Year after year, developer Vicarious Visions has made each subsequent Tony Hawk game on the GBA better than the last. Tony Hawk's Underground marks the franchise's fourth installment on Nintendo's tiny handheld. It contains everything that was good about the previous three games while it adds a single new move and a modest set of new features that, once again, inject freshness into a formula that never seems to run out of steam.
As far as the game's hands-on aspects are concerned, Tony Hawk's Underground doesn't stray from the basic setup that's been at the core of every other Tony Hawk game. You get points for performing tricks, like grabs, grinds, and flips, which you need to learn in order to accomplish goals in the arcade and story modes. The most significant change to gameplay in this year's iteration is that you now have the ability to hop off your board and can now walk around. The "run out," as it's called, gives the game's trick system another layer of depth by allowing you to link combos together by stepping off the board for a second or two. Like reverts, pivots, and spine transfers, which made their way into the franchise in previous installments, the run out gives players one more way to transition between tricks.
Far and away, though, it's the story mode that sets Tony Hawk's Underground apart from the games that have come before it. The story mode basically takes the career mode from past Tony Hawk games and puts a role-playing spin on it. Just as the battles in a role-playing game build up a character's attack, defense, and magic ratings, every move you perform in the story mode contributes status points to your custom skater's ratings in a variety of different areas, like hang time, speed, spin, grind balance, manual balance, and so forth. One way to add tricks to your character's repertoire is by collecting enough status points to reach the next level in a particular category. Another way to add tricks to your basket is to successfully complete the challenges placed upon you by the various pros that are situated in each park. If you walk up to another skater and press the L button, he or she will give you a task to perform within a set amount of time, which usually involves the performance of a specific combination or the retrieval of particular items that are scattered around the park. These challenges are also the key to unlocking the areas that are initially off-limits in each park, and they are also the key to earning money that can be spent in the game's skate shop.
The skate shop sells equipment and food items that come into play during the story mode in the form of two meters at the top of the screen. One represents health, and the other represents the amount of safety gear you have equipped. You lose a little bit of health each time you fall off the board, and you can regain health by consuming foods like energy bars and sports drinks. If your health drops to zero, you'll be tossed back to the park's starting point, which isn't such a big deal, except that it's annoying to have to travel back to the area you want to be in every time you end up unconscious. The amount of health that's taken away after each fall depends upon how full your gear meter is. Safety helmets and kneepads increase the size of the meter in varying increments, based upon how worn out the items are.
Most people will get a good 15 to 20 hours out of the story mode just by upgrading their custom characters and working toward purchasing the right combination of outfits and safety gear to suit their individual tastes. For those who prefer a more traditional setup, the game does include arcade and free skate modes that are identical to the modes found in the older Tony Hawk games. One nice thing about the story and arcade modes here is that, even though the parks are identical, each mode has its own set of goals and challenges, as well as secret characters and cheats to unlock. That way, regardless of which mode you play, it doesn't feel like you're playing the same game twice. In all, there are 10 different parks to play in and 17 different pro skaters to choose from. The multiplayer options are also worth checking out. You can pass around a single GBA and see who can score the most points in the trick attack competition, or you can compete in a game of horse, where you and a friend try to perform the same tricks over and over again until someone makes a mistake. If you link two copies of the game together by using a link cable and two GBA systems, you can go head-to-head in a series of shopping cart races.
From one release to the next, it's the graphics and audio that vary the least between Tony Hawk games. Even though this is the franchise's fourth installment on the GBA, it's still impressive how the isometric environments and polygon-rendered riders manage to duplicate the look and feel of the much more graphically powerful console versions. The sound samples, for everything from wheels on pavement to the skaters' voices when they wipe out, are always crystal clear as well. Those of you who own any of the previous Tony Hawk games will notice the adjustments made to the graphics and audio in this game almost immediately. The color scheme of each park changes as time ticks from day to night on the game's running clock, and you can adjust the look of your skater to match the park by swapping outfits in the pro shop. The new run-out move also brings more excitement to the game--at least more so than any of the new tricks do--because it's a fast, cool way to chain together one combo after another. As for the audio, the music isn't as busy as it has been in previous installments, and the volume level has been brought way down to put more emphasis on the sound effects and character voices.
It's almost a cliché to declare that each year's latest Tony Hawk game on the GBA is the best one yet, but Activision and Vicarious Visions seem to have a knack for coming up with new ways to breathe life into their marquee franchise. Tony Hawk's Underground is great for all of the reasons that every other Tony Hawk game is great, but it's the revamped and expanded story mode that makes this game worth owning--even if you already own one, two, or three of the previous installments.