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Skater Reviews: Skate or Die (NES)

Skate or Die was released in 1988 for a bunch of different personal computers, MS-DOS, and… the NES. Now, I was BORN in 88, so obviously, I didn’t play it when it was new. My family was a little behind the times though, so I did actually grow up with an NES until about 1996. I wonder what would have happened if I played this back in the day. We had an old 80s skateboard that I would jump around on sometimes, but I didn’t get serious about learning tricks until about 2001.

So I’m coming into this game pretty fresh, having just played it for the first time for this review. Let’s take a look at the game and see what it has to offer.

You know, skateboarding in the late 80s was pretty awesome. There were a million different kind of events out there – Downhill and slalom, vert, pool, street, park, miniramp and even freestyle. Hey, there’s a freestyle event? Let’s try that out!

Oh… it’s just halfpipe. It’s a little weird that they named it after another event that was still popular at the time. I mean, freestyle was starting to get less common, but people knew what it was. The game calls it freestyle to differentiate it from the highest air contest though. Let’s come back to this later.

So when you start, you meet Rodney. Not Rodney MULLEN… He’s actually supposed to look like Rodney Dangerfield. I don’t know why. Anyway, you can sign up for events and track your high scores here. Multiple players can sign up. Or you can skip all of this and just go practice. This guy always has something different to say. I bet they used half the memory of the game to load him up with quotes.

Let’s take a look at the events in order. First is the joust. You and an opponent take turns trying to knock each other down in this pool. Basically you just steer around and run into him. It’s a really weird event, but they really wanted a pool in the game. Of course, you can’t skate it like a pool and actually carve around the end or anything, but you can’t really expect that anyway, given the hardware. This event can be really hard. It’s annoying. The difficulty changes based on what character you’re playing against, but it’s not the kind of challenging that makes me want to keep playing and getting better. This is definitely one of the weaker events.

The downhill race is more of a competition against the controls than an actual event. You can push, steer, duck and ollie. You get to choose between regular and goofy, but it doesn’t actually switch your stance. Regular means that hitting left will mean the character turns to HIS left. Goofy means that hitting left will move to the SCREEN’S left. It’s cool that it gives you this option, but either way can be pretty tough. It’s not responsive at all, so you can hit left or right a couple of times, and he just won’t turn for a while, or you can hold A to turn faster, but there are only a few sprites, so the direction you’re moving isn’t always the angle your character is facing. Sure, maybe the NES couldn’t handle having a lot of in-between sprites, but the spinning animation on the vert ramp is pretty good, so who knows. The course has some shortcuts and things, if you can get to them and Ollie at the right time. This event is really awkward and difficult, and all you get at the end is a score anyway. So I didn’t really find myself pushing for the best possible time… Nothing really happens. Even when you check the scores at the end, you’ll be in first no matter how bad you did.

Next is the downhill jam. No! No not that one. This is another competitive event that you play against a computer-controlled player. This is also a downhill race, but the controls are different from the other one. Your goal is to get to the bottom of the screen before the other player, and you can get extra points for running over cans. In this event, you can actually attack the other guy and knock him over, which makes it pretty easy. If you get stuck in something or YOU get knocked over, it brings you back pretty close to the other guy, so you always have a chance at winning. One weird thing is that you do a 180 when you Ollie over stuff. I don’t know why it’s different in this event. It just is. You win if you get to the end first and have more points. If you knocked down a bunch of stuff and ollie onto the cop car, you could probably lose the race and win the event on points. I found myself replaying this event pretty often. It’s a little easier than the other ones, and the controls don’t really get in your way as much.

The next event is the high jump, my least favorite. In this event, the only goal is to get a really high air on your fifth wall. It doesn’t matter how high you get before that. To pump, you just mash the left and right buttons. This is kind of a classic NES thing. When there are only 2 buttons on your controller, you only have so many different things you can do. So that’s the whole event. Just mash them as fast as you can and try not to get a cramp before your fifth wall. The only indication that you did good or bad is your character’s animation at the end of your run. You don’t get punished or rewarded at all based on your performance.

The last event is the big draw of the game, the Freestyle Halfpipe contest.There’s actually a surprising amount of stuff you can do, considering the limited capabilities of the system. In general, you pump by hitting the A button at the right time, which is a lot better than the arrow mashing of the high jump, and you steer and move with the D-pad. Up and down will allow you to travel around the halfpipe, doing transfers over the roll-in, or turning stalls into grinds. The left and right buttons will spin while you’re in the air.

The spinning is pretty interesting. Aside from looking really good for the NES, you start spinning by hitting left, let’s say, then you have to hit right to stop. It’s different from holding a direction like in most games that came out later. It takes some getting used to, but I like it. It feels more natural to start your rotation then just let it go. There’s no ollie button, the height that you get is based solely off of your speed. You can do spins all the way up to 720 if you pump right.

Doing back to back 720s isn’t going to get you a great score though. You have to mix it up, and slow down so you can do inverts and tailslides, and hold them longer for more points. There’s a bonus for the roll-in transfer, you can tweak out your airs if you have enough time. There’s a surprising amount of depth and strategy to this.There’s no way you’ll get anywhere just button mashing.

After your 10 walls, your run is over.

When you finish all of the events, you can go back to the skate shop and check the high scores. You’ll be first at everything, regardless of how well you did. I would think there would be some built in CPU scores that you have to beat, but I think the game is really designed to play with multiple people passing the controller around. But the game is so difficult to learn that you probably won’t find anyone willing to sit through a whole playthrough.

Skate or Die was probably a really good game back in the day. But does it hold up? Well, obviously it’s been outdone by future games. Even the Street Sk8er games for Playstation are better in every way. But if you’re an NES fan and like the aesthetic and feel of games from this time, it could be worth a look. I think it’s cool to have just to put on a shelf, as a piece of skateboard history.

You know, interestingly, there was supposed to be a reboot of the series in 2002 by Criterion games. It was going to be an open world game, more focused on exploration instead of tricks. They worked on it for a year, but it got cancelled and Criterion later made the Burnout series instead. Who knows if it would have been any good or not. I really wish I could have given it a try.

So what do you think about Skate or Die? How does it compare to other games of the era, like 720? Is there any reason to play it today? Let me know in the comments.

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