Welcome to Top Ten!
In the first week after the publication of part one, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, was released and by any reasonable measurement is the franchise's tragic husk that would be best kept out of sight. This predictable disappointment brought up some references to the original series, games which are older and canonized to the point which their nostalgic reputation has in many ways become truth. (Watch this Cameron Kunzelman video for an exploration of this phenomenon!)
In the second week after the publication of part one, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 has already been forgotten. So inevitable, so unremarkable and so dull was the nature of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5's failure that it has all but faded away from the ruthless discourse that is Games Twitter Zeitgeist. Which is on the one hand great because it means folks have been talking about interesting games like Undertale, else Heart.Break() and Read Only Memories. On the other, it's a shame to see this series in such dire straights, without at least going back to reconsider the truth of what it was for nine years, rather than the vague truth that it was better before.
With that in mind, I wanted to go back and play through the Tony Hawk's series, documenting its highs and lows, diving into just what it is that makes a Hawk a Hawk. It's been eight years since a real, honest to god Tony Hawk game has been released, and it's important to consider these old games as real things to be played and engaged with, not just as memories of better times, even when times right now, are, well...
So here we go! If you've not read part one, feel free to do so first, otherwise we're tackling the five best Tony Hawk's games and we're tackling them right now.
5: Proving Ground
I'll be honest with you - Proving Ground is a hard game to quantify. It is, for all intents and purposes, the final Tony Hawk's game, released by a Neversoft that had already been set to work making Guitar Hero as its primary thing, against a brand new skating game that blew it out of the water. And it is not anywhere close to the final swansong that series deserves, so as Neversoft's last bow it takes on this extra layer of disappointment.
And not because it's bad - it isn't at all - but because the thing that it aims for is such a misguided target. Proving Ground is a game all about authenticity, about staying true to yourself and deciding who you want to be, the campaign constructed to allow maximum self expression through the skateboarding mechanics in a bunch of different directions. The problem, obviously, is that's the same target Skate was aiming for, a game which hits it with such perfect accuracy that Proving Ground appears lifeless.
Which is a shame because it feels so good, perhaps better than ever. The fantastic Nail-The-Trick system is expanded in crucial ways, all of which serve to allow the player greater control of the pacing, turning the combo into something more nuanced than just an ever-increasingly tense form of environmental traversal. After eight games, the balance meters are redesigned from small indicators to screen-wide translucent bars, taking cues from shooter design to let the player's eyes focus on the environment that they're moving through.
It falls down where Tony Hawk's had always fallen down, in the way it structures its progression. This focus on authenticity serves to split the campaign into three distinct modes of play (Career, Hardcore and Rigger), all of which are advanced by even more specific missions, and suddenly this freedom to choose your identity instead restricts the expressive movement that is the core of the entire series.
So perhaps Proving Ground is the perfect ending for the series, the best of those nine years held back by the worst of those nine years, the core frustrations and tensions of the past near-decade encapsulated together as the final curtain fell.
4: Pro Skater 2
For me, Pro Skater 2 is hard to talk about. I never played it when I was younger, and have no context for what it was like to approach without the knowledge of Post-3 Tony Hawk's. So its improvements feel less like improvements to me, and more like this strange mid-point before Pro Skater 3 arrives at the first iteration of what Tony Hawk came to be.
Which is unfair, because Pro Skater 2 is excellent. It takes the ideas present in the first game and loosens up restrictions on execution while expanding the moveset to allow lines to be chained together with manuals. It's approachable in a way its predecessor was not, the first game in the series to really invite the player to participate in using its skateboarding system as a tool of self expression.
It's limited mostly by hardware, the PSOne doing its best to deliver this dream of wide-open areas, spaces to be discovered, that discovery giving us a sense of ownership. This is the first Tony Hawk's game in which these spaces feel like our spaces, spaces with which we share immense power, and through understanding them can achieve impossible things. Eventually, the series would become too sprawling and combos too easy to hit this sweet spot between knowable and mysterious, but Pro Skater 2 cemented it as a core value.
3: Underground 2
To anyone with familiarity with Tony Hawk's, Underground 2's placement so high is probably the most surprising part of the list. It's often held up as the series' original nadir, the moment in which any and all semblance of being about Skateboarding was lost and instead being just a Jackass game. And that's a fair point - since Pro Skater 4 the series had centered its personality more and more, often playing as a Grand Theft Auto-esque juvenile attempt at satire of american values. In the last game you collected donuts for cops, in the next game the gas station was a 69!
