In 1999, a video game helped make skateboarding mainstream. When the fledgling X-Games and the entire concept of extreme sports were still striving for acceptance, Tony Hawk was the face of the movement, a Michael Jordan-esque figure who dominated the sport and became a household name. And while his real-life heroics were a large part of the appeal, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for the original PlayStation (and later the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64) truly cemented him and the sport as a phenomenon. But over the years the Pro Skater series has slowly been milked to death by a regular stream of forgettable new releases, and while there have been a few standouts — like the excellent Skate series — skateboarding games have largely died alongside it.
OlliOlli for the PS Vita brings the genre back to life.
Timing is everything
The game strips skateboarding down to the very basics — it looks and feels like a modern skateboarding game crammed onto a SNES cartridge. As opposed to the big, open levels of Tony Hawk, OlliOlli features tight two-dimensional stages with a beginning, an end, and little room for exploration, turning it into a more arcade-style experience. The controls are excitingly simple: you use the X button to push and gain momentum, while holding the analog stick and releasing it at just the right time will let you jump and pull off tricks. You can pull off dozens of moves by moving the analog stick in different directions, letting you control everything from how you flip your board to how you grind on a rail. It's a simple system, but one that allows for lots of creativity and flexibility.
Timing is everything. In order to land cleanly, you'll need to hit X just before you hit the ground, and failing to do so will result in a drastically reduced score. You can pull off a level-long combo totalling a hundred thousand points, but if you don't stick the landing you'll only get a fraction of that amount. When you factor in the level design, which often includes non-stop barrages of everything from staircases to forklifts, OlliOlli can be a pretty challenging game. The levels make it entirely possible to pull off ridiculously lengthy combos, but one small mistake and it's all for naught — crashing in OlliOlli means starting the level again from scratch.
One small mistake and it's all for naught
Luckily the stages are short enough that starting over isn't really a pain, and you'll likely find yourself playing levels repeatedly anyways, in order to memorize every surface in pursuit of that ever-elusive high score. The career mode feature 50 levels spread across five worlds — from a dingy junkyard to a neon-lit city — and getting five stars on each is incredibly challenging. It actually feels a lot like the underappreciated GameBoy Advance versions of Tony Hawk crossed with a mobile game like JetPack Joyride. The mission structure ensures that even when you beat a level you'll want to play it again to complete the various challenges thrown at you.
This set-up also makes OlliOlli an ideal portable game: you can hop in for a few minutes at a time, or grind away for hours trying to nail the perfect run. In some ways it feels like the game could use a bit more flavor — the ability to customize your character, for example, or some more variety to how the levels look — but the core gameplay is so tight and engaging that you won't mind much.
Just remember to stick your landings.