If there were never another skateboarding game made ever again, I can't say that it would bother me. In theory, at least, it shouldn't be the kind of game that matters so much as it does the execution, and any genre should be awesome if done right. But having tried possibly dozens of skateboarding games, I can safely say that most developers don't do it right. Overall, it's just not a genre for me, and one that I avoid like the plague. You couldn't get me to watch the X-Games if you tried, even if you changed its ridiculous culturally outdated name. Where am I going with this? My point is that I'm a damn hard sell when it comes to skateboarding games. Even the Tony Hawk titles - often lauded for their genre transcending appeal - have never really worked for me. That being said, I do enjoy one series and one series only in the genre. That series? Skate or Die!
Even if you normally don't like the genre - or maybe especially if you don't - you'll still find a lot to like about Skate or Die! The gameplay varies wildly throughout the franchise, changing rather severely from game to game. As a result, so does the quality, but there's still plenty of awesome among the crap. What does remain consistent throughout the series, though, is its simplicity, and that's really what makes it work so well. If you've ever found skateboarding games to just be too damn complicated to jump into, then that ain't gonna be a problem here. The games generally just involve straightforward self-explanatory tasks with simple controls, and you don't need to know jack about skateboarding to figure it all out.
Skate or Die! is among the many excellent titles that EA produced in their earlier years, before they began overworking their employees and gobbling up the entire American video game biz around the end of the 20th century. I know that there are always going to be people out there who won't play any EA games for those very reasons, and I can't say I don't see where you're coming from. But if you're down with giving the franchise a shot then I think you'll find that it's, indeed, pretty awesome.
The original game was among EA's earliest hits, so it saw a number of sequels. It's appeared on a multitude of platforms, most notably Commodore 64 and NES, going back to the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. In all, four titles were developed in the main series, as well as a fifth winter sports themed spin-off. The title was inspired by the catchphrase found in Midway's 720°, released a few years earlier in 1986.
Skate or Die! - Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Apple IIgs, ZX Spectrum, DOS, NES, Wii Virtual Console (1988)
Skate or Die! introduces you to a skate shop owner named Rodney (who looks a bit like a punk version of comedian Rodney Dangerfield), and his mohawked offspring Bionic Lester (he ain't really bionic, sorry). You're in control of a rookie skateboarder, and it's your goal to take on the game's various skateboarding related challenges. It's set up much like the Epyx "Games" series, with several very different tasks to compete in or practice. The five events that you can take on are Ramp Freestyle, Downhill Race, Ramp Highjump, Downhill Jam, and Joust.
Joust is the weirdest of the bunch. In it, you skate back and forth in an empty pool, passing off an American Gladiators-style giant Q-tip looking thingie, and trying to knock the other guy down. Whether because of how straight forward it is, or because of its head-to-head nature, it's without a doubt among the better events in the game.
Downhill Jam has you facing off against either Bionic Lester or a friend as the two of you race through an alleyway, weave around fences, leap over open man holes, and even jump up on the hood of a squad car at the very end. It's moderately amusing, but because it feels more like an obstacle course than a race it ends up being worth little more than a novelty.
Downhill Race, oddly, doesn't have you racing anybody, at all. Instead, you just skate downhill as fast as possible and try not to wipe out. That's easier said than done, because the controls are a pain in the ass. Mostly because there's some serious hesitation before your boarder will respond properly to what you're trying to do. Largely because of this fact, it's worth trying out for the sake of the challenge, but otherwise the event is completely forgettable.
Then you've got the descriptively titled Ramp Highjump. It's a really cool idea for an event, but the fact that all you ever do is button mash basically makes the whole thing seem pointless. What's worse is that getting a high score requires tapping the button so rapidly that it's really not even worth the effort to try. Without a doubt, the worst event in the game by far.
While the rest of the events stand as fairly decent novelties, the real draw of the game was, and still is, all about skating the half pipe in Ramp Freestyle. The whole thing's set on just one static screen, with the ramp extending from one side to the other. You get just ten passes in total to pull of tricks, and you're rewarded points for each one. The riskier maneuvers are worth the bigger numbers, but you get extra points at the end for doing lots of different tricks, so it's wise to try them all. If you miss a trick and wipe out then you don't get jack, but you do still get to finish up your allotted ten tries.
