There's something a little distancing about controlling a skateboarding game with a regular hand controller. When you consider the supreme levels of balance, coordination and concentration required to do tricks on an actual skateboard, simulating the experience with a handheld piece of molded plastic seems almost like twiddling your thumbs. Arcade games like Sega's Top Skater have tried to fix this problem using a full sized skateboard controller with mixed results. Koei has adapted this idea to the more space- and price-conscious home market with a thumb-board controller that attaches to the Playstation 2's dual analog sticks.
Surprisingly, the thumb board makes controlling Yanya Caballista: City Skater (Yanya) seem even more distant from controlling an actual skateboard.
Sure, the various combinations of board-twisting, leaning, and clicking exercise slightly different thumb muscles than simply pressing the appropriate buttons, and require much more hand coordination. The controls also provide suitable analogues to the real-life board movements they simulate, so the control scheme seems natural from the get-go.
But the spotty way the game recognizes your board contortions makes the whole process an exercise in frustration. I can't count the number of times I mashed the back of the board to perform an Ollie only to see my on-screen avatar skating along as if I wasn't touching the controller. It's like trying to ride a real skateboard on which every jump only has a 50 percent chance of leaving the ground. Motions for tricks like grabs and spins are similarly disregarded.
It also seems odd that Koei would want a more realistic control scheme for a game that is one of the most unrealistic simulations of skating I've ever seen. Skaters in Yanya hang in the air interminably—as if they were skating on the moon—and can effortlessly maintain grinds for miles and miles. As a design decision, the weird physics fit well with the game's quirky irreverent nature, but the lack of realism makes the skateboard seem like more of a gimmick than a way to more accurately simulate skating that I had hoped for.
Fortunately, the board is removable and Koei has deigned to include a control scheme similar to the oft-imitated Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. As soon as I found this classic control scheme hidden in the options menu, my score for the game jumped at least four points. The controls immediately became more responsive and the control scheme, while less intuitive, was still natural.
Now I could finally sink my teeth into the gameplay. It seems that a mysterious alien race called the Gawoo have invaded New San Francisco in the near future. Luckily, the Gawoo are fascinated by skateboard tricks, to the point where they explode upon seeing a suitably impressive skateboard display. Sounds perfectly plausible to me! Let's get to it.
Initially, I was expecting a game like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, with free form environments and highly varied goals. Instead, I found an experience more like Jet Set Radio: a strictly timed affair where the goals are all painfully similar and figuring out how to get to the next goal is half the challenge. The artistic parallels to Jet Set Radio are also apparent, from the obvious cel-shaded graphics to the subtly similar color palettes and ostentatious Japanese character designs. The similarities tread the fine line between homage and outright theft of the Jet Set Radio style and how much one can tolerate them will probably depend on personal taste.
Most of Yanya's appeal derives from its well-designed levels, which often resemble a good platforming game more than a traditional skateboard title. Especially impressive is one section in the fifth level in which criss-crossing ramps and pipes lead the player up to the top of a skyscraper filled cityscape, culminating in a breathtaking jump from thirty stories up. One mistake means starting again and losing valuable time, which keeps the tension high. I was also impressed with the game's well-balanced challenge curve, which manages to be difficult without being frustrating. Even though I wasn't able to complete most levels the first time, I was able to get farther and farther in the compartmentalized layout with each play, which made finally reaching the stage boss all the more satisfying.
The gameplay has one main flaw though: it's incredibly repetitive. The goal in each level is to perform tricks in front of the dozens and dozens of Gawoo. Some Gawoo require a certain type of trick to defeat (a grab, for instance), but this hardly shakes up the experience in any meaningful way. There are none of the racing, collecting or exploration-based goals that spice up other skating games, and the added ramp and challenge modes are just more of the same.
There's even a lack of variety of tricks, which are automatically performed with one button press, and lack the customization that lets a player add a personal touch to their routine. Performing the same generic "Spin-Flip-Grab" combo over and over isn't nearly as exciting as stringing together a "360 kickflip to melon grab revert" in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.
I got the feeling that Yanya was trying too hard to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness. From the finger-board controller to the nonsense story and floaty physics, it seems Koei was trying to make a skateboarding game for people who don't like skateboarding games. If Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is the American sitcom of skateboarding games, with predictable pacing and familiar set pieces, than Yanya is the genre's ridiculous Japanese anime, always ready to mess with your expectations of what the genre should be. Much like New York City, it's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.