Picking the best levels from the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series is a fool's errand. We know it. Some of the most memorable locations in video game history were packed into those first four games, and that's no exaggeration. But in the interests of nostalgia – and in celebration of the series turning 20 this month – we've picked out ten levels we love from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1-through-4. With so many classics over the years, your favourite level probably misses the cut. We're sorry. Don't send us angry emails.
In no particular order...
When I think of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, this is the level which comes to mind. A follow-up to the popular School level in the original game, School II is an amalgamation of famous schoolyards in Southern California, cobbled together to create a dream landscape for the arcade-style gameplay of the THPS series. From the Leap of Faith to the Gonz Rail from Video Days – and, of course, the secret Carlsbad section over the wall – School II gave a nod to skate nerds without compromising on design or alienating those who were purely gamers. The essence of the series is encapsulated in this level.
Similar to School II, the Downtown level from THPS1 wasn't any particular location, but essentially 'Downtown Anywhere USA' (although it was retroactively named 'Minneapolis' in a later series entry, for whatever reason). As a small-town kid in Australia, the Downtown level evoked some serious sense of wonder. The orange glow on the streets, the infinitely tall buildings, the central plaza, the hidden rooftops... Downtown made me want to book a flight to America and skate down the city streets. Too bad I was, like, 8.
There's something magical about snow in video games. The Canada level in THPS 3 seemed almost like a fairytale; you're out in the open, free to explore, snow on the streets – it had real character and, maybe for the first time in the series, felt like it's own world. It was also one of the first levels to contain NPC characters, which only added to the mystique. Remember the guy with his tongue stuck to the pole?
The fourth entry in the series was a game-changer: no longer were you constrained to the arbitrary time limit in 'career' mode, but rather free to explore levels at your own pace and interact with characters in order to begin missions. This was a huge change, and the game needed a great level to introduce players to this radical new style of gameplay. Enter the College level. College was the biggest level in the series up until that point, which was no coincidence, and it came stacked with a plethora of characters, diverse areas, missions and easter eggs. This level ushered in a new era, and did it in style. For that reason it will always be a favourite.
THPS 4 featured some monumental levels, but none were more memorable than Alcatraz. The game did a brilliant job recreating the location, from its eerie echo and rickety construction to the endless noise of seagull squeals heard over the game's soundtrack. In fact, when I visited San Francisco for the first time, I made a trip to Alcatraz solely on the basis of it being a THPS level. The actual prison stuff was just an added bonus. That says it all, really.
The Los Angeles level seemed absolutely huge at the time. From Pershing Square to the ARCO Rails and the iconic Downtown Carwash, spot sightings from famous skateboard videos were abundant. It really felt like everything was there. And then, just when you thought things couldn't get any better, you grind the four 'earthquake rails' and watch the level morph into a post-quake disaster zone before your very eyes. This was one of the first levels in which you could actually alter the landscape while playing, and that seemed almost too good to be true. One of the great levels, hands down.
While it copped an extremely generic name, the Streets level in THPS 1 was definitely based on San Francisco. It made sense to include one of skateboarding's great meccas in the series' first entry, but the detail and locations crammed into this level made it, in my opinion, the game's best. You can skate down Lombard Street, through EMB, up to the China Banks, dodge the cable car, and break into the secret bowl area in one flawless run. The design of Streets essentially became a blueprint for the best levels of later games; although, strangely, it's the only THPS 1 level which was never remade (a separate San Fran level was added in THPS 4).
Like many of our favourite levels, part of Suburbia's charm is that it could be literally anywhere. We all grew up skating driveways, sidewalks, at neighbours' houses, home-made jump ramps and (if we were super lucky) backyard ramps. This level features it all, and it's a seriously nostalgic one to look back on. Not only does it capture that suburban atmosphere we grew up on, but it features plenty of tucked-away nooks and secrets, along with the infamous haunted house – every neighbourhood had one, right?
The skatepark levels tended to be more miss than hit, in our opinion, but at least one had to make the cut. Kona seemed like skateboard heaven to a wide-eyed youngster like myself in 2003, and the level did a brilliant job recreating that sense of endless skateable terrain that the real-life Kona park was famous for. Bowls for days, vert ramps, park sections and all sorts of skateable peripheral objects made this the ultimate skatepark level in the franchise, up until that point.
Who hasn't dreamt of skateboarding in the airport? THPS 3 was arguably the best game in the series – some say the best video game of all time, period – and levels like Airport are a major reason why. The level successfully mixed the enjoyable linearity delivered by the 'downhill' levels with the open nature of, say, Los Angeles or Canada, and it made for a true feather in the franchise's cap. Whether you're skating around the luggage belt, sneaking through the X-Ray machine to a secret outdoor area, leaping over gates or blasting out of the gigantic quarter pipes which end your Airport run, the level was full of infinite fun. I've wanted to cruise through the airport in real life ever since.