All men have, in the history of their adolescence, a Place Of Little Failures. It’s that run-down place of easy familiarity, like the unlit parking lot or the alley behind the pizza joint, the place where a teenage boy can make all the mistakes owed to immaturity because no one there is in any position to judge them. The Place Of Little Failures is the reason all fathers everywhere tell their sons, “Don’t waste your youth like I did.” Of course, this is actually a sacred location to everyone who has one, because it can only exist in the endless days before the finite nature of time becomes known—and becomes a crippling burden.
The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, despite all its later atrocities, did not initially waste anyone’s time. The first game’s rugged mechanical facsimile of skateboarding did an unprecedented job of capturing the sport’s highs and lows while leaving out the hospital visits and frowning parents. The extreme-sports culture was already evolving from one in which bloodied outsiders traded VHS tapes into one that featured in The Sponsored Television Event Of The Summer. Video games, for all of their previous efforts, had failed to do justice to either side of this phenomenon—the ESPN X-Games cash-in project 1Xtreme did a particularly wretched job. Yet Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater easily captured both the sport’s independent streak and its burgeoning sports-star glamour. The second game, somehow, was even better, and the third game was even better than that.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was the series’ final moment of triumph before a long stretch of malaise. It refined the design of its predecessors, allowing the player to fuse all their actions into a flowing dance of wheel, air, and asphalt. And the levels were in a similar perfect balance, large enough to be explored but not so large that you couldn’t experience every wall, rail, and floor tile repeatedly with your face.
It turns out there’s something wistful about exploring a space by allowing it to repeatedly injure you. And so the game became the Place Of Little Failures, that idiot proving ground where, at some point, the youthful stupid was knocked right out of you. But the levels in Tony Hawk 3 were better teachers, and faster, because while many of them had the look of urban blight, they were in fact carefully crafted to draw out the perfect skater.
The early Tony Hawk games focus entirely on points. To squeeze the maximum number of points out of a two-minute run, skaters seeking perfection in Tony Hawk 3 only have to know a small number of things. They have to know grinds, the process of sliding the board down a rail. They have to know vert tricks, those death-defying spins skaters do when they shoot up an incline into the air. To a lesser extent, they have to understand lip tricks (balancing stationary on the edge of a board), wall rides, and other esoterica. But most important is the mastery of the manual and revert, which link every other trick into point-rich combos through perfect timing and careful balance. Finally, players have to know the stage implicitly, so they can find the best paths and spaces to execute these combos.
Now take a level like Airport. It’s not a skate park haphazardly painted to look like a real, relatable place, that crime of architectural laziness so frequently committed in this genre. Instead it’s contemptuously familiar, with its long corridor of travelators and barren concourse. (At least you don’t have to put your belt through an x-ray machine, but as a pro skater in 2001, you probably wouldn’t even know what a belt was).
After a few (okay, a few hundred) two-minute plays, it becomes clear that the airport was chosen as a Tony Hawk venue because of the natural contours of its space. That ridiculous hallway provides an abundance of simple grind paths, provided you can link the travelator rails with careful jumps and a steady balance. Doing this properly gives you an early explosion of points, but it also quickly drops you into the concourse, where there are even more opportunities to find high-value vert-and-grind combos if you know where to look. Some spaces, it turns out, don’t need to have half-pipes irrationally grafted onto them to provide a welcoming surface for a skateboard.
Closer exploration yields further rewards. Some are borne of the area alone, like when you find the helipad, grind one of the copter blades, and watch it take off. But most secrets only emerge in the wake of repeated failure, like finding the perfect path to a six-figure grind after landing on your skull 83 times. The physicality and virtual pain of your interaction with the landscape heightens memory—something about falling upside-down into a urinal ensures you’ll always remember everything about that urinal. After you’re done with the Airport, the entire space stays in your mind, a mental map built entirely of notions to never do that again.
Which means it’s built of that same nostalgic stuff as that seedy bar that you knew wouldn’t card your underage ass, where you also knew the taste of the pool table felt and the exact shape of the dent under the dart board. But instead of taking months or years of delinquency to build its map inside of you, the Airport took mere hours. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, the upcoming re-hash of those old play systems and levels, knows that space still lives in your brain. Its makers are betting that, if they give you the chance, you’ll want to drop in to make sure the place is just like you left it (and that you’ll forgive recent series atrocities like that skateboard controller). It’s not that you can’t go back. It’s that you shouldn’t, but that’s why you will—only for a little while.