No matter how difficult video games are, real life is always more difficult. Whether you are building an empire, hitting the beach at Normandy, driving a race car or surfing the big waves, it is always easier than doing the real thing.
The exception, perhaps, is the skateboarding game Skate It, which is quite possibly more difficult than just buying a skateboard and hitting the street.
What It Is
Skate It is a Wii sequel to the innovative PS3/Xbox 360 game Skate, which revolutionized skateboarding and other extreme sports video games with a new, intuitive control scheme. Skate had a better feel for the sport than any previous game, so it seemed likely that Skate It, which supports the Wii Balance Board, would be the ultimate skateboarding game, something that truly made you feel like you were rolling down the pavement doing flip tricks. Sometimes it comes close, but often the game just makes you want to through the Balance Board out of the window.
In the cute opener, your home town has been evacuated following a disaster, represented on the local news with “artist’s renderings” that are a child’s crayon drawings. It’s a clever way to explain the absence of people at the local school and community center, although the game lazily fails to explain why the streets are similarly deserted when you travel to Paris and Rio. The locations look pretty good, but they can feel a little desolate.
Skate It is a straightforward collection of skating challenges. You get an occasional email inviting you to visit a new area like Paris, and the challenges will be prefaced with some nonsense about how a skateboarding magazine needs some cool photos of you performing tricks, but essentially this is a game where you’ll need to grind a particular rail or jump a particular gap. Complete a few challenges and you’ll have access to another area with a few more challenges.
The Charms and Aggravations of the Balance Board
There are three ways to control your skate board in Skate It, the Balance Board or the Wii remote by itself or in tandem with the nunchuk. I expected the Balance Board to be amazing.
I don’t skateboard. The closest I’ve come is to stand on a skateboard and shakily roll about three feet. So the fact that I found it almost impossible to steer my skateboard using the Balance Board doesn’t mean much. That’s why I had my friend Sharon bring her son Dylan and his friend Joaquin over to my apartment to test out the game.
Joaquin didn’t really need the game’s tutorial, because when he moved his feet on the board the way he would on a skateboard to do a trick, it worked. I give the designers high marks for that, and making the skateboard jump or flip with a movement of your body or foot feels great.
But Joaquin and Dylan both agreed that while it was much easier to pull off tricks on the Balance Board than on a skateboard, it was much more difficult to steer. I was relieved; up until then I thought it was simply my own ineptitude that kept running me into walls.
To steer, you shift your weight to the board’s left or right, but most of the time doing this either has no effect or makes your virtual skateboard veer sharply away from wherever you’re trying to go. It is almost impossible to simply move forward in a straight line; the Balance Board will insist that a minor shift in weight expresses your desire to go anyplace other than where you would like to be.
Poor Design Decisions Abound
Eventually I found that turning the Balance Board sensitivity to its lowest makes steering easier. This made it more difficult to do tricks, which involve putting pressure on specific parts of the board, but it gave me a one in three chance of getting near your goal, which after my first experiences felt downright luxurious.
Why? Why is the default setting way too high, why is the lowest setting still overly sensitive, why aren’t there separate settings for tricks and steering? Skate It strikes me as one of those games whose bad control system is overlooked by designers who play the game so much that they accept its deficiencies as normal.
Actually, there are a lot of design flaws in the game, big and small. Every time you crash your time is wasted with a slow motion view of your fall and sometimes a popup message telling you what bones you have just broken. If you beat a challenge you are forced to watch an unskippable video of your trick, which usually looks more awkward than cool. If you play the tutorial before you start Career Mode, at the beginning of Career Mode you will still be forced to replay the tutorial. Even character customization is badly implemented; outfits for your skater are subdivided by brand, so there is no easy way to browse all the outfits, and if you look at the offerings of a particular brand, when you exit you are taken to the top of the list rather than where you left off, meaning you will constantly have to page down and figure out where you were before the game lost your place. It all feels sloppy, lazy and wrong headed.
A Little More Venting About the Balance Board
As the challenges become more challenging, the Balance Board becomes increasingly useless. This is especially true when the game asks you to race, which requires going very fast in a straight line. I suppose if you sink a hundred hours into this game you would eventually learn how to go straight on the Balance Board, but it’s not something you’ll be doing right away.
To add to the frustration, the Balance Board is very finicky. For example, the game will grind to a halt if it feels you have jumped on the board, and by “jump,” the game means any sort of sudden pressure, which could mean I lifted my heel and put it down sharply or that I simply shifted weight a little too abruptly.
Usually at this point the game will insist on recalibrating the board, which consists of telling the game how your feet are placed, stepping off and on and then standing still for a few seconds. The game will also want to recalibrate if you step off the board at any time, even if you’re in a menu. Just taking one foot off the board can cause the same thing. Skate It apparently believes that every time you do anything it finds odd, you turn into a new person with a different weight and a new stance.