Skate or Die DOA. We review (and don’t recommend you) Skate It.
How does a mainstream title look when squished carelessly onto the iPhone? A lot like a bug under a microscope. You need to squint to make out the details, though you’ll probably cringe first; you fiddle with some awkward controls; and you try to do your homework without tearing your hair out. Skate It appears to be an App Store port of the Nintendo DS and Wii version of EA’s excellent Skate. But it’s much less straightforward than you would think. The skateboarding title only goes to show that making an effective iPhone game takes more than slapping tilt and swipe functionality onto an existing game. This should have been rethought from the ground up.
Skate is a hardcore and very technical skateboarding game that might be compared to the Street Fighter series. Unlike the Tony Hawk games, Skate takes a realistic approach. It takes hours of practice and no small amount of skill to perform tricks, from a simple grind to a 360 Frontside Pop Shuvit. On consoles like the Xbox 360, these are done with nuanced combinations of analog stick nudges, rotations, and tilts. On the iPhone, all the tricks are done with finger swipes. You’d think this would work well, but something was clearly lost in translation.
Skate It starts you out as an up-and-coming skater photographing and filming tricks around the fictional, abandoned city of San Vanelona. Eventually, you’ll earn attention from other skaters and skate publications for your skills, and you’ll get to fly to international sites like Paris, Barcelona, and Rio de Janeiro to meet and compete with other skaters for more guts and more glory.
But if you’re new to either Skate or skateboarding games, it’ll take you a little while to figure this out. The story is thin, presented in brief cutscenes before and after trick challenges, in which a hideously modeled skater jerks and points silently in close-up at the camera while you read his text beneath. Some of the cutscenes inexplicably cut out before you can read all the dialogue, but I’ll chalk this up to accidental tapping. You never quite know when the game thinks you’re touching it or not. We’ll get to that shortly.
The Challenge portion of the game presents you with a series of locations, like the Elementary School and Community Center, each bristling with skater-friendly surfaces like picnic tables and guiderails, and each containing a number of location-specific challenges. There, you’re asked to do things like perform a simple trick, pull off a timed series of tricks, play a game of S.K.A.T.E. (think H.O.R.S.E. in basketball), or—worst of all—race some other skaters. Other modes include Freeskate and My Spot. The former lets you play around in the same locations, while the latter lets you drag and drop objects to create your own skateboarding arena. These are mildly diverting, but the gameplay doesn’t quite hold up to such unstructured play. You’ll likely want to push through the Challenge.
And good luck. Skate It dutifully makes do with all the iPhone’s capabilities. You tilt left and right to turn, and you swipe in various configurations—straight up, downward at a slant, upwards at a sharp angle, downward in a quarter-circle, and so on—to do all the tricks. There’s a handy reference available, and the game occasionally gives you an overlay of the motion you need to copy in order to do the trick it wants. This is also where it starts to get on your nerves.
You’ll notice in the tutorial that what looks like a straight line to you isn’t recognized as such by the game. A simple ollie (jump) will be misinterpreted, or registered too late, or not recognized at all by the game. In fact, it’s ironically easier to do the 360 Frontside Pop Shuvit because the more complicated swipe pattern seems to be easier for the game to sense; and tilting your iPhone while in the air, causing you to spin wildly, seems to always happen by accident. While playing, you’ll probably see a mess of lines accumulate on the screen, tracking the furious motions of your fingers, and watch your skater do close to nothing (unless you count hopping in place and looking anxiously from side to side).
Say your prayers if you get stuck on a corner or in front of a wall. While tilting works fine for turning when you’re going straight ahead, control slips quickly through your grasp when you find yourself needing to get out of a tight spot. And in Skate It, the steps on the playground are a tight spot. A few features make things easier—you can place checkpoints to avoid having to manually navigate back into position to retry a trick; and enabling Trick Mode allows you to slow down the game, Matrix-style, when you tap the screen to do a trick. Trick Mode gives you some much-appreciated room to breathe on jumps, which are hard to time on the small screen. But overall, these features can’t compensate for such a clunky game.
Skate It simply responds far too slowly and haphazardly to your input, and these discrepancies between what you intend and what the game understands are often fatal. Unless you have the patience of a Shaolin monk, performing complicated tricks is largely a matter of trial-and-error. Other quirks are maddening: The edges of surfaces are far too sticky, and unless you manage to jump off at the right time—no mean feat—you almost always get stuck on them as they throw your skater into a long, unwanted grind. This simple detail makes races across obstacle courses almost impossible to win without a lot of tedious replaying, and only because the game is too busy trying to help you look good than helping you play the game. Also, sometimes hitting a surface like a step or a corner jerks your skater around completely, causing you to waste a ton of time finding your direction. In other words, your slightest error will be exaggerated by the game and essentially force you to restart the race.
It’s possible to get good at Skate It, or at least good enough to make it out of the country in the Challenge. I guess that’s the difference between novice touch skaters and pros. But tilt and swipe aren’t supposed to be a hardcore proving ground. They’re supposed to reduce the barrier between you and the game. That’s what the iPhone-native Touchgrind gets, and this one misses. Try that one for a true multitouch skateboarding experience, and Skate It for a sim of a mid-’90s PC game played on a keyboard on which you’ve recently spilled your coffee.