OlliOlli is ostensibly a skatebording game. You ride a skateboard through an obstacle course performing tricks for points, just like you would in Tony Hawk or Skate, but OlliOlli strips away so much of the excess that defined those other games that it ends up having more in common with super-challenging platformers like Super Meat Boy. That’s because OlliOlli isn’t about skatebording. It’s not interested in skate culture, you won’t be customizing your board, seeing any professional cameos, or working your way into local competitions. OlliOlli is concerned with one thing only: landing that trick.
As such, OlliOlli is a 2D side-scrolling platformer in which you can perform tricks while you jump. It’s a game that demands great skill and focus, but rarely perfection. It’s a difficult game, but it’s also accessible and inviting, always eager to push you towards the next level but also happy to let you obsess over the perfect run.
The levels are short, but if you crash once, you have to start over. Thankfully the game makes this as easy and seamless as possible, resetting you at the push of a button with no loading hiccup in the music. OlliOlli knows you’ll be restarting a lot, but this makes it sound more challenging than it really is.
All you have to do to get to the next level is reach the end of the current level. Sure, that may take a few attempts as you learn the course, but you’re not required to be good at it. Your score doesn’t matter. In this way, it’s very easy to fly through the five levels within each of the five locations. OlliOlli isn’t interested in holding you back. Instead it wants you to see all that it has to offer, and then leaves it up to you how far your want to push yourself.
Each level has five challenges: get a total score of X, get a combo score of Y, perform Z trick, grind V rail, etc. Complete these challenges, and you unlock a harder Pro level with a more complex course and more demanding challenges. Through these optional objectives, the game comes to demand excellence. Point totals get so high they require you to trick and grind across the whole level in a single combo. Such feats are hard, but that’s the point. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re playing OlliOlli. The game knows that it doesn’t have to force you into attempting a massive score with arbitrary blockades. You’ll do it regardless because OlliOlli is a skill-based games, and you want to test your skills.
The most important skill you’ll need is timing. Good timing can mean the difference between a massive score and a worthless run, and it’s what separates OlliOlli from other skateboarding games. Unlike its peers, OlliOlli requires you to hit a button in order to land after a jump. Landing is not automatic, and a poor landing can ruin an entire combo. Hit the button too early, and you get an OK landing worth a fraction of the points. Hit the button too late, and you get a sloppy landing worth nothing at all. Hit that button at just the right moment, just before you touch the ground, and you reap a perfect score.
The same controls apply to grinding, but instead of hitting a button just before you land, you push the control stick up, down, left, or right just before you touch the rail.
These rather simple controls give the game its most maddening (in a good way) difficulty curve. It’s surprisingly tough—initially—to marry these two timing controls in your head. You’ll often be so focused on getting the timing of the landing right that you’ll flick the stick when you wanted to hit “A” and vice versa. Switching between the stick and button feels tantamount to rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time. It’s awkward in an exciting way. The controls make sense for the game. They’re not unintuitive, they’re just different, and it’s fun to learn something different.
Learning, failure, and experimentation are part of the fun of a game like OlliOlli, and the controls foster that enjoyment. You perform air tricks by flicking the control stick, like in Skate or SSX, and you can spin in the air with the bumper buttons like in Tony Hawk. I mention these games because OlliOlli will feel immediately feel familiar to anyone who has played them, yet not so familiar that you can just pick it up and knock out a masterful score. The game is deceptively simple, it invites you in with that familiar air, knowing that you’ll stumble over the timing controls and obsess over every challenge. You’ll fail for sure, but that’s when you curse, laugh, and restart because you know you can do it. You were so close, and you won’t let the game beat you. The openness and challenge work together to make this single-player game feel like a friendly competition among friends.
Taken on its own merits, OlliOlli is a great game. It manages to be gleefully difficult and easily accessible at the same time, a challenge for any game, but it also represents something bigger than itself: the potential for innovation when a genre detaches itself from its own tropes and expectations. OlliOlli is a skateboarding game evolved from platformers, not other skateboarding games. It doesn’t limit itself to what has come before, it doesn’t base itself off its predecessors, and it doesn’t try to mimic or copy or ripoff. It looks to its peers for inspiration, but not for guidance. OlliOlli evokes many memories of previous extreme sports games, but it’s never beholden to those memories. By approaching skateboarding from a new angle, it’s able to revive the genre in a way that feels fresh, yet familiar. In fact, OlliOlli just might be the purest embodiment of skate culture in a game to date. It doesn’t care about conforming, it doesn’t care about its peers, and it doesn’t care what you think of it. All it cares about is landing that trick.