In case you can't figure this out on your own, performing tricks is fairly easy. Repeatedly pushing the action button before taking off will make you gain speed. And the more speed you have, the more air you'll get off of the ramp. And the higher you go, the more time you have to pull of tricks before you come down, and, thus, the more points you can get. By holding down either left or right and/or the action button either as you're about to hit the edge of the ramp or after you take off you can do any of several different moves, depending on the exact combination. You can also buffer your jumps for extra points by pushing the button again while airborne. Then to land a maneuver you need to push the opposite direction that you initially did to start the thing off. This makes aerial moves especially challenging, as you have to time them right so that you come down at the correct angle and don't crash. As soon as you become accustomed to performing tricks this way, it all becomes easy as pie.
The best thing about Ramp Freestyle is actually in just fooling around and improvising your own runs, and you'll find that you have a surprisingly high level of freedom to do so. You can't get too creative, but there's most definitely more than one way to rack up the big point totals. You can try and do nothing but the big tricks, or try to get in every maneuver possible and rack up points that way, or play it safe and put together a run with just the tricks that you're most comfortable with. It's amazingly addictive - one of those things where you'll always wanna play "just one more game".
Skate or Die! originated on the Commodore 64, which has some awesome music courtesy of Rob Hubbard. It was later ported to four other platforms. The Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum releases are basically the crap versions of the Commodore 64 game. Other than their horrible graphics and shit music, they're more or less the same thing, but the controls are kinda wonky and everything feels a bit off. The PC version turned out a bit better, even if it's still not at the same level. The NES version - the most successful version of the game by far - was ported by Konami and released under the Ultra Games label (though it was never released in Japan). This port plays flawlessly, but has the graphics redrawn to fit the dimensions of the screen, and completely different music.
Subtitled "The Search for Double Trouble", the NES exclusive sequel Skate or Die 2 takes a completely different approach to the video skateboarding genre than its predecessor. The focus of the game is supposed to be on its "Adventure Mode", which isn't a true skateboarding game at all, but is instead an action game with skateboarding themes and motifs. In fact, it kind-of-sort-of reminds me of the arcade game NARC. That's a weird enough idea that it probably should have been great, which makes it all the more disappointing that the game's a complete crap fest.
However, it does begin with what has to be the greatest intro in skateboarding game history. "You" are riding your board along the sidewalk when you run over and kill the mayor's wife's poodle... which prompts him to outlaw skateboarding... which prompts you to get revenge by destroying the mayor's wife. Uh... wow. All of this is told in amazingly low tech cutscenes that appear to have been drawn by a ten year old in MSPaint. Your girlfriend also looks suspiciously like Ariel the Mermaid. At any rate, after taking care of the mayor's wife, you set off on an epic journey to build your own halfpipe. This involves a trip to the beach, and a stint as a deliveryman in the local mall. Finally, you end up in a huge labyrinth warehouse, where the final conflict against a punk named Icepick takes place.
Don't get too excited, though. It should really be telling of how bad Adventure Mode is that the intro is a thousand times better than the actual game it introduces. Your quest to take down the mayor's better half apparently requires skateboarding around, grabbing tacos on the street, and trading in said fast food for upgrades at Rodney's skate shop. Oh, and shooting people with your "paintball" gun. However, there are two forces that are out to stop you. One of them is the many punks out there defying the mayor's orders and laughing in the face of the law by skateboarding all over town. Apparently when you outlaw something in this city the only people who still do it are hardened criminals wearing green and purple pants. As a result, this rampant crime wave isn't exactly very intimidating.
