I think I like the theory of skating games much more than I do the reality. Over the many years of their existence I have dabbled in quite a few of the Tony Hawks games, only to come unstuck by the fact that my fingers and thumbs come over all “fingers and thumbs” whenever I try and grasp the intricacies of its combo based controls. The same can be said when I had a quick look at the Skate games. I definitely preferred the “flick-it” style of controls Black Box were going for, but again they never quite clicked for me so everything happening on screen was much more luck – mostly bad – than judgement. So before long the discs went back in the box and ended up as trade-in fodder.
I think now is also a good time to admit that I was one of the 8 people who bought Tony Hawks Ride, so I did get to enjoy the “pleasure” of sampling its delights, but I suppose the least said about that the better. Oh, and I bought it for my brother… honest. But, anyway, all this leads me to the main focus of this little write up, and the fact that there is actually some focus to this write up surprises me and my keyboard as much as anyone…
Back in January of this year, Roll7, a new British indie developer released a PS Vita game called OlliOlli. On the surface of it, OlliOlli looks like it should be a relatively simple affair with you side-scrolling along themed levels, jumping and grinding on anything and everything as you do, trying to rack up a hefty old score. Pulling more complicated tricks and grinds nets you more score, and linking all these together adds to your combo and in turn, again, increases your score. So far, so skate-game. OlliOlli, however, doesn’t make it quite so easy for you, and that’s where the beauty of this game shines through.
To control your fearless skateboarder is in theory a fairly simple affair. Two presses of the X button and your pelting along at full speed; follow that up with a flick of the stick and you’ll have him soaring through the air; a twist and a flick of the stick and more tricks come in to play; hold down the L or R buttons and he will be spinning around like nobody’s business. Sticking the landing however, is the real key to OlliOlli. To land a grind, you have to again flick the stick just as the rail touches your feet, to land on solid ground you have to press X. Missing the timing here will either leave with a diminished score multiplier or, much more likely, in a crumpled, bloody heap, but get it spot of and your combo will tick upwards increasing your score. And it’s mastery of the landings that’s the real key to getting into OlliOlli, as this is where it pinches another key point from Canabalt and its endless runner brethren, if you fall or fail in anyway, that’s the run over. No getting up and carrying on, start again and get it right. When you do get it right, OlliOlli is simply a joy to play.
The controls almost have a rhythm game feel to them when you get into a good flow, pulling off tricks more by instinct than actually thinking about it. Few games have had me grasped so tight that no matter how many times I fail – and fail I did – I pick myself up, dust myself down and start all over again (I’m looking at you Super Meat Boy). And this is a really important part of that tight control scheme: when you get something wrong it’s on you and you alone. No blame can be placed on the game, which turns what would be frustration in some games into a simple desire to beat what is put in front of you.
To help with that each level gives you plenty of ways to beat it. Obviously the first aim is to get from one end to another without falling flat on you face, from there you unlock that level’s “spot” which gives you a slightly tweaked version of the world where your goal is to get the highest score possible in one combo. Most interestingly, each level also comes with a series of objectives ranging from certain combo or score targets through to collect this, don’t grind that, or don’t grind at all. All of these really force you to play very differently as the collectable is more often than not hidden at that awkward point just off the path for your ideal run. After you have done that for the entire batch of starter levels, a new set of PRO variations open up with even harder challenges. And if you are crazy enough to have beaten the PRO levels, RAD mode opens up. RAD mode means only perfect landings are acceptable, which is probably best for my sanity as I’m not quite there yet… yet.
For a game that is so focused on score, Roll7 made a couple of rather curious choices when it came to showing off and competing with others. Each day one level is used for the Daily Grind, playing this you can practise as many times as you like, but when you come to play it for real you only get one run. Good, bad or indifferent, that’s the score you get. From there you get you rank compared to everyone else, but they don’t actually give you a leader board. Congratulations, you are currently ranked #4 in the world! Without the context of all the scores around you however, the real glory of that is lost. Especially as there is usually plenty of time for someone to beat that score, meaning you have no idea how well you actually did. That’s a real shame as the Daily Grind is a fantastic way to keep you coming back, but without the ability to show off to your chums some of the magic is lost.
The same thing happens with all other levels, but I feel it most on the daily challenge as everyone can practise the “normal” levels as much as they want, but pulling it off when playing the daily levels “for real” is a real thrill. Please let it be known now that I have fallen on my face on more than my fair share of Daily Grinds, and more often than not on the first jump, so it’s not as if I want leader boards so I can show off, I just want to see who else keeps head butting the concrete!
Since its release, OlliOlli has sucked up more time than I can to imagine. Lunch breaks have been lost to single levels and the Vita has nearly been flung at the wall more times than I care to admit, but a little game released in the shadow of the two new console behemoths has given me more enjoyment than either. Not a bad little debut from Roll7.