Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3
(2001, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, GameCube; 2002, Xbox, PC)
I got the PS2 for Christmas of 2001, and with it I received two games I would have given my eyeteeth to play. One was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the sequel to what, at the time, I would have called a top-five game of all time. The other was a game you may have heard of, Grand Theft Auto III, which at the time seemed like it might topple breathing as the most important thing you'd do all day. Yes, I was excited to play these games. I was ready to spend my semester break obsessing over them.
I had also gotten a Best Buy gift certificate, and picked up this Tony Hawk thing I'd heard was good, because I thought it would be nice to have a casual game I could use to cool down between intense MGS and GTA sessions. You can guess where this is going.
Neither Metal Gear Solid 2 nor Grand Theft Auto III is on this list. The former, because it was a big sloppy mess -- and, yes, I will be the fanboy who's still upset that you spend 90% of the game not playing as Snake. Beyond that, the storyline seemed to invalidate everything I had done in the original game, which I took as a personal insult, and which had the unfortunate consequence of making me like that game a little less, too. GTA was great, fantastic, and I admire it for many reasons, but ultimately it's not a game I connected with on a gut level, as with the rest of the games on this list.
So how did it go with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3? Well, within days of having bought it, I was playing all-night sessions that passed in the blink of an eye. I remember well that I had to leave to go to Maine for New Year's around 10 in the morning. Close to 2 AM, I started thinking about turning the system off, after I got one more high score. At about 9:30, I finally turned it off, not by choice, but because my ride was en route.
Games just don't get more addictive than this. It's rare that something which succeeds as pure gameplay breaks through to me -- usually I need some underlying reason to be doing what I'm doing -- but when it does, it's all-consuming. Improving at this game was secondary to the fun of simply playing it. Grinding rails, getting air, even just a simple invert to manual -- it all feels just right. It's sad to see what the franchise has become, grasping at lame gimmicks while the more sim-like Skate series blows right past it. We're missing something this arcade-like, this silly, and this expertly produced. It's ironic that today I think of Neversoft as the company that ruined Guitar Hero, because in its way THPS3 is every bit as compelling.
It was also the scene of one of my greatest triumphs in gaming, better than the 89-second Expert clearance in Minesweeper, and almost as good as beating Contra without dying. In the airport level, I eventually was able to start a combo right at the start of the board, with an ollie onto a ticket counter, and keep it going with a variety of grinds and manuals down the escalators, through the metal detectors, and into the baggage claim, where I did a special grind on the carousel over 24 times, for a total score well in the millions. I'm sure in the scheme of things this is not so impressive, but at the time I felt like the kid in The Wizard.