The other force that's out to stop you is the designers at EA themselves. This is also where the rest of your quest comes into play. What you're really going to spend the bulk of your time doing is just getting frustrated. This is largely because every freaking thing in this game blows immeasurable chunks, not the least of which is the controls. Just simply moving around is a pain, because it can take you a second or two of laying on the D-pad to get your skater to turn around, and then it takes him too damn long to get back to an acceptable speed and back on his way. The streets are filled with curbs, drains, steps, and streetlights, and colliding with anything and subsequently getting knocked to the ground is going to happen constantly, whether you like it or not, and in part thanks to the iffy collision detection. It gets worse still! Each bump that you take depletes your short life meter, so you'll find yourself getting sent back to Rodney's skate shop (i.e. the beginning) before you can even get past the first street (hint: that means really early). Other brilliant ideas that should never have made it past beta testing are the boxing lizards, and the all-too-frequent and nearly-impossible-to-navigate sewer areas. If you can get anywhere in this horribly balanced, poorly designed, hastily planned, disaster of a game, then I commend you, and highly recommend that you go find something better to do with your time. Way to go with ruining your best franchise so quickly, EA. At least there are some cool music and digitized voices courtesy of Rob Hubbard, especially on the title screen, which belts out "Skate or Die! Die Die Die Die!"
Luckily, the game does have something of value to offer - the half pipe mode - and it's good enough to completely redeem what would have otherwise been one of the worst games of all time. This time out you've got a much larger half pipe, extending the length of two screens - this is the "Double Trouble" alluded to in the title. The tricks are basically performed the same way as in Ramp Freestyle from the original, but how you gain speed is completely different. Up at the top of the screen, along with your other stats, is a speed meter that starts at one and can go up to five. Each time that you go down a ramp it goes down one notch, but if you push either button it will go up one instead. Any of the tricks that require big air need higher speeds, whereas a couple of the tricks that are done on the edge of the ramp require lower speeds. There's also a small ramp situated in the middle of the half pipe, which lets you do a few tricks that aren't possible elsewhere. You have a full three minutes to skate, but it's Game Over if you wipe out three times. However, by entering a cheat code (move your boarder to the very top of the ramp at the beginning before starting the run, then push Select, Select, Start 'til you hear a weird noise) that'll give you infinite chances to wipe out, you can skate the full three minutes each time.
What's really great about this mode is that it manages to successfully recreate much of the feel of the first game's half pipe, while also giving you quite a few more tricks to perform. There's a whole boatload of different ways to approach scoring, whether you stick to a style that you're comfortable with, or take on the more high-risk maneuvers, or some combination of the two. It's also a game that really rewards practice, and if you can get a long run going (or if you just cheat) then you can really rack up some stupid scores - especially if you can master the ramp in the middle. At the same time, it doesn't feel like you have quite as much freedom in how you perform the tricks. But with so much more to do, and so much more time to do it in, that's easily overlooked.
When Konami ported the original Skate Or Die! to NES, they apparently must have gotten the rights to produce their own sequel, because Bad 'N Rad was developed by Konami without any involvement from EA. Strangely, Bad 'N Rad isn't a skateboarding game - it's an action/platformer hybrid. While Konami made more than their share of great platformers and action games, Bad 'N Rad is just as crappy as the slang in its title is outdated. Which is to say, very.
What makes it so horrid? Well, where to begin? About half of the stages are horizontal platformer levels, with the rest being overhead action stuff. The combo is a pretty cool idea in theory, but not so much in execution. This is chiefly because there's just not a big enough of a difference between the two kinds of levels, with the action stages being little more than an overhead version of the platforming. But the biggest problem is that your boarder is so damn difficult to control accurately. This is because when you move it takes a moment to get up to speed and all of your movement will cause you to build up momentum. Meaning that it's impossible to stop on a dime. And since you generally have little time to react to what the levels throw at you, and even less space to maneuver, that means that the easiest way to be successful is to memorize the stage layouts and play through them on a dead run. Bad idea.
Then there's the way that the levels are structured. You can expect a stage to go something like this: Pick up speed, leap past some pits, jump over a charging animal of some sort, duck to avoid something, then fight some kind of boss. And that's pretty much it. The real problem is that each of these tasks has no more to them than what their description implies. Nowhere in this entire game does it ever exhibit any creativity in the design or structure of the stages, its controls, the combat, the design of the enemies or their attack patterns, or anything else that might be a factor in a game like this. Nor was much effort made to inject anything truly original that could have overcome its other shortcomings and set it apart from the endless flood of platformers and action titles that were available at the time. It's seriously just like playing one of those bottom of the barrel action and/or platformer games from the late 1980s that were made by designers who thought that as long as the game involved jumping over crap then you couldn't possibly go wrong. But hey, it's still better than Adventure Mode in Skate or Die 2!
