When playing OlliOlli for the PlayStation Vita, I was struck by the obvious contrast: I tried skateboarding once and I hated it. Hence, I never bothered with the acclaimed and ridiculously popular Tony Hawk games. However, despite a fair amount of frustration worked into the experience, I kept playing. I don't know how to skateboard, I never cared to learn, I definitely don't care about the sport or its culture and yet...I'm sitting there playing. Obviously, a testament to Roll7.
As an old-school, retro 2D presentation, one must agree that OlliOlli excels. If you recall the 16-bit days with a fuzzy sense of nostalgia, you'll be satisfied with the visuals. They're nowhere near as grainy as graphics were back in the day, and it's a little disconcerting to see a retro palette in high-def. It's probably best to explain the graphics as a shiny example of old-fashioned visuals, provided such dated technology can be "shiny." Is that an oxymoron? Oh, never mind; check out a few screenshots and some gameplay and you'll know precisely what to expect.
The sound is in very much the same boat: Basically, the developer captures the essence of old-school audio while implementing a sharper, more modern set of effects and tracks. The game is perfectly scored, I think, and the effects are a great complement to the experience. Again, it's about providing the player with an attractive blend of retro goodness and modern-day tech. It's also worth mentioning that the Vita's audio capabilities can be impressive, given the right game, and OlliOlli definitely takes advantage of that capability. In short, technically speaking, the game is stable and well-produced.
Let's get this out of the way first: It's hard. The control isn't as straightforward as you might think (but you'll soon find that it's surprisingly intuitive), and landing tricks can be a definite challenge. The key is to balance your ambition versus your skill; in other words, don't immediately try to land the most insane, gravity-defying tricks in your arsenal. You'll get frustrated quickly, and that's dangerous when you're holding a gaming device. You'll think to yourself, "Oh, I just move the left analog to perform tricks, so I'll wing that sucker around and do an awesome job."
Well, this ain't California Games. It's true that for the majority of your tricks, you're just using the Vita's left analog. Hence, performing a variety of ollies, kickflips and other stunts isn't - in theory - all that difficult. A lot of things don't seem difficult "in theory" but when you put them into practice, you realize you need exactly that: Practice. It's not an irritating, waste-of-time grind, though; it's fun. You learn that the trick doesn't begin the instant you start the analog movement. Initiating the trick means releasing the stick, and that can be tough to grasp. Once grasped, however, you can really start to rack up the combo points.
You'll tap into your "trictionary" and attempt to pull off a wide variety of crazy, crowd-pleasing stunts. You never stop during your run through a certain level, so there's always a handrail to grind or a jump for which to prep. Holding the shoulder buttons allows you to spin around in the midst of a trick, which can really bolster your point total. The ceaseless action gives you a real sense of immersion and urgency, as you're fully engaged 100% of the time. Even if you mess up, you still want to get back on the board and keep going. It's just one of those games that, while demanding, isn't necessarily annoying. There's a fine line to walk.
The game occasionally trips over the line. It occurs during the act of landing, which can be mind-bogglingly difficult depending on the trick and environment. You're supposed to tap the X button the instant before you hit the ground; if you don't, you'll earn a spectacular face-plant. Furthermore, the game rewards perfect landings with a burst of helpful speed, so you're always trying to be flawless. The problem is that when in the midst of a trick, you're often focused on completing it, and you're not really thinking about the landing. Sometimes, you don't think about it until it's too late, thus ruining a perfectly good stunt.
I kept thinking that instead of tapping a button to land correctly, we should've just had control of the character. I say, use the left analog to control his angle - as it pertains to the ground when in mid-air - and use the right analog for stunts. Tapping a button just before you land is kinda like a fly in the ointment. It hinders the flow of the game, in my estimation. Still, you'll receive quite the sense of accomplishment when you finally land the perfect trick, so it's worthwhile to keep trying. Besides, as I said before, it's always enjoyable.
In truth, much of the game's difficulty is contingent upon risk vs. reward, which is almost entirely up to you. Sure, each stage has a set of goals that you can complete, but it's really about making it to the end. If you crash, it's over, so it might take a few tries. Just go at your own pace; don't always try for the insane, nigh-on-impossible trick. If a goal requires that you simply grind a particular handrail, take care of it. Remember, as these stages aren't timed, the game feels less restrictive, despite the linear levels. The levels aren't overly long and restarting is as simple as tapping the screen.
If you think you're up to the challenge, you can compete against others via the leaderboard. There's nothing special about that leaderboard but it tells you what you need to know; i.e., how you stack up. Be wary, though: This is the kind of game that attracts the hardcore perfectionists, who really want to rip off the sickest tricks this side of X Games. And if you're still having a little trouble getting used to the control, you may be disappointed at your position on the leaderboard. Still, if you're willing to practice, you should be satisfied with the results. As hard as the game is, it remains oddly addictive.
OlliOlli is great fun, provided you've got the requisite patience and diligence. I'm still not convinced that the landing mechanic was the correct design decision, and some of the later levels seem overly taxing, but it's still a solid accomplishment. No, I didn't really care for Tony Hawk and I never understood the skateboarding obsession in the first place. And yet, pulling off wacky stunts in mid-air has never been more entertaining, and I've got the stick-to-itiveness necessary to land some really cool tricks. I fear I'll never be as good as those who really dive into this one but hey, I'm okay with that.
The Good: Great retro presentation. Fitting score that complements every grind and olli. Accessible on the surface, a tough challenge beneath. Well-designed and nicely balanced levels. Entertaining from the first minute.
The Bad: Landing system is a little iffy. Control can be difficult to grasp. Leaderboards aren't anything special.
The Ugly: "Getting a little tired of crashing here..."
2/3/2014 Ben Dutka