April 14, 2003
Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer
Hot Gen Studios
One of my favorite games from the late, great Atari Lynx was California Games. This was the best version of any of Epyx's sports games, offering extreme sports before they became "extreme" sports. The best of the lot was surfing, which allowed you to swim a surfboard across an ever-tumbling wave, cutting turns and performing stunts, all the while looking cool. The animation of the water was amazingly fluid, and the thrill of spinning 360's over the waves was untouched.
What the Gameboy Advance really needs are more of the fast arcade-style games that made the Lynx so cool. I was thinking of this as I started up Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer. I missed the game when it debuted on the consoles, so I can't say how accurately it captures the feel of surfing, or if its 3D environments recreate that old California Games thrill. But on the Advance, Kelly Slater delivers. It delivers magnificently.
I consider the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series to be among the finest videogames ever made, with its brilliant mix of action, sport, stunt work; the game was a witches brew of different genres, distilled into the perfect depiction of skate culture. This formula, for some reason, hasn't worked as well with other sports; other games may capture the control scheme or the scoring system, but not the spirit. You don't understand what its like to snowboard, or ride a bike. You only know you're playing Tony Hawk in a new suit.
That's fine, but where's the connection? Where's the spirit? Kelly Slater has that spirit, that spark that feels familiar and is yet unique. This may be the first game since Tony Hawk to get everything perfectly right.
Playing through the game, you are introduced to the wealth of tricks, turns, spins, and waves found in surfing. I have to admit that I expected the same wall of water, but I was wrong; the many different beaches carry their own feel and style. On some beaches, the waves are tall and wide, others shallow and swift. Waves crash left-to-right or right-to-left, in daytime and sunset. Surfing in each beach requires different skills; what works at Trestles won't work at Mundaka; if anything, your progress relies on the depth of your skills. You will only win championships if you keep learning.
The temptation is certainly there to dismiss Kelly Slater as one unending half-pipe, but this is just ignorance. Those willing to invest the time will discover a wealth of skills and techniques; how easy is it to dismiss those surfer bums without spending a minute in their shoes? These boys and girls are smarter than you think. Just like skateboarding, you have to learn a whole new vocabulary - carves, snaps, slides, arials, rotations, grabs, floaters. One of this game's absolutely essential functions is the tutorial mode, where you must learn how to perform all these wonderful maneuvers. And these skills will come into play as you progress. In addition to the tournaments, there are challenges on every beach: score a set amount of points, perform a series of tricks, pull off specific combos.
Hot Gen Studios was put in charge of the Advance version of Kelly Slater, and they have poured amazing results out of the hardware. Gameboy Advance is often derided as a portable Super Nintendo, but I think that's unfair. Its power to render 3D polygons is limited, but its ability to paint two-dimensional landscapes is arguably without peer. Observe the beautiful motion of the waves, the effect of sunlight reflecting on the oceans, the way the waves crash as they finally hit land (here, a time limit makes sense). As fluid as California Games on the Lynx was, those graphics suddenly seem outdated, terribly outdated by comparison. This may be the best depiction of water I've seen in a videogame. The modern consoles make much about their ability to render water, but it still isn't perfect; you still feel like you're looking at Jell-O instead of water. 3D worlds may be hip, but hip only goes so far.
Kelly Slater shows that, in the right hands, there is life in the two-dimensional videogame, and that polygons and sprites can mix (the surfers are smoothly rendered in polygons). It also shows the fun to be had in fast-paced, arcade thrills and the never-ending quest for that high score. This style didn't have to go away because the Playstation showed up. Great videogames don't have to be dictated by marketing; they can define for themselves what's hip.