These days we’re used to ports on weaker systems featuring a few trimmed edges, maybe some muddier textures, some longer loading times. Like, say, The Witcher 3 on Switch. But in the Game Boy Advance days, when games could get nowhere near GameCube (or even N64) visuals, ports had to get inventive.
And few got more inventive—and ended up so brilliant as a result—as the work Vicarious Visions did on a couple of landmark skating series in the early 2000s.
While now known as a collaborative studio that has worked on everything from Guitar Hero to Destiny, Vicarious’ big break as a standalone developers came when Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series needed to be ported to Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance handheld.
Their first release on this job was 2001's Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, which not only featured one of the greatest licensed soundtracks of all time, but on console and PC looked like this:
The humble little Game Boy Advance...was not going to be able to do that. Rather than even bother trying, though, Vicarious stripped the game to the bone, took what was most important—the level traversal and tricks—and completely redesigned the game for the handheld.
Gone was the resource-taxing 3D landscape (and the original soundtrack, of course), replaced by an isometric view, the greatest of video game views. It looked like a completely different game, and yet still managed to stay surprisingly true to the feel of its big console brothers thanks to some smart level design and smooth stunt controls.
What I love most about Vicarious’ Game Boy port is that when you stop looking at what it didn’t have in comparison to the console versions, and start looking at what it did, it’s such an amazing game in its own right.
In 2001 this game probably looked to loads of people—especially those playing on PlayStation or Xbox or PC—like a hobbled port brought to the Game Boy just so one of the world’s biggest franchises could say it was on the platform.
In 2020, though, there’s an argument that it has aged far better than the main series’ polygonal quagmire, at least in a visual sense.
Vicarious would go on to release a few more Tony Hawk games on GBA, and eventually on the DS as well, but in the middle of all that, in 2003, they were also responsible for bringing cult Dreamcast classic Jet Set Radio to the Game Boy Advance.
It was in some ways a very similar project to Tony Hawk. Take a big 3D console game, bring it to Nintendo’s weaker handheld and rework it as an isometric title. And in some ways, it was a bit of a disappointment, the GBA port’s visuals unable to replicate the Dreamcast’s bold cel-shaded look. Not helping this was the way certain aspects of the game and its environment stayed true to the original game’s clean lines, while others with muddier textures looked dumped from a completely different game.
But overall, just like Tony Hawk, this was one hell of game. Damn the differences; this felt like Jet Set Radio, and you could even argue this was a tighter and more enjoyable experience since the original’s level design was so often a source of frustration when combined with its ruthless time limits, whereas in this isometric Tokyo-To everything seemed a bit more manageable.
And the music! While this was a game about graffiti, a lot of people’s favourite memories are of the game’s incredible, eclectic soundtrack. On console it could be played and enjoyed in full, but surely on the Game Boy Advance Vicarious would have to, like they did with Tony Hawk, strip out the tunes and replace them with generic skating placeholder stuff?
Nope! They just took the repetitive nature of many of the game’s electronic tracks, chopped them up and were able to squeeze them into the game, where they’re instantly recognisable. Even DJ Professor K’s iconic “JET SET RADIOOOOO” call made it in.
I love the revisionist way these games were brought to the GBA. It’s an abstract way of porting games that we rarely see these days outside of inventive mobile titles (Eidos’ Hitman, Tomb Raider and Deus Ex efforts come to mind), and it’s one that I have a lot of respect for when it’s done well like this.
Basically, what I’m building up to with all this reminiscing is: isometric games are great, and when given the opportunity, we could do with more of them.