Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up in the dictionary, and “to pull a Homer” means “to succeed despite idiocy?” Well, I reckon SkateBIRD should get a dictionary entry too: “to completely and utterly fail despite having an infallible concept.”
SkateBIRD had everything going for it; a brilliant concept (“look at the lil birdies pulling Tony HAWK tricks, hehe!”) and some heartfelt messaging (as limited as it is, the game weaves a heartfelt message about never giving up and doing your best, and the lil birdies miss their “big friend” human, who has a stupid new job). Because birds are little animals, the “skate park” that you cruise around is actually just a house falling into a mess (because the human’s lacking enthusiasm in life), and so the game has a brilliant, bittersweet Micro Machines and Katamari Damacy vibe. The game also promises to be a more accessible skateboarding experience than, say, Tony Hawk (which is excellent for a person like me), and it has the perfect chill blend of lo-fi beats, energetic SKATE music, and birdies chirping.
I should have absolutely loved this game. I’m a guy that feeds a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos that hang around my home (they like sunflower seeds), a horde of pigeons that hang around for the bits the cockatoos don’t eat, and because of that we also get magpies and crows that also like to hang around. I’ve come to marvel at how intelligent and character-filled birds can be, and since this game lets me play as a sulphur-crested cockatoo, I really should have loved this game. From the day I first heard about this game I’ve been following it closely. But unfortunately despite having one of the best video game concepts of all, SkateBIRD falls over at every turn.
I could talk about the bugs and glitches, but to be honest I did anticipate them going in. This is an indie game, and if you play enough titles at the indie end of the spectrum you learn to tolerate bugs so long as they don’t blow up your console. My Switch is still alive, so while there were perhaps more bugs with clipping and physics going haywire, I’m willing to give that, in isolation, a pass.
In isolation I probably would have been inclined to give the camera and controls a pass, too. Those moments where SkateBIRD is running the way the developer clearly expected players to play, it’s fine. It’s the moments where you’re doing things that don’t fall into a very narrow band of what the developers anticipated where things fall apart. The camera really struggles to keep up, and turning curves don’t quite feel right. The game goes from being incredibly generous about whether it’s going to let you get away with a trick, to incredibly strict on something you thought you’d nail (and it’s not always clear what mood the game is in), and all these little inconsistencies quickly drag the experience down. The sports game genre (and SkateBIRD is, ultimately, a sports game) is one that lives and dies on players feeling like the game is treating them consistently. This is a big hurdle for the game to trip over.
Ultimately, the limited move set and range of tricks work to SkateBIRD’s detriment too. There’s only a couple of little stunts that you can pull off with the skateboard, and while it’s a rush and a half to nail them the first time, by the time you’re repeating the stunt for the 1,000th time, the appeal has worn thin. The developers seem to have been aware of this, as they’ve added platforming elements in there to spice the action and missions up a little. Moves like a double jump, which wouldn’t really work in a Tony Hawk game, are here, and they do differentiate the experience somewhat. On the other hand, these platfoming gimmicks infuriating to try and execute since, at speed on a skateboard, it can be difficult to properly time and execute any of them with any real precision, and platforming is a genre focused almost exclusively on precision.
Yet despite being a game that doesn’t play well on any level, the real football to the groin in SkateBIRD is the lack of personality. Yes, it has that sweet little story and feel-good vibe going for it, but I was expecting some subversive and surrealist humour. After all, you’re a birdie on a skateboard. The Dadaisms should write themselves. Instead we get a rather straight-faced attempt to be a feel-good Tony Hawk.
Now, perhaps this was my fault, for allowing my expectations to get away from me. Perhaps having played the utterly manic, madcap, deeply subversive animals-doing-human-things-weirdly games in Ace of Seafood and Fight Crab, I was allowing myself to expect something that was never in the game. But it should have been in the game. If you want to make a genuine skateboard game, then you put some variation of a human design on the board. If you want to have fun with the concept, then you break out the birdies. More than anything else, what ultimately put me off SkateBIRD was how flat the action was. The little dialogue interactions between the birds pulled some weight, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough to compensate for how flat and soulless the entire experience was in motion. “Soulless” is the very last thing I thought I would be writing about SkateBIRD.
I’m glad that I played SkateBIRD, and it hurts that I’ve had to give it this score. I firmly believe that as games are an art form, game developers should be trying things, even if they don’t ultimately succeed. SkateBIRD is a brilliant idea and it takes a big, heaving swing at it. Sadly, though, it’s a strikeout. However, with that being said, if the developers get another innings, I would play a SkateBIRD 2 without a moment’s hesitation, and I would fully expect that the developers would deliver having had this experience.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb