If you asked me last week, I would’ve told you that skateboarding games were dead. I would’ve admitted the hours I wasted in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Skate, but I would’ve said they were behind me. I would’ve spouted off something smug about how the genre had pretty much said all it needed to say once it started shoehorning parkour and 300-foot drops into the mix. I’d have said that EA’s decision to euthanize Black Box and Activision’s relegation of Neversoft to third-tier work on Call of Duty agreed with me.
I’d have been wrong.
See, since then, I’ve started playing OlliOlli, the charmingly pixelated Vita debut of London-based indie Roll7. More accurately, I’ve barely stopped playing it. I’ve stayed up until 4 a.m., trying to perfect my runs. I’ve grinded and hardflipped and varialed for so long that my hands have devolved into mangled claws. I very nearly missed a flight because I was so absorbed that I didn’t hear the boarding announcement.
OlliOlli might just save skateboarding games.
And it’ll do so by keeping things simple. Outside of shifting the action into a 2D, side-scrolling view, OlliOlli isn’t really doing anything outstandingly different from skateboarding games of the past. From Skate, it inherits gesture-based tricks, performed by flicking the thumbstick. From Tony Hawk, it inherits and emphasis on aggressive forward momentum, long combos connected by grinds, and sets of objectives centered around high scores, gaps, and collection for each level. It’s a fantastically unvarnished base, keeping the emphasis on quick reflexes and being able to decipher the optimal line.
But there’s a more unexpected piece of inspiration that proves invaluable to the game’s success: the hard-as-nails retro-design mentality and instant restarts of Super Meat Boy. Bail once, and you’re back at the beginning of the level with your score and any unfinished objectives reset. It’s tough—sometimes brutal—but it works. This is a game you will fail at so often and for so long that your thumb will jerk over to the restart button on split-second autopilot. This is a game that rewires your brain to make it think pain is fun. This is a game that’s addictive in the full meaning of the word, with all the promise of broken families and painful interventions.
Like Skate or Tony Hawk in its prime, the basic gameplay is enjoyable enough in its own right to make repetition a non-issue, but there’s nevertheless a surprising amount of variety packed into this one little game. The career features 50 different levels in five themes inspired by international locales such as the French Riviera and Tokyo. Beating those will net you a further 50 Spots—shorter levels that task you with earning the highest score you can in a single combo. Completing all the career objectives will also unlock Radical mode, which challenges you to make it from start to finish on all 50 levels a second time—but anything less than perfectly timing your grinds and landings will cause you to bail. Finally, there’s the Daily Grind, a Spot that updates every 24 hours and only gives you one chance to set your best score, after which you’re locked out until the next day. The sheer volume of content here is really quite impressive.
OlliOlli is, however, bogged down by a few shortcomings that are relatively minor but still impossible to ignore. The collision detection is imprecise—not frequently, but often enough that you’ll curse it quite a few times in an average playthrough. Land too close to the edge of a platform, and your board might get stuck underneath the concrete, guaranteeing you’ll bail the next time you try to jump. Ollie off a platform that’s sloped upward, and there’s a chance you’ll immediately faceplant for no reason. When the engine goofs like that on a semi-regular basis, you start to question if some of the more innocuous-seeming wipeouts are actually your fault.
Then there’s the leaderboard conundrum. While the game shows you the top scorer on every map as well as your current ranking, you can’t actually see the entire list of names. It’s downright perplexing, and it takes a lot of meaningful competition out of high-score runs for the average player. It’s unlikely, for example, that I’ll ever get the honor of winning a Daily Grind or topping a Spot, but if I could easily see how I fared up against the other people on my friends list, it might help soften the blow of my constant inferiority.
Even with a few scuffed knees, though, OlliOlli lands enough of its tricks cleanly to make it an essential addition to the Vita’s library. Roll7 has nailed the most important aspect of a great portable game: the quick, pick-up-and-play fun that can vanish away the pockets of tedium in your day. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve trimmed the skateboarding genre back to its heart and instilled its staling conventions with a bit of youngblood vigor.
Mr. Hawk, if you’re not taking notes, you should be.
|Developer: Roll7 • Publisher: Roll7 • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 1.21.2014|
Despite a few minor technical issues, OlliOlli‘s simple, focused take on skateboarding is smart enough to breathe new life into the waning genre.
|The Good||Simple, exciting gameplay that’s hard not to like and even harder to put down.|
|The Bad||Wonky collision detection; no full leaderboards.|
|The Ugly||The sheer masochism of Radical mode.|
|OlliOlli is a PlayStation Vita exclusive.|