It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when the Tony Hawk’s games weren’t a complete joke. It was the early aughts, and Tony Hawk was at the height of his career. Skater culture was big among the youth, and, in an effort to capitalize on this trend as much as possible, many toy companies took to making skateboarding adjacent toys. A outcome of this was the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series.
The Pro Skater games had a simple premise: perform tricks on a skateboard. Players freely moved around a skatepark, while trying to earn as high a score as possible. This was done through clever use of the game’s movement systems, which would allow for tricks to be chained together in long combo strings. In a lot of ways, it mirrored the kind of systems we still see in fighting games, but the focus was on movement instead of beating the tar out of your opponent.
While they were popular, my experience with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is admittedly fairly limited. I didn’t own a PlayStation, so I only ever played these titles when I was over at a friend’s house. Unfortunately, Tony Hawk’s titles weren’t exactly easy to master in the span of a single afternoon. As a result, I always kind of sucked at them, and never really enjoyed playing them.
Despite my misgivings about skateboarding games, I decided to give Rollerdrome a whirl. It was a game originally pitched as a sort of hybrid between the Pro Skater games, and the recent Doom games. That’s just unique enough of a premise for me to bite the bullet. It also might have helped that Mark Brown covered the game in one of his videos. Besides, it was highly rated on Steam, so I figured Rollerdrome might have been a 2022 sleeper hit that I’d glossed over.
After playing it, I kind of wish I’d continued to sleep on Rollerdrome.
I’m not going to come out and say I think the game is bad, but I do think the game is incredibly frustrating to play. To get into the specifics of why, we need to go on a bit of a tangent, and talk about immersion. Despite how pretentious this is all about to sound, I promise it’s relevant.
Immersion is something I consider pretty core to my enjoyment of a video game. I don’t talk about it often, but the more that I’m reminded that I’m playing a game, the less I tend to enjoy it. For me, it’s all the small things: are the controls intuitive, does the camera frame the action well, is the music thematically appropriate. These are the things that allow me to really sink into a title. They’re the kinds of things you won’t necessarily notice when they work well, but will really notice when they suck. This is what immersion means to me – it’s when I can sink into a game, and the rest of the world fades away. That’s when video games are at their best.
This is where Rollerdrome fell short for me. The opening hours showed a very strong premise, but the longer I played it, the more disconnected I became from the entire experience. It’s a shame because it has a rock solid foundation. Shooting baddies, and performing tricks to refill your ammo allows both aspects of the game to feed into one another, and show off their distinct strengths. Heck, the opening few levels do a great job of highlighting just how interesting this concept can be given the right circumstances.
Unfortunately, Rollerdrome is let down by how awkward, and clunky the movement feels. Anytime I pushed the control stick in a direction, it felt as though that was merely a suggestion for where the player character should move. It honestly reminded me a lot of the god awful vehicle segments that were popular in older open world titles before everyone collectively agreed that cars were lame.
There’s also how the player character interacts with the world. The best example of this is grinding, which you’ll do quite frequently. Which direction you grind in isn’t determined by any input from the player: it’s determined by the direction of your momentum. This makes some degree of sense, but often led to me going in the opposite direction that I wanted to because I started grinding before the player character had fully pivoted in the opposite direction. This would be excusable in small doses, but when it happens a dozen times across a 3-5 minute period, I completely lose my patience.
And like, I will admit that the lack of precision in the movement makes some degree of sense – you are on roller-skates. Being able to turn on a dime would be pretty unrealistic right? The same is true of riding a grind rail in a direction that runs opposite to your momentum. The thing is – I don’t care. I don’t care how unrealistic that is. Constantly having the onscreen action run in conflict with what my hands are doing with the controller reminds that I’m playing a god damn video game, and that impedes my ability to actually enjoy said game.
This isn’t aided by Rollerdrome demanding a lot of precision from the player. As you get into the later levels, the complexity of the stage’s geometry, and the volume of enemies start to ramp up. It became a chore to gun down beefier enemies that would absolutely demolish my health bar for a single mistake, while I repeatedly crashed into walls as the camera flailed around in confusion. I’m sure with enough practice, the clunky movement systems of Rollerdrome can be mastered, but they’re so thoroughly unenjoyable to engage with that I don’t want to put in the time to get to that point. If the movement isn’t fun now, how will that change with another 20 hours of playtime?
I haven’t actually finished Rollerdrome at the time of writing, and am unsure if I will. There’s a morbid curiosity clawing at the back of my mind that wants to know how much more of a clusterfuck the final few levels are, but another part of me thinks my time would be better spent on literally anything else.
Editor’s Notes: I finished the game shortly after writing this post, and the levels were indeed complete clusterfucks. I did finish the thing though!
While I played Rollerdrome as part of #MaybeInMarch, I’m at the point where I think it would have been better if it’d remained a maybe.