There are two specific sub-genres in games that I particularly love: the “be an animal that doesn’t have to pay rent” and the “skateboarder” genre, because I cannot be either of these things. Thankfully over the past couple of years, there’s been an influx of games of both varieties; with the natural culmination being SkateBIRD.
SkateBIRD, as the title implies, is very much a you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter premise. Pick a bird, get on a Tech Deck. Naturally, this is all very cute and it’s very easy to fall in love with the concept. Unfortunately in practice, SkateBIRD plays more like Skate went on a drunken bender with Goat Simulator than it does Tony Hawk but with a real hawk.
This is never fun to do, but since there’s a lot more to take from SkateBIRD, it’s best to rip off this bandage right away—playing this game is pretty rough. Keeping in mind that I was working from a Nintendo Switch copy of the game, I found myself pretty frequently fighting everything around me. By the time I reached the admittedly clever final “skatepark,” I would find myself remarking surprise when the camera wouldn’t get stuck in place mid-trick than the opposite, which is not a great feeling. Even when the camera would behave, that just opened the door for other strange behavior: my cool bird would clip right through ramps and walls, the process of gaining momentum would stall out, and some tricks completely stop registering during various objectives. All of these frustrations then got compounded by random drops in performance that only a full restart of the software could solve—both in the Switch’s docked and handheld modes.
However, to the credit of SkateBIRD’s shockingly small team, there are a plethora of settings tweaks and control modifications to mitigate and eliminate as many of these problems as possible. Frankly, it’s wild to see the level of adjustment provided to a console game here. Most AAA studios can’t seem to use a font size bigger than 5 pt, but SkateBIRD is over here dropping contextual reminder text options that blow up the text to something visible by someone without a home theatre. I’ll leave it up to critics more versed in accessibility issues to determine whether what’s available meets as many needs as possible, but I was able to address a majority of the issues I had with SkateBIRD over the course of stopping and adjusting things as I went. There’s also the decent possibility that other platforms just won’t see these same issues at all.
Either way, I do want to stress that these issues can be addressed, but in spite of them, I think SkateBIRD is a real chill time. Even in spite of the game’s story mode (which is, as the ancient indie game laws mandate, actually about capitalism being bad) having a clear mission and adventure, SkateBIRD is completely content with letting you vibe your way through it. Find one of the various collectible costume pieces hidden around each level? Feel free to drop whatever you’re doing to change up your bird fashion. Get stuck somewhere? No worries brah, just hit that dedicated reset button. Just feel like you need to scream? We’ve got “scream” mapped to a bumper, live your best life.
Just “vibes” might not be the most substantive theme in a game ever but sometimes that’s not what it’s about. SkateBIRD is less of a game about hitting achievements and more about appreciating being a bird on a skateboard, which sounds weird since that’s exactly what the pitch is, but that’s exactly the point. Even compared to similar animal shenanigan fare in 2019’s Untitled Goose Game, SkateBIRD isn’t really pushing you to get to the end. If all you want to do is pop in for a couple of hours, ride a board around, and soak up some chill beats, it’ll be there for you, but hey if you’re interested that playlist can get bigger if you find the hidden track tapes, eh? (Side note to Twitch Streamers: the artists featured here say their featured music should be DMCA-proof to keep your stream safe). Sure, none of this is unique, necessarily, but this game is often found striking the balance differently than normal.
I do realize there is a growing concern about how games that can carry the moniker “wholesome” get treated in certain ways, particularly in the space of critique. There is definitely a risk of feeling a desire to put on kid gloves when talking about a game like this – and it’s worth pointing out that this is pretty much what I’ve just done. Yes, I had quite a few mechanical issues with SkateBIRD. Also yes, there’s not much going on here besides skateboarding birds. At the same time, this is a small game by a team of fewer than ten folks on the core development team and it is, for lack of a better term, pretty damn wholesome. That can be enough, sometimes.
Besides, the alternatives right now are either give Activision money or keep hoping EA manages to get another Skate out both before we all fall into climate catastrophe and without a skateboarder version of FIFA Ultimate Team stapled on. It can’t hurt to try something else.
This review was provided by the publisher with a pre-release code for Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Sep 16, 2021
Platforms: Linux / PC (Microsoft Windows) / Mac / Nintendo Switch / coming soon to Xbox Game Pass