Like Bad 'N Rad before it, the final release in the Skate or Die series, Tour de Thrash, is also exclusive to Game Boy. Besides being far, far better than the first GB release, it's also an actual skateboarding game this time out. Not only that, but you've got two completely different modes of play to choose from. First there's "Retro Rocket Ramp", which is basically identical to the half pipe from Skate or Die 2, albeit with a few modifications. The controls and physics have been altered ever so slightly, making some tricks easier to pull off and others more of a challenge. A few of the background animations from that game are also missing, but each trick made it to the GB intact. They also put in a flying saucer that passes overhead once in a while, and if you hold Up while airborne when it's in sight then you'll rocket to the moon to skate in a crater! You can pull off any trick here that you could on Earth, but will get even bigger air and boatloads more points. After you wipe out you get sent straight back to where you left off, plus massive extra points at the end of your run.
Then there's a second mode called "Stale Fish Tour", where you skate down what looks like a concrete drainage ditch. If you're hoping for a skateboarding version of the snowboard half pipe in Ski or Die, then you're going to be disappointed. Rather than performing tricks, you're instead leaping over and skating around concrete walls and other obstacles as you race against time to the finish. As you hit turns you'll automatically slow down, forcing you to keep raising your speed throughout the race. It's not the worst non-half pipe mode in the series by any means, but the courses are so empty it's ridiculous. You'll spend the bulk of each race just skating down long paths and turning here or there, and occasionally jumping over this, dodging that, and hoping to finally get to the end. You can also race against the CPU, which is more frustrating than it is anything else, or a second player using the Game Boy link cable.
The winter sports themed Ski or Die was the released between the original title and its three direct sequels. Both Rodney and Bionic Lester are back, but this time as owners of a ski shop. While still retaining its skateboarding equivalents multi-event format, its competitions are completely different. This time you can choose to compete in or practice any of the following five events: Snowboard Halfpipe, Innertube Thrash, Acro Aerials, Downhill Blitz, and Snowball Blast.
Innertube Trash and Downhill Blitz are essentially the same as Skate or Die!'s Downhill Jam and Downhill Race, respectively, except you can't really pull of any tricks. You can punch the other racer in Innertube Trash, or use other items to stab them, but otherwise they're both just a simple race to the finish.
Acro Aerials has you ski off of a HUGE jump, then perform tricks in the air, for which you're scored on by a team of judges afterward. It's reasonably entertaining, but the tricks are a bit too limited and the controls are a bit too difficult for it to be worth much more than a novelty.
Snowball Blast almost seems out of place when compared to the other events. It's played from your character's perspective, looking out over the walls of a snow fort. But there's no traditional sport involved, at all. Instead, the point of the game is just to smack a bunch of kids upside the head with snowballs. While you're doing this, they'll also be hurling snowballs right back at you, ending your game if you're hit too many times. They can attack from all directions, so you have to defend your fort from all four sides. Luckily, you've got a radar that shows exactly where the punks are at. While it's only moderately entertaining, it's more than novel enough to merit a few plays.
The best mode by a country mile is Snowboard Halfpipe. In spite of its name, it doesn't really play anything like the half pipes from the rest of the series. The biggest difference being that instead of just moving back and forth, you ride your board down a long, long, long half pipe that's dug out of the ground, like a dried up creek bed covered in snow, or something. As you go you'll gradually gain speed, which will determine which tricks you can perform. While it is pretty cool, and definitely the best thing about the game, it ain't perfect. While your snowboarding down the path you have to leap over/dodge rocks, bushes, and other obstacles (including random things like mohawk wearing penguins and chainsaw wielding rabbits), or else fall flat on your face and have your speed reset. The obstacle course stuff just seems out of place, and only serves to get in the way of what should have been the entire focus of the thing - performing tricks.
The original version of the game was released for Commodore 64 back in 1989, and saw three ports sometime after that. The PC port is probably the relatively weakest of the three, but even then it still stands up fairly well. The Amiga version is fairly accurate, but still doesn't quite match up to the C64 release. The NES version is easily the best port of the game, and really only comes up short music-wise.