Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam Review

Having lost interest in the Tony Hawk series years ago, I was interested to see how well the classic form which I used to have so much fun with would transition to a handheld — and I was anxious to see how well Neversoft could cram the skateboarding formula onto the DS this time around. Unfortunately, I walked away with mixed feelings.

Downhill Jam’s control scheme looks good on paper; it covers all of the bases without mapping multiple functions to the same button. However, once you get into the game and spend a few minutes playing, you’ll see that you were horribly mistaken. While functional, the controls just don’t contour well to a handheld experience. Having to rapidly run your thumb from one button to the next, back and forth, you’ll inadvertently hit the wrong button more often than not. The constant movements will end up cramping your fingers, forcing you to lay down your DS to give them a rest. With enough dedication and time, you can come to master the controls, but it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Some might find the basic controls to work well for them, but personally I just found them to be counter-intuitive.

Worse yet is the forced usage of the touch screen. The game plays on the top screen, while the bottom serves as a map. However, once you’ve built up enough boost you can perform special tricks (grinds, manuals or air) that are activated by pressing a flashing button on the side of the touch screen. So, not only do you have to focus on keeping your character balanced in the case of a manual or grind, but you have to take a look down to ensure that you press the correct button that you want on the touch screen, and then jolt your hand back over to the regular controls to continue performing other maneuvers. It was a forced effort on the part of the developer to get some touch-screen functionality into the actual game, and it ends up being a hassle more than a feature. Again, this just seems counter-intuitive and feels like a slapped-on, just-for-the-sake-of-it feature.

With the exception of the cramp-inducing controls, the rest of the game performs fairly well. The game is accessible enough that anyone can jump right in and play, and with the ‘downhill’ theme of skateboard racing, the goal of the game is much more apparent than the old arbitrary goal system of doing a particular trick over a certain gap or finding a secret tape (although these goals are still in the game for those, such as myself, who enjoy them). Racing is a somewhat fresh take on the stale skateboarding genre, and the different goals manage to mix things up enough that you won’t find yourself repeating the same thing over and over — at least not too frequently.

Going downhill (and effectively, racing) is — as mentioned — the new major factor in Downhill Jam. Initially I was fairly cold towards the idea, as the thought of it seemed to be nothing more than a simple gimmick. Upon playing for just a few minutes, however, I could tell that the entire Tony Hawk skateboarding feel had changed. This is the saving grace of Downhill Jam, because despite its controls and the various other issues that plague the game, it’s the fresh and interesting take on skateboarding that really got me hooked.

World Tour mode is the story mode in Downhill Jam, although you’ll wish they would cut out the attempts at a plot in your skateboarding game. Characters are clichéd and the plot tried and untrue. Unless you refer to everything as "totally radical" and think gathering a skateboard crew to compete against a wimpy nemesis of Tony Hawk is "gnarly," most likely you’ll have the same reaction to the story that I did.

While the objectives and goals in World Tour mode were fun, I had a much better time playing Jam Session. You pick from one of the areas you have unlocked and then head to the finish line while trying to complete various goals along the way, like breaking high scores, knocking over garbage cans (far out, man!) or finding the secret tape. Jam Session provided plenty of fun without the feeling of being pushed forward, as is the case in World Tour.

Downhill Jam features multiplayer support for up to four players, including Nintendo WFC support. Over the WFC, the game ran very smoothly and was not stripped down in the least; in fact, the multiplayer has quite a lot to it, with all of the game’s goals turned into different game types (who can accumulate the longer grind, getting a high score, racing), there’s almost an overwhelming amount to be played online. Your customized and decked-out character can be used, and trying to climb the leaderboards (something I never really managed to do) is surprisingly addictive.

Some of the smaller features were what initially had me enjoying the game. Using the built-in mic, you can record a (very) short clip of your voice to use as an exclamation whenever you fall, perform a special trick, etc. Hearing your character say, "Very nice!" Borat-style is amusing, and is more enjoyable to hear than the rest of the voice acting. Due to the fact that dialogue draws off of the story, it’s basically a "radical!"-fest. Totally bummer. The soundtrack packs in 16 Ska/Punk Rock tracks that are enjoyable to fans of the genre. Personally, it’s not my bag, but it wasn’t much of something I took issue with.

On the other side of that token, the game doesn’t look too bad. Think Animal Crossing with just a slightly more Jet Grind Radio/cel-shaded look to things, and that’s in essence what you have to look at in Downhill Jam. Since it’s in the nature of cel-shading, the flat portions of the environments (buildings that act as barriers, for instance) don’t ever become distracting. Character models are simple but allow for enough detail so that you can differentiate one character from another.

Despite a few clipping issues and the cramped control style, I found Downhill Jam to be surprisingly good all-around. Playing online is a favorite feature-filled experience, with a whole load of modes to play in. Even offline, just picking up the game for a 5-minute play session is good fun, as is the rest of the game. Tony Hawk fans looking for a handheld iteration of the series won’t be disappointed. For those that have become tired of skateboarding games, you might just find enough of a fresh experience here to warrant picking up a copy. But don’t expect this to completely turn around your thoughts on the franchise if you’ve become a hater.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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