The skateboarding game, as a genre, has been under-explored. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater defined it with such finesse in 1999 that there has barely been any room for improvement – as borne out by the continuing appeal of that first game two decades later. But considering how much it has in common with a 3D platformer – open environments with an emphasis on acrobatic exploration and discovery – there is surely an opportunity for others to try some new ideas.
Enter SkateBIRD, the game that answers the question, “What if Tony Hawk was a tiny hawk?” Whoever flippantly asked that question probably wasn’t expecting an answer in the form of a video game released several years of work later, but here it is.
There’s a sense of fun in the concept of SkateBIRD and it brings some twists to an idea that is otherwise very closely modelled on the Tony Hawk’s series. The bird skaters’ wings let them double-jump with a second mid-air ollie, for example, and since they’re tiny, they can skate tiny environments made of furniture and stationery. What we have here is basically Tony Hawk’s meets Micro Machines meets New Zealand Story.
A huge amount of love and effort has clearly gone into SkateBIRD. The scenario of skating birds is framed by a story of lonely pets whose “big friend” human has started a miserable new job. The environmental storytelling in the first level paints a picture of a person losing pride in life, who has let their housekeeping slide due to overwork (but has nonetheless maintained an elaborate bird-sized skatepark in their bedroom).
The story that plays out is, of course, absurd – but SkateBIRD knows how silly it is and delivers it with charm. The bird characters themselves look wonderfully daft in their various selectable garments, from bucket hats to 3D glasses, and move with endearing twitches and bobs. The original soundtrack and licensed tunes provide a good vibe to proceedings, occasionally evoking the series that inspired the game but mostly keeping things relaxed.
A reasonable facsimile of the Pro Skater gameplay is present and correct, with the same basic moveset and controls. Your bird can find lines through its miniature environment and tie combos together with grinds and manuals, building momentum for bigger tricks. As well as racking up points, you need to explore the levels and can take on collect-the-item challenges, finding well-hidden or hard-to-reach spots as you go.
The bad news is that while the ambition soars, the concept doesn’t exactly land. The potential of wings to bring a lift to the formula is not realised, with the second ollie failing to introduce creativity to trick lines. It really only adds confusion to the visual cues for traversing obstacles when your jump height is harder to grasp. The fantastic idea of mini real-world skateparks also falls flat in practice, with inspiration running short after the first level, and a rooftop park bringing little that reads as less than human-sized anyway.
While the fundamentals of the gameplay work – you can navigate, you can do tricks – it isn’t nearly as fun as it looks and certainly can’t stack up to the Tony Hawk’s series, to which comparison is inevitable. The workings of the air ollie are somewhat inscrutable and it just feels irritating to have to execute it. Getting lodged against furniture and jammed in corners is frequent and finicky, with your bird far too ready to fall over altogether. An element of pinball chaos in such situations would have been preferable: the strictness of the skill demand is unnecessarily po-faced for such a silly game concept.
Some eminently fixable niggles also hold back the fun. The trick names and scores are not displayed prominently, making combo building feel empty and tricks indistinct, especially when a bird sticking its beak on the board is less relatable and much harder to parse than a human skater’s grab. The camera can be unpleasantly spasmodic, especially on resetting your bird, which is so repeatable a problem that it’s infuriating.
More major problems lie in the level design – both the parks and the challenges set within them. The first level features multiple elevated platforms that can be fiddly to climb to and are extremely easy to fall from, which isn’t a helpful introduction to the game. A level traversing multiple rooftops could have aided navigation with some visual cues to distinguish the roofs from one another, but instead it's samey and confusing.
None of these facts helps the completion of the story challenges. Often, these are timed runs to collect items which are hard to look for, with sluggish camera controls and graphical quality reduced to an ugly murk beyond the middle distance. Challenges are often best accomplished by falling off slowly in the right place – a technical success, rather than a cool achievement.
At an even higher level, the overall structure of the game is laborious. Parks need to be unlocked through the story mode by completing challenges, and apart from the gruelling work of completing them, the available challenges are not easily managed or located. There are plenty of modern ideas of task management that would have been better – Mario Odyssey’s prompts, maps, lists and hints for its power moons; Breath of the Wild’s discreet but atmospheric quest log – but we only get the most basic achievements checklist, tasks obscured until the right bird characters appear to dole them out.
SkateBIRD is a creative addition to a genre lacking in variety, and its fun concept has clearly been realised with a lot of love. However, despite its potential, the best parts of the concept are underused, with neither the miniature skaters nor the addition of wings bringing much to excite. While the core gameplay is functional, the play feel is not fluid and the level design and laborious structure are always working against the fun. To top it off, the rudimentary graphics are needlessly hazy. More of a turkey than a pretty boy, then, unfortunately.