The reason Underground 2 is such a great entry has little to do with its personality, but said personality is at its brightest and most enjoyable in this game. It's just as juvenile, but there's an earnestness about its colorful environments and consistent slapstick hijinks, the additions of sheer ridiculousness hit just as often as they miss. It was the perfect response to Underground's drab locations and Quake 2 colour palette.
It was also the perfect response to Underground's structure. After turning goals into discrete one-and-done events in the two games before, Underground 2 was the first game after Pro Skater 3 to really make an attempt at addressing the series' core dissonance. Now, there was no difference between free-skate and goals, instead the goals could be accomplished at any time, and each gave points towards unlocking the next level. With a surprising amount of success, the series was able to recapture that sense of expressive freedom without the arcade-like timer ticking away.
The guest characters and the vehicle sections may stray into a gimmicky territory that distracts from the game's rather consistent focus, but no Tony Hawk's game is perfect. What Underground 2 is, is defiant. It proves the series was, at that time, here to stay. The genre it had inspired had all but faded away, and Tony Hawk's could have continued to spin its wheels and fade into immediate obscurity, but it wasn't going to go down easy.
2: Pro Skater 3
When people talk about Tony Hawk's, they are almost always talking about Pro Skater 3. It was the first entry on the PS2, it was the first entry with online play, it was the first entry where you could revert. It expands upon the promise of the PSOne entries and turns the series into something comparatively massive, with levels that feel like playgrounds, full of lines, spots, modifiers and little, all important crafted touches.
The first Pro Skater was heavy and sluggish (in Tony Hawk's terms), and 2 had gone a ways to lightening the play but was limited by the choppiness of its hardware. In one of the most prominent examples of a leap in technology directly leading to improvement, Pro Skater 3 is smooth, the game's movement combining with the more lenient balance metres to make that impressive 50,00 point combo finally a possibility. It was the first game in the series I ever played, and it hit young me with this very immediately understandable form of movement through the space, yet had a skill ceiling which I have not even come close to reaching.
And honestly, the series never hit that point again. I may love the games that follow, but they are all building on this, and all rely to some degree on a familiarity with the ideas of the series. Pro Skater 3 is the perfect entry point, the easiest way to understand the series, and even if I disagree with its particular canonization above all else, I understand why it got to be that way. There wouldn't have been any more Tony Hawk's without it.
1: Project 8
They did it.
Project 8 had an impossible task, to somehow reinvigorate a series which could not escape irrelevance. No longer could Tony Hawk's subsist as this icon of skater punk culture, because the year was 2006 and the world had moved on many years ago. In hindsight, it was clear that the series' days were numbered at this point, but it wasn't going to disappear as this adolescent remnant of an older time. Instead, with Project 8, Tony Hawk's did the very last thing you could have expected: it grew up.
It's still full of the series' trademark irreverence, it's not a game that displays an overt maturity or anything, but there is a restraint and cohesion to the design that puts Project 8 head and shoulders above other post-3 Hawk games. The areas flow into one another organically, aesthetically exaggerated without being gross, for a series all about traversal through and interaction with a space, Project 8 gives the best space the series ever had. It moves from the low-poly pastiche of earlier entries, to something evocative, combining the grounded with the outlandish to create a space expressing the series' theme of the city as a skating playground.
Project 8 is evocative with its approach to space, but crucially it is evocative with its approach to your body too. Movement is wild, with expressive animations - kickflips kick harder, grabs grab further - cementing you within the space, both equally cartoonish, both equally real. With Proving Ground's move to increased realism, it lost Project 8's all important tangible unreality.
All of this is held together by the best form of progression the series ever had, the Project 8 list. The entire game was framed as a competition, a leaderboard of sorts. The ranks can be rised through with any activity, both environmental goals within the open world and specifically designed missions treated as equally valid as the story mode moves along. Finally, the series had found combined space, movement and structure into something fully coherent, and stepped out of its own predecessors shadow to exist as a great game in its own right.
Which is what I consider to be the great victory of the series. Despite this narrative - which was there at the time - that it had been consistently declining after the 1/3rd mark, Neversoft never coasted and never stopped trying, keeping it around for almost a decade. Do not go gentle into that good night. Skate, Skate, against the dying of the light.