A month before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in August of 1999, Tony Hawk had become the first skateboarder to land a “900”, pulling off the completion of two-and-a-half mid-air revolutions. It took the skateboarding legend 11 tries, but he finally landed the “impossible”. It was a monumental moment that stunned everyone watching and launched the sport into popular consciousness. After this personal victory, Tony Hawk retired from competition.
By the time he retired Tony Hawk had pretty much done it all as a professional skateboarder, winning over 70 tournaments, launching his own company and appearing in several movies including Thrashin and Gleaming the Cube (both of which found a dedicated cult following on home video). Now fresh into his retirement, Hawk was about to find new fame in the form of a video game.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a Phenomenon
In 1999 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released at the perfect time. Sure he was no longer competing in professional tournaments but skateboarding was reaching new heights in popularity thanks to skateboarding wizards like Rodney Mullen and Bucky Lasek and homemade DIY VHS tapes that were passed around in the underground scene, reaching thousands of skaters across the county who could learn the dangerous tricks their peers were pulling off. And just as skateboarding was undergoing a resurgence worldwide, the original Playstation was dominating the video game market.
If you were young enough to witness that historic moment at the 1999 Summer X Games, you’ll understand why Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was such a huge deal at the time. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater wasn’t just a game when it was released twenty years ago – it was a worldwide phenomenon— and for my friends and I who spent the majority of their free time playing video games and skateboarding after school, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was something we just needed to own. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater pushed Sony’s console even further into the mainstream and thinking back, I can easily count at least ten of my friends who went out of their way to buy a Playstation just so they could get their hands on the game.
A Brief History
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater wasn’t the first of its kind. Prior to its release, several skateboarding games could be found both in the arcades and on home consoles, but Tony Hawks Pro Skater was different — dare I say, it was ahead of its time. Atari may have kicked off the genre with the now legendary 720 Degrees and Electronic Arts may have developed one of the best early skateboarding games Skate or Die, but regardless of their success, it was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that would take the genre into the realm of 3D, cementing itself as a pioneer of modern sports video games while popularizing skateboarding amongst a new generation.
Skateboarding may have grown out of California’s surf scene in the 1970s but as skateboarding tricks became increasingly challenging, the sport’s popularity exploded in the late ‘90s. Activision wanted to cash in on the action and so they contracted the studio Neversoft and asked if they were interested in making a skate game. Although Neversoft had never developed a sports video game before, the development team was confident they could accomplish the task before its given deadline by recycling assets from Apocalypse, a 3D multidirectional third-person shooter starring Bruce Willis. Instead of making a skateboarding game with linear level design and a racing mentality, Neversoft opted for a more open-ended approach with a focus on performing tricks and stunts, and to help sell the game Activision contacted the biggest name in the sport.
Looking back twenty years later, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is fairly rudimentary and lacks the polish and features of later instalments but it’s clear that the reason for its success is that the development team clearly knew a thing or two about skateboarding culture – and having the world’s most popular skateboard by your side didn’t hurt either. Hawk was impressed by the design team’s devotion to skateboarding and the fact that some of the members were actual skateboarders themselves – and those who weren’t helped build a backyard skatepark to learn how to skate. Hawk would spend countless hours with at Neversoft studios playing through the game’s builds and providing feedback. Eventually, he would select a group of other professional skaters to include as playable characters and each skater agreed of course since they received a cut of the royalties and could select their own attire and special trick for the game.
Setting a New Bar
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater set a pretty high standard for the genre, and sports games in general. The game features ten real-life pro skaters (including my personal favourite Bucky Lasek), Officer Dick, a bonus character for players who %100 completed the game with a single character— and Private Carrera who is unlockable only with a cheat code. Beyond that, each skater has eight grabs, eight slides, and eight flips and three special tricks that can only be performed while your special meter is full. There are plenty of special tricks too including the 540 Board Varial, the 360 Shove It Rewind, Christ Air, the Judo Madonna and even the 900 was added at the eleventh hour drawing from footage of Hawk’s famed performance of the feat a month earlier. The fluid control scheme and level design are pretty impressive for the time — as is the game’s graphics which made all other skateboarding games look archaic. And, like future installments, the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater is packed with different modes, a total of nine levels, and tapes (objectives) that unlock more levels, equipment, and competition invites. There’s so much crammed into the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater that it is arguably one the games of that generation I sunk the most hours into.
And let’s not forget the soundtrack…
I can’t think of a game before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to utilize licensed songs by bands for its soundtrack— and not just any bands, we’re talking Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, Primus and The Vandals— the sort of music my friends and I listened to. And because music has always been a gateway to skateboarding, it was important to select the right tracks in order to amplify the game’s authenticity. Twenty years later, the ten-song soundtrack is still revered by many as one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time with Goldfinger’s “Superman” often referred to as the game’s unofficial theme song. Even more impressive is how they managed to put together the entire soundtrack for roughly $30,000, an absolute steal since usually, just one song will cost you more.
There’s a reason we named Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater the best game of 1999. As my colleague, Alex Aldridge wrote, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is as much a time capsule as it is a video game. It’s a remnant of an era when the millennium was young, life was rad, the future was irrelevant, and goofing off was life.” It made Tony Hawk a household name and set in stone a franchise that would last longer than it should – and while Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s an important game for an entire generation and for guys like me who hoped that with practice, we might be able to replicate the on-screen daredevil tricks in real life.
Neversoft hit the ball out of the park with the very first Tony Hawk Pro Skater. It made gaming “cool” and it bridged the gap between my skater friends and gamer friends. Much like Street Fighter II (something I wrote about), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater changed my life in many ways. It reignited a passion for gaming and reunited me with friends as it became an after school go-to for almost everyone my age. And for someone who was mostly known as a Nintendo nerd, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater sparked my love for the Playstation brand in general.
Does anyone remember the commercial?