait for you...so much so that usually if you don't cross the necessary checkpoint, neither will they. On the flipside, if you're doing absolutely fantastic on the course and bail, watch in awe as the opponents whisk by effortlessly. You'll quickly realize the best way to win: stockpile turbo boost and use it towards the end when there's less chance for a detrimental bail.
Even with its wonky in-game graphics, Downhill Jam does have decent presentation. Activision had Tony Hawk record some voiceover specific to the Game Boy Advance edition, which is played back through cutscenes that are inspired by the Vicarious Visions developed DS version's intermission style. The music is also pretty energetic even if it's in short loops, and the sound effects definitely keep with the crisp, familiar audio library that the series has been using for years.
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