Tony Hawk games have had one heck of a history on mobile, with rumblings of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 for iPhone starting all the way back in 2009. When it hit the App Store in early 2010, we were blown away in our review. Like most good premium games, it stopped getting updated and eventually was removed, but the point remains: We had a real deal, full blown Tony Hawk game on our iPhones eight years ago. Since then, things on the Hawk front in the mobile arena have been incredibly disappointing. In 2014 we got a hands on of Tony Hawk’s Shred Session, which ultimately was cancelled before it saw a worldwide release. (I really liked Shred Session.) Things started looking up when we got word in mid-October of this year that there was a new Tony Hawk game headed to the App Store. That game eventually turned out to be Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam (Free) which was released this week.
When it comes to Tony Hawk games, I am a lifer. I’m pretty sure I’ve played all the main Tony Hawk games going all the way back to the original Playstation release in 1999 along with several of the handheld spinoffs. (Some of the Tony Hawk Game Boy Advance games were actually surprisingly decent, believe it or not.) Hell, I’m probably one of the only people out there who will make an attempt to argue that Tony Hawk: Ride was not that bad. So, I was fairly certain, regardless of what Skate Jam ended up being I’d have fun with it. Unfortunately, after a considerable amount of time attempting to play this game I’m sad to say, in the parlance of our times, this ain’t it, chief.
Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam kicks off with a shockingly bad tutorial. The various on-screen buttons that are used to control the game slowly appear on screen as Skate Jam introduces you to their functions. You’ve got a virtual joystick for movement on one side (tilt controls are also available), then buttons for jumping, grinding, flip tricks, and grab tricks. Like other Tony Hawk games you combine these buttons with moving the virtual joystick in different directions to do different moves. Left and the flip trick button, for instance, does a kick flip. The tutorial asks you to do tricks that coincide with each of these buttons inside of different zones to proceed, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how or why certain tricks were or weren’t registering to get on with the tutorial- Leading me to continually retrying until Skate Jam agreed I was doing a grab in the right spot?
Meanwhile, Jared’s game bugged out in the tutorial, as like any free to play game this all culminates in Skate Jam teaching you how to buy things in the in-game shop. The first thing you’re supposed to do is buy a skateboard for free with coins that the game gives you… But if it doesn’t give you coins (which you then need to weirdly convert to “cash" to do anything with) you can’t buy a skateboard, and, well, here I am writing this review because only one of us can actually play. Needless to say, if this game didn’t have “Tony Hawk" in the title, neither of us would be bothering to fight our way through this tutorial.
Once you get in game, things don’t get much better. There’s a weird online multiplayer mode called skate jam where you actually spend your in-game currency for a chance to shoot for the high score for the day or the best combo. From the looks of it, only the top 30 players get any kind of reward, making the value of bothering with this mode at all seem … questionable, particularly when you can buy premium power-ups that give you perks while competing against other people online. These perks include increasing the amount of time you have in your tournament run, giving you a 10% stat boost, or fiddling around with your “Hawk" meter which is another score multiplier mechanic the game has. It seems like a really, really odd design decision to allow people to buy these perks to get a boost in a competitive, leaderboard-based game mode that you also need to buy entry into.
But, hey, whatever, it seems like you can just completely disregard the skate jam mode and play the career mode (or free skate) instead which so far seems… surprisingly elaborate for a free game. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself just really seems off. Even the Tony Hawk games that got panned hardest by critics over the years (*cough* Ride *cough*) had a lot of soul to them along with a unified look and feel and some really great music. All of that is oddly absent in Skate Jam, with physics that feel totally off, animations that are ultra stiff and rigid, and a soundtrack that seems to feature Interpol’s The Rover as its primary track with otherwise non-noteworthy jams filling in the rest.
At the end of the day, Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam just looks and feels like a incredibly low-effort reskin of the developer’s other game, Skate Party (Free) (which actually had Mike V. branding until recently) which was another super mediocre skateboarding game on the App Store. It would be easy to say, “Hey, well, whatever, this is the closest we’ll get to a real Tony Hawk game on the iPhone," but we’ve already had a real Tony Hawk game. Eight years ago. With all the technological advances we’ve seen over the years, it’s baffling that they managed to release a worse game than a hacked together port of a Dreamcast title with, admittedly, very less than ideal virtual controls. I’d suggest just downloading Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 instead, but, well, you can’t.
As someone who is a complete Tony Hawk fanboy, writing this review kills me. When Shred Session was gearing up for release I was lucky enough to spend some time with Tony himself (even riding in his Tesla to go get lunch at a nearby Indian place) and that whole day was about as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what it must be like to get a Make A Wish Foundation wish. The puzzling thing about this game, after spending so much time talking to Tony Hawk himself is that Hawk gets video games. He knows what makes them fun, and I think that’s a big reason why the whole Pro Skater series is as good as it was. I’ve got no idea how that same person could sign off on Skate Jam as it was released this week.
If there’s one silver lining to all this, it’s that it is easy to update mobile games and we’ve seen a lot of games on the App Store go from shockingly bad to surprisingly good after a few updates. Maybe over time Skate Jam will become a good game? Or maybe that’s just me really, really searching for reasons to give a Tony Hawk game the benefit of the doubt. Either way, it’s just super unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, that Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam turned out this way.