When Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out around the turn of the millennium, I – like so many other ’90s kids – became immediately obsessed. Forget the small obstacle of lacking any form of coordination or natural balance in real life. This was a utopian world where you could become Kareem Campbell, Rodney Mullen or the king of the ‘900’ Tony Hawk himself in mere seconds, before varial heel-flipping your way around Venice Beach or New York City.
Tragically, I never scooped a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with skate brands Independent or Birdhouse, and my dreams of becoming the next Elissa Steamer rapidly fizzled out when I broke my wrist attempting an exceedingly slow-paced manual – but the soundtrack stuck around. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater didn’t just bring achingly cool skateboarding culture to people’s living rooms – it introduced a whole generation of newly-ollie-hooked players to the best of relentless punk, hip-hop, rap-rock and ska.
20 years on, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 in particular is held up as having the perfect video game soundtrack – and rightfully so. A gateway to Rage Against the Machine and Papa Roach, the video game also transformed the careers of groups such as Millencolin, Goldfinger and Fu Manchu. Hardcore punks Bad Religion repeatedly cite the inclusion of their song ‘You’ as an enormous factor in their success, and ‘Five Lessons Learned’ remains Swingin’ Utters most popular track to date.
“The original Tony Hawk games, in a lot of ways, were [a form of] music discovery for people,” agrees Justin Joyner, audio lead at the American video game developer Vicarious Visions.
Joyner was part of the team who brought the games into the present this year, with a remastered version of the gaming classic, named Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. He was faced with the somewhat daunting task of following up on the original’s flawless soundtrack. It quickly became a juggling act between nostalgia and reinvention– given the soundtrack’s trailblazing reputation, he knew that any remake would need to tap into the same taste-making spirit.
That’s why, alongside already-familiar classics such as hip-hop trio Naughty by Nature’s ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ and ‘Superman’ by ska-punks Goldfinger, the newly souped-up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is backed by an eclectic mix. Nestled alongside pop-punk gems that easily would’ve found a home on the original game – the likes of Sublime, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish – there’s also a more current crop of artists. Tottenham grime star Skepta, Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly , Aussie rocker Alex Lahey and Swedish punks Viagra Boys all feature. All the while, Joyner and the rest of the audio team had one question at the front of their minds. “If there was no ‘Tony Hawk…’ from 1999 and this was the first game, what would that be like?” he asks. “We wanted to include both new songs, plus ones that could’ve been in the original.”
As audio lead, Joyner and his team are responsible for every single sound you hear in the game – from the endorphin-whoosh of a maxed out special bar, to the stomach-curdling yelps that follow a particularly nasty bail. As well as taking skate culture into account, “you also have to consider the gameplay,” he explains, when picking out a soundtrack addition. “Tony Hawk… is kind of a fast-paced game in a lot of ways – you’re constantly moving around and doing tricks. You have to have music that has the right kind of rhythm to it, and the right kind of sound to really complement that gameplay.”
In searching out a new generation of hidden gems, Joyner dived down something of an internet black hole, watching endless skate videos, immersing himself in the culture, and then hopping from artist to artist on Spotify. Tony Hawk himself was also heavily involved in the song-selection process, directly requesting the inclusion of Vermont punk-rockers Rough Francis, Orange County’s Zebrahead and the Boston hardcore group American Nightmare.
“[Tony Hawk] had more [suggestions], but we also had to consider that we couldn’t license everything,” Joyner explains. “There’s a lot of moving parts and considerations. All it takes is one person or party to not be on board, and you can’t license the song. It’s a complicated, tricky meandering trying to get the rights to everything, so unfortunately there were a handful we couldn’t get. It’s also the very practical reason why a handful of iconic tracks from the original games – The High & Mighty’s ‘B-Boy Document ’99″’ and ‘Bring the Noise’ by Anthrax & Public Enemy, for example – don’t appear this time around.
Joyner adds, “The song also has to be catchy in one way or another,” pondering the particular quality that all perfect Tony Hawk picks share. “I use the word ‘sticky’. When I was going through picking these songs, I would listen to them over and over and over again. I got rid of the ones I felt were grating in one way or another. Internally the people who developed this game were listening to these songs day-in, day-out during the course of development, too. People would reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, I love this song or that song. That was really encouraging to me because people would reinforce that for the most part people are really enjoying it.“
When Joyner approached the artists who had made the final cut, the reaction was usually one of excitement – many of the bands chosen had coincidentally spent hours perfecting the art of a 360 sal flip to nose manual combo on the original version, and were turned onto punk and rap by the games early on. “[Canadian rapper] Merkules referenced [Tony Hawk as an influence] before this game was a thing. Same thing with Rough Francis. For a lot of them it’s kind of come full-circle: they played Tony Hawk growing up and now they’ve got their song on the game – which is pretty awesome.”
Considering the game’s huge legacy, did Joyner feel any pressure to build on its flawless soundtrack? “I knew that the original soundtrack was highly regarded, so I wanted to do more of the same, you know,” he says. “I had fun with it”.
Though he’s not able to comment on whether there will be any further Tony Hawk remasters in the future, Joyner has also been mulling over why this early-’00s skateboarding game has endured 20 years on. For him, it comes down to nostalgia.
“I think that people think back to being kids and playing this game on their Playstation. Back then it was pre-internet, in a way –it was based on word of mouth, friends, and that kind of stuff. It’s a reminder of those somewhat simpler times.”