There have been a ton of great Tony Hawk video games throughout the years, with the most recent additions being Tony Hawk’ Skate Jam in 2018 and the re-release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 in 2020. For nerds like myself, Tony Hawk video games piqued our interest in skateboarding and inspired us to spend our allowances on secondhand skateboards with the belief that we would one day get sponsored and travel to the world’s most famous skate spots. Obviously, for most of us, that didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tony Hawk video games have always been a blast and remain to this day some of the best games ever made.
However, throughout this incredible series (which includes more than 20 games), some games have stood out more than others. It’s difficult to say objectively which of these games is the best. But in my opinion, that honor has to go to Tony Hawk’s Underground. I gave countless hours of my young life to this game and have revisited it nearly every year since it was released in 2003.
It reimagined what a skating video game could be and paved the way for popular games like Skate with its storyline and free-roaming structure. Even with the massive improvements in graphics and in-game physics, for me, there still isn’t a skating game out there that’s quite as fun as Tony Hawk’s Underground.
While some might argue that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was more revolutionary or influential than Tony Hawk’s Underground, I think that in terms of how purely enjoyable these two games are and how much of an emotional connection I’ve formed with them, I’d have to take Underground any day of the week. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but here’s why Underground stands out to me as the best Tony Hawk game ever made:
Getting Off Your Board
Tony Hawk’s Underground, originally released on the PlayStation 2, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, and Xbox, was the first game in the series that allowed players to get off of their boards, and this opened up an entirely new world of possibilities. You could get huge air off a halfpipe, get off your board in mid-air, run along a rooftop, and then finish your combo by dropping into a different halfpipe. You could now string together combos that were completely out of control, spanning like 10 minutes and racking up over a billion points.
Being able to get off your board also gave players the opportunity to explore the maps far more easily. You could climb ladders that led to massive drops and secret rooms. In the Hawaii level, for instance, you have to climb to the top of the hotel and then drop into a pool. Later in the same level, you go to the top of the same hotel and perform an absurd maneuver over a helicopter. Without the ability to get off your board and climb around, these incredible feats would have never been possible.
The storyline of Tony Hawk’s Underground was the most developed and captivating storyline ever devised for a Tony Hawk game. It starts out in the abandoned crack houses of New Jersey where your character jumpstarts their career by impressing skateboarding legend and New Jersey local Chad Muska. The story then tracks your character’s ascent to stardom as you make your way through the Tampa Am competition and take over the Slam City Jam in Canada.
One of the shining aspects of the game’s storyline, though, is Eric Sparrow, the wingman-turned-adversary that turns on you as fame and money increasingly corrupt him. As a kid when I was playing through the game the first couple of times, I felt visceral hatred for Sparrow and his lack of a moral compass, which is a testament to the writing ability of the folks at Neversoft. The game begins with your character and Eric skating side-by-side in New Jersey, reaches a climax when Eric derails your career and sends you back to your roots of street-skating in New Jersey, and then ends with an epic showdown between you and Eric on the streets of your hometown.
The character arc of Eric Sparrow and the way in which the game’s storyline is driven by his lust for money and vanity is truly genius. The story as a whole makes a profound statement about how pursuing one’s passions is far nobler than chasing fame.
Levels and Easter Eggs
The levels of Tony Hawk’s Underground were some of the most fun and unique maps ever made for Tony Hawk games. Each level has a completely different feeling and character. The New Jersey level is grungy and true to the game’s title, as it really gives players the sense of being part of an underground skating scene. The Moscow level is dynamic and full of hilarious references to communism. The Tampa level features riverboats and strip clubs that players can grind and flip through, in keeping with the character of the city on which it’s based.
Throughout all of the levels, too, there are some interesting Easter eggs that aren’t exactly imperative to the storyline but make for moments of serendipitous excitement. In the Hawaii level, for instance, players can jump inside the mouth of a tiki that leads to the heart of a volcano. If you time your jump just right, you’ll unlock Venice, a secret playable level that’s a ton of fun in its own right. Similarly, if you hit a certain ramp in the train terminal in the New Jersey level, you could unlock the School II level, which was a replication of a level from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
The fact that you could roam freely throughout the levels in Underground and find a cool Easter egg around any corner gave players the sense that they were exploring uncharted territory, finding ledges and rails in hidden corners of the maps that no one else had conquered yet.
Characters and Customization
Another exciting aspect of Underground was the fact that you could customize almost anything in the game. When you started the story mode, you were given a wide range of options to change your character’s appearance. You could make them wear nothing but a cowboy hat and a pair of underwear. You could make their skin green. You could even make their head resemble the Neversoft logo, meaning their head was just one giant eyeball.
You could also customize the appearance of your skateboard with an impressive degree of intricacy. You could layer on multiple patterns and images to turn your skate deck into a true piece of art. You could also customize the grip tape and wheels on your board, turning your entire board into a cohesive masterpiece.
The game also gave players the ability to create their own skate parks featuring humongous ramps, rails, and even deadly lava pits, if you so chose. If you were playing Tony Hawk’s Underground on the PlayStation 2, you could even share your custom skate parks with other players around the world using the console’s online feature.
In addition to customizable characters and parks, the game also had a wealth of awesome preset characters (as most Tony Hawk games do). In addition to skateboarding legends like Bob Burnquist, Andrew Reynolds, and Kareem Campbell, the game also featured playable characters like rockstar Gene Simmons, Iron Man, and a slimy monster based on the 1984 horror flick C.H.U.D. named T.H.U.D.
Overall, the incredible storyline and massive amount of freedom that Tony Hawk’s Underground provided to players elevates it above all of the other games in the series for me. Sure, I’ll take some time to play through Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 every once in a while. But, in my humble opinion, while those games are certainly worth playing, they don’t quite stack up to the work of perfection that is Tony Hawk’s Underground.