A strange mix of EA Sports Big SSX series and long forgotten, under appreciated ESPN Extreme Games on the PS1, Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is a complete departure for Activision’s skateboarding franchise. This new spin on the genre is a fantastic run that feels fresh, unique, and different enough to make it a worthy addition to Tony Hawk’s paycheck.
Instead of a focus on absurd goals and tricks, Downhill Jam is a pure racing title at its heart. The superb sense of speed across a rapidly changing level design is the addictive hook that keeps you playing. The basic trick system is in place, and occasionally crucial depending on the style of the challenge.
The single player game is about advancing through different tiers of challenges, earning new boards to increase stats and gaining new medals to level up. Challenges vary from races, to destructive runs, to goofier things like knocking over as many pedestrians as possible within a set time limit. Each proves different enough to make them feel unique even when barreling down a familiar track.
Translated from the Wii launch title of the same name, nothing has been altered aside from an obvious need to re-do the controls. Performing tricks will feel more familiar for Tony Hawk followers here, yet the motion options on the Wii were one of the better aspects of the game. Balancing with an analog stick eliminates the fresh feel the title gained points for on Nintendo’s new hardware.
Otherwise, this is still the same Downhill Jam, aiming for a younger audience. It’s nearly impossible to wipe out when landing. Randomly pressing buttons can get you through the early races as long as you pay attention to the turns. Damage is dealt by other riders who can knock you over or by hitting stationary objects that are unbreakable.
Levels are crammed with shortcuts, and in later runs, you’ll need to know the position of each to make it through. Exploration is a heavy risk however. Going even slightly off course can result in race altering disorientation, and it’s far too difficult to recover after hitting a wall. It’s easier to reset here than it was on the Wii as opposed to taking a wipeout, but either way it’s still hard to figure out the position of your character.
With a wicked sense of humor that makes pre-race interviews worth watching, Downhill Jam is rarely off in terms of presentation. The stylized character designs properly sets the tone. The outrageous and colorful levels keep you playing to try and find any missed areas that could lead to more shortcuts (and higher medals).
Multi-player is split screen only unfortunately, excusable on the Wii at launch, inexcusable for the PlayStation 2. Four players can play in any of the single player race modes along with two additional choices. One bases the winner on how long they were in first place, and the other knocks out racers at certain points if they’re in last. There’s nothing radical or innovative, though the game’s simplistic combat engine can lead to fun times in tight contests.
If you’re expecting to show off your skills in Tony Hawk’s standard style, you’re going to be disappointed. Downhill Jam puts everyone on equal footing, ignoring the countless and arguably convoluted changes the core Tony Hawk games have endured over the years. It’s a nicely designed and welcome departure, at least until it’s milked in what will undoubtedly years of sequels.
Tony Hawk Downhill Jam is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief, Mild Language, Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: Wii, DS, GBA.