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Game On: SkateBIRD proves video games don’t need to be serious to be fun

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 23, 2021

SkateBIRD makes for quirky but exhilarating fun as players catapult down steep slopes and grind rails over a blaring pop punk and metal soundtrack.  (Glass Bottom Games)
SkateBIRD makes for quirky but exhilarating fun as players catapult down steep slopes and grind rails over a blaring pop punk and metal soundtrack. (Glass Bottom Games)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

After a multitude of delays, indie studio Glass Bottom Games saw fit to grace the world with the endearingly silly SkateBIRD on Sept. 16. The game is exactly what it sounds like – you play as a bird, named “Birb,” who takes up skateboarding to try and win the attention of its absent human owner. If you think the premise alone sounds bizarre, the game gets even dumber, and it’s all the better for it.

The gameplay is heavily inspired by the classic Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. The genre exploded in popularity in the 2000s before Skate 3 perfected the formula in 2010, and no one seemed to want to touch it for about a decade. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 released in 2020, which was mostly a visual overhaul of the first two games that sprinkled in a few extra features.

My biggest issue with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 was the physics. It stayed almost identical to that of the original games – huge air, ridiculous acceleration and the occasional case of clipping through walls and other objects. What was acceptable in 2000 was less charming in 2020, especially after growing accustomed to the hyperrealism of Skate 3.

SkateBIRD has similarly ridiculous physics, but given that you’re playing a tiny bird, it doesn’t feel out of place. Admittedly, it seems a bit like the indie developers simply didn’t have the resources to craft a masterful physics engine, but it doesn’t much matter because the game embraces its own stupidity. You can flap your wings in midair to effectively pull off a double jump and chain combos together by squawking incessantly between tricks.

You can approach rails with little momentum but grind them at preposterous speeds regardless. Once I learned to love the jankiness of it all, I found stringing together tricks and maxing out the “fancy” meter to be a satisfying gameplay loop. The player does all this while befriending other birds who give Birb missions to perform that typically entail doing tricks, exploring and collecting items.

Despite being heavily inspired by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the game forges its own identity with silly missions and a uniquely excellent soundtrack. At one point in my playthrough, Birb was tasked with attaching balloons to the corners of a human-sized bedsheet in order to make the bed. In another, a soapy sponge was planted in Birb’s beak while it did manuals over floor stains and grab tricks over wall smears to clean the place up – SkateBIRD initially places you in your owner’s home, but from there you go outside to the rooftop and beyond.

Back to the music, Glass Bottom Games acquired the rights to dozens of songs from some low- and medium-profile bands like Grave Danger, Illicit Nature, Holy Wow and We Are the Union. The resulting pop-punk and metal soundtrack is exhilarating and a funny juxtaposition to the cutesy chirping and squawking bird sounds that permeate the game. The developers knew it, too – my favorite cute moment is when quitting the game, the message pops up that “all progress will be saved, and the birds will be tucked into bed for a nap until you come back.” Awww.

Surprisingly, my favorite aspect of SkateBIRD is the dialogue. I found myself genuinely chuckling at most interactions between the colorful cast of quirky characters. Despite the somewhat dull plot, there’s loads of bizarre and self-deprecating humor throughout the game to beckon you forward. It doesn’t take itself seriously, nor should it.

The controls in SkateBIRD are a touch arbitrary and take some getting used to, but they’re not terrible. Furthermore, the developers had the inspired idea to place relevant controller inputs in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Only the controls that pertain to the moment appear. I was able to pick up the controls surprisingly fast thanks to this ingenious system – a lot of games could stand to emulate it.

My biggest gripe with the title is its camera. There’s no way to manually control it, and the automatic system Glass Bottom Games implemented has a mind of its own – I’ve rarely seen a more spazzy camera in a video game. Whenever you get close to a wall, there’s a good chance the camera will briefly pivot 180 degrees in front of your bird before going back to its proper place in a fraction of a second.

In the early 3D era, this was not an uncommon problem, but 25 years later, most games don’t suffer from this issue. It’s a surprisingly fundamental issue for an otherwise well-polished game that had its release pushed back on three occasions. It’s not a deal-breaker for me – the Sonic Adventure series is notorious for its clunky camera, and I love it regardless – but it might be for some gamers.

Ultimately, SkateBIRD is an enjoyably exhilarating and silly adventure that I’d recommend to fans of the genre. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and new and available for $20 on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, as well as Windows PC, MacOS and Linux via Steam. Surprisingly, there is no PlayStation 4 version, while Xbox Game Pass subscribers can play SkateBIRD for free.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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