Skate or die! A brief history of the skateboard in video games

Earlier this month, news that the first two ‘Tony Hawk's’ games were to be redux and remastered almost knocked the world off its axis. This is why they matter so much

I’m happy to be corrected otherwise, but I can’t remember seeing a mass-produced skating video game in the wild until Atari put 720° into arcades in 1986. Ports to the Commodore 64, the Amstrad and the ZX Spectrum would soon follow, before the game debuted on the NES in 1988 (and sometime after that, the Game Boy Color in 1999).

Like so many of the era’s brashest titles – this was a game that not only invited the player to practice their tricks at a surprisingly well kitted out skate park, but escape clouds of killer bees – it played best in the arcade, thanks to an iconic cabinet that put a boombox centre stage in the machine. The titular trick – the 720°, two full mid-air rotations – was actually named by Tony Hawk himself (he’d pulled it off in real life in 1985), though the marketing blurb that accompanied the machine suggested parties were involved who had less familiarity with the streets.

“You’ll get to buy some rad equipment to make you the coolest skateboarder alive!” it roared. Yikes.

Game developers have been trying to capture the essence of skateboarding almost as long as the games medium has existed. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? A piece of wood, some wheels, a degree of speed and danger? And yet so often the issue in adapting the sport has been the absence of feeling. Because we’re not just talking about a piece of wood, are we? At its most romantic, the board is an extension of the user. At the very least it’s a brush. And then there’s the lifestyle. The music. The politics. The clothes. “I consider skateboarding an art form, a lifestyle and a sport,” once said that man, Tony Hawk. “‘Action sport’ would be the least offensive categorisation…”

These aren’t things any developer has been asked to think about when being told to go make a new snooker game.

720° (1986). Credit: ArcadeImages / Alamy

If the marketing speak that surrounded the release of the aforementioned, otherwise pioneering 720°, made you wince, then find some room for pudding, because here comes Skate Boardin’ – old-school programming genius David Crane’s contribution to the genre in 1987. Crane – a future co-founder of Activision and designer of 1982’s all-time 8-bit great Pitfall – presented an interesting take on the format, with the action viewed from above and zero fucks if you’re a little off centre as you attempt to grind through pipes. The same year saw the release of Epyx’s hugely iconic California Games, a spin-off of the company’s hugely successful Olympic-emulators-by-stealth Summer Games (1984) and Winter Games (1985) in which a not especially fun half-pipe mini-game stage was included. A sequel, California Games II was released two years later, with the skating segment again the weakest point.

The obtusely titled Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage – which saw the famous Hawaii-born skate and surf company’s first foray into the gaming market – was released for the NES in 1988. It included a decent side-scrolling skate section and an excretable surfing one (comments under gameplay videos on YouTube consist entirely of men of an age moaning as such, as these years on) although, unsurprisingly, given the license the skating aesthetic was spot on throughout.

Skate Or Die
Skate Or Die (1987). Credit: Electronic Arts

Better still was the same year’s Skate Or Die!, heavily influenced by the aforementioned 720°. One deviation from that game’s palate, however, was the bizarre inclusion of a character entitled Rodney Recloose. Rodney runs the local skateshop. This is where you can register your name and enter upcoming tournaments. He has a purple mohawk and a Marine Corps tattoo. And for reasons never ever explained, looks the absolute spit of the late, Caddyshack actor Rodney Dangerfield.

Rodney’s legend refuses to die; unofficial prints of the cult hero’s face strapped across t-shirts can be found to buy all over the internet (incidentally, a sequel – Skate Or Die 2: The Search For Double Trouble – followed in 1990. You’ll be pleased to know that Rodney returns also…)

It’s impossible to underestimate how seismic the PlayStation was for gaming. Launched at the butt end of December 1994, Sony’s new machine was a console pitched upwards. It played CDs. And DVD’s. And – oh yeah – games too. It was, it can be argued, the first console ever not to be marketed as a toy. With its entry into the market came a new kind of skateboarding experience. Still fun, but cool. The PlayStation years were great for the digital depiction of skateboarding.

Sony’s own ESPN Extreme Games in 1995 – which would spawn two sequels, 2Xtreme (1996) and 3Xtreme (1999) – played like someone had taken the code for Electronic Arts’ controversial 1991 ruckus-heavy-racer Road Rash and gently repurposed it to deliver an X-Games themed multi-game competition (skateboarding was of course present, as was something called ‘street luge’). A bit like PE that week had been taken by a supply teacher who, en route to the gymnasium, had taken a serious hit to the head. It was also, by some distance, the prettiest game we’ve discussed so far. Arguably the closest the medium had come to a skate simulation so far, too – there’s a difference, FYI.

Top Skater
Top Skater (1997). Credit: Sega

If you weren’t playing SEGA’s Top Skater at your local amusement arcade – an arcade unit, best viewed as a spiritual predecessor to the Japanese giant’s coming Crazy Taxi, in which you controlled your character using an actual mounted skateboard – then Extreme Games was where it’s at. Interesting to note the soundtrack to Top Skater though, was a veritable ‘Best Of’ the Hermosa Beach punk band Pennywise. Soon a new – but also already famous – name would mine California’s fertile pop punk scene to construct a series of generation defining soundtracks.

But before that, 1998’s Street Sk8er, which would incorporate the likes of scene stalwarts H20, The Pietasters, even future Hawk’s alumni, Less Than Jake – on its own soundtrack of note. Then a year later, Thrasher Presents Skate And Destroy, which tapped into the assets of the perennially cool skate magazine to create a skateboard sim that would have achieved exponentially more if released in any other era. It was just a bit complex, and wasn’t fun enough to pick up and play.

And of course, there is a fly and some shit and some ointment, right now: its name is Skate. A very classy, absorbing contender to the crown of best skating game, little has seen or heard from EA’s franchise since the game’s third ride out, in 2010. EA shut down the game’s servers around the end of 2016 leading many to believe that it was done. Then, just prior to Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2018, and after E3 2019, EA reactivated the servers leading to hope of a new title. Intrigue! And yet this update says a lot about the future of skating video games, not the present or the past.

1999 was, see, the era of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, a game made and licensed by people who knew skateboarding. Who stumbled upon a vortex of unused, unbelievably satisfying game mechanics. And, who – and it’s crucial this – intrinsically understood the ‘feel’. The fervor that announced that Tony will ride again should tell you everything about how his games matter.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999). Credit: Neversoft Entertainment

There’s a lot, culturally, going on at the end of the ’90s that ties in with the phenomenal success of the Tony Hawk’s games. Strange times. Nihilistic times. Farcical times, even. A time where the hit TV show was a counterculture take on You’ve Been Framed! Where professional wrestling was aired by Channel 4 on Sunday mornings. The world’s biggest rock star was a middle-aged man sporting a red cap turned back to front, who on his song ‘Boiler’ repeated the following refrain, “Maybe life is up and down / But my life’s been what till now? / I crawled up your butt somehow / And that’s when things got turned around”.

A time where, for many, little mattered more than the length of your wallet chain. Strange times. Nihilistic times. Farcical times, even. Then the towers fell, and fear and hate were reintroduced to our daily cultural consumption. But for a moment, it was much simpler and fun.

Dark days engulf us once more and perhaps to understand how seismic the announcement of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 was earlier this month, you’d have to understand just what an in-demand commodity fun is right now. We miss fun. Most of us yearn for life to be simpler.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is set to be released on PC, PS 4, and Xbox One on September 4 2020.


More Gaming Stories: