Many of the best skateboarding video games have traditionally had little to do with the sport of skateboarding itself. The Tony Hawk games were popular in part because they let you do things that Tony Hawk himself could not do, whether that was effortlessly pulling off a complex trick while jumping over a helicopter or grinding on top of tall buildings. OlliOlli, a 2D skateboarding game for the Vita, continues the tradition of defying both death and gravity with over-the-top stunts. With an absorbing trick system and rapid-fire stages that are perfect on the go, OlliOlli earns a place among skateboarding's gaming greats.
While OlliOlli is overall a very difficult game to master, on the surface its 2D gameplay is more approachable than most of its 3D skateboarding counterparts. Seemingly simple controls allow for surprising complexity, and it can take a while to get used to performing and, more importantly, landing tricks. You begin each stage already in motion, though you can shove with a tap of the X button if you find yourself in need of more speed. The stages are set up as one long run through decidedly non-skate-park environments--there are no halfpipes or pools to spend time in. The vast majority of your tricks, everything from your basic ollie (or jump, if you're not familiar with the skateboarding term) to your complex 360 inward heelflip, are accomplished by moving the left analog stick. Simply moving it up or down ollies, moving it to the right kickflips, and fighting-game-esque circular motions perform more advanced stunts. The act of releasing the stick initiates the trick, so you do a lot of flicking and releasing as you skate through environments.
OlliOlli earns a place among skateboarding's gaming greats.
Flicking the analog stick in various directions again while in the air allows you to grind on a variety of surfaces, including handrails and futuristic billboards; this is an absolute necessity if you want to keep combos going, which is key in getting the highest point totals. Holding either of the shoulder buttons lets you spin while doing tricks, opening up even more possibilities. Don't worry if you can't remember how to do a specific trick or grind, though. A built-in "tricktionary" contains a handy list of them all.
One of the toughest things to get used to in OlliOlli is the act of landing. Like the trick controls, landing is very simple on paper: hit X before you hit the ground. But it's amazing how often you can forget such a simple step or accidentally move the analog stick to grind when you really mean to land on solid ground. To further complicate things, you are rewarded with a perfect landing bonus (which rewards you with a burst of speed) if you wait until the very last moment to stick a landing or start a grind. For the game's harder challenges, nailing perfect landings is more of a requirement than a suggestion. A good sense of timing is your most important skill.
Once you get past the unique way OlliOlli controls, there are a lot of comparisons to draw between it and the Tony Hawk franchise. Each stage has a set of goals for you to complete, ranging from basic high-score targets to tasks like collecting items, grinding specific objects, completing a stage without pushing a specific trick, and so on. One major difference, however, is that OlliOlli's stages are not timed. When you crash, you're done. Most levels last little more than a minute, but making it to the end intact may take many tries, even if you're not trying to accomplish anything else at the time.
A good sense of timing is your most important skill.
As frustrating as it can be when you bail on a combo you've been working on for an entire level, there's an exhilaration that comes when you finally nail it. OlliOlli is tough, but fair, and with practice, even the craziest tricks and combos are at your fingertips. Retrying a stage is possible instantaneously by tapping the Vita's screen, and the short nature of the levels makes it hard to resist quickly restarting when you screw up. Likewise, the joy of success tends to be followed up by the thought of, "I bet I could keep my combo going longer if I could get just a little more height off this jump." This comes together in the Daily Grind mode, which presents everybody with a single stage and one day to set a high score with a single combo. You can practice as much as you want, but you get only one chance to make your mark on that day's challenge. Don't choke and fall down the first set of stairs you come to when the pressure is on, not that I'd know from experience or anything.
The chase for higher scores keeps you coming back for more, so it's unfortunate that the game's leaderboards don't allow for much analysis or comparison with your friends. Your high scores on each stage are uploaded automatically, and you're told where you rank worldwide, but there is no way to directly compare your performance with that of your buddies. You still feel the rush of competition and the desire to do better next time, but this would be more effective if more bragging rights were at stake.
Thankfully, lackluster leaderboards turn out to be one of OlliOlli's very few flaws. It's a wonderful arcade experience that not only demands both precision and speed, but has the tight controls necessary to make both possible. There's little reason that it couldn't work on systems besides the Vita, but OlliOlli is a great fit for the portable. Its bite-size stages are great for quick play sessions when you've got only a few minutes to spare, and mastering all the game's challenges takes awhile if you want to hunker down for longer periods of time. OlliOlli is a new skateboarding triumph that demands your attention.