The skateboarding game that's all Hawk, no Tony.
If I asked you to imagine a game where you play as a bird, chances are you're probably going to imagine gracefully soaring through the sky. These games give the chance for the player to view the world from another perspective - gazing down upon the land below, feathers ruffling in the wind, soaring at high-speed. I'm of course talking about games like Eagle Flight or even The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with its iconic Loftwings. Or maybe you think of more inventive avian experiences, like Angry Birds or Untitled Goose Game, both of which took the world by storm.
So when I ask you to name a skateboarding game, is the first game on your mind Tony Hawk's Pro Skater? The series that truly defined skateboarding games and shot to fame on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. THPS defined an entire generation of gamers through its smooth controls, addictive combos, and of course a kick-ass punk rock and alternative licensed soundtrack. With the recent remake of the first two classic games, and fans once again shredding up the skate park, it feels like we're currently living in some sort of skateboarding renaissance.
But what about combining the two? Surely the flight and freedom of playing as a bird mashed together with the gnarly gameplay of a classic skateboarding game would be a winning combo. Well, SkateBird is here to make those dreams a reality. Adding a cute avian aesthetic and taking clear inspiration from pop culture and the skateboarding games that precede it, is SkateBird a game even a hawk named Tony would dig? Hop on your board and find out.
Life as a human can be boring - an arduous routine of work, chores, and sleep that constantly repeats. But with the help of the SkateBird, along with a team of persistent parrots, they band together to help their "Big Friend" (hoomin) break this monotonous cycle! Over the course of the game you'll be tasked with numerous missions with the goal of helping your human friend - whether its organising their messy room, or even rescuing them from their work prison. The SkateBird and team of pop culture-inspired birds will shred, grind, and pull off sick tricks to help their hoomin at all costs.
Overall, the story is incredibly light-hearted and silly, matching the tone of the game. Dialogue and exchanges between the birds is packed with ridiculous banter and references to other videogame series, which is a clear attempt at fanservice. After all, it's a game about skateboarding birds, so try not to take it too seriously.
Any self-respecting skateboarding game really needs to have polished gameplay and tight controls at its very core. This is the foundation of every skating game, and without this to build upon, the rest of the game falls apart. Sadly SkateBird is one of the poorest examples of a skating game I've ever encountered, and this is no exaggeration.
From the get-go, players will immediately notice how touchy and poorly-responsive the game's controls are. Having been spoiled by THPS, I've come to expect games in this genre to feel intuitive, fast-paced and satisfying. SkateBird is the complete opposite. Skating gameplay feels slow, clunky, and punishes the player at every opportunity. Controls, while mimicking other skating games, feel unrefined and incredibly touchy, making fine movements and even simple tricks quite difficult. To add to the frustration, the bird is incredibly fragile and any slight collision with an object, wall, or ramp will send the feathery ball rolling and tweeting off the skateboard.
The game consists of several levels, each of which are filled with missions and unlockables akin to other skating games. These are generally satisfying and simple enough to complete, but the added challenge of battling with the game's controls and camera at the same time adds an element of unfair randomness and difficulty. Many of these missions require the player to make use of an "aerial ollie", where pressing B in mid-air will cause the bird to flap and give some extra air-time. It's a clever gameplay concept that adds more flexibility in exploring vertical space on the map, but again is touchy and tricky to get the hang of.
Where SkateBird does redeem itself is in its character creator of all things. Players can build their bird from scratch, right down to the species of bird to play as. There are a heap of options even from the very beginning, with an almost limitless number of combinations. Bird lovers are almost certain to get a kick out of this part of the game, which is equally charming and hilarious. Many of the options for accessories and clothing have drawn inspiration directly from the online "birb" community, such as adorable hats made from tiny bells and leaves. These visual elements add significant charm to the game, and without them would just feel like a generic low-budget skating game.
The rest of the game sadly isn't quite as charming as its birds. Each environment has a particular aesthetic, such as a cluttered bedroom full of stationery, or the peak of a towering skyscraper surrounded by clouds. Most of the game's visuals look as if they would suit the PlayStation 2 or GameCube era, and despite this there are still many points where the framerate tanks and becomes unstable, even further breaking up the frustrating attempt at skating.
Taking additional inspiration from Pro Skater, the soundtrack to SkateBird not only features original songs composed for the game, but also several albums worth of licensed music (albeit from musicians you've probably never heard before). The OST features mostly chill low-fi beats strangely occasionally adding voiceovers from bird documentaries/interviews - an odd combination, but works surprisingly well and definitely fits with the overall theme. I'd definitely recommend giving these tracks a listen, as they're quite relaxing and make for decent ambient background music.
On the other wing, the licensed music is primarily punk rock, ska and funk, many of which feel very out of place. Playing a videogame about an adorable skateboarding bird while listening to rebellious punk with lyrics referencing shitty jobs or getting stoned in a basement is the most glaring juxtaposition and seems like the strangest choice of music.
Outside of the main missions and completing each of the levels, there are also a considerable number of hidden unlockables to collect. Each level features hidden clothing and accessories to dress up your bird, tapes that unlock additional music tracks (if you dare), and challenges to complete for players that are persistent enough. I found completing even the main missions to be a tedious task, so it's unlikely this is a game that many people will aim for 100% completion.
As an avid bird-lover, owner of an adorable (and loud) parrot, an active member of the bird meme community, and even a veterinarian, the concept of SkateBird immediately grabbed my attention. However, as a gamer and a fan of the Pro Skater series, the game has been one of the biggest let-downs this year. An interesting and charming concept is sadly ruined by frustrating gameplay, dodgy controls, and an overall lack of polish. Even if you truly love skateboarding and are obsessed with birds, I'd still be hesitant to recommend playing SkateBird.
So, why should you play it?
Character creator is enjoyable and full of cute birds and accessories.
Decent original soundtrack, with funky lo-fi beats.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Truly terrible skateboarding gameplay.
Touchy and poorly-responsive controls.
Bland environmental visuals and poor performance.
Ill-fitting licensed soundtrack.
Overall lack of polish.
A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com