Kickflips & Controllers

aka Skateboarding In Video Games

SkaterXL / Easy Day Studios / 2020

The last 20 years has seen a meteoric rise in popularity for Skateboarding, and Video Games. What were both considered the preserve of weird, outcast kids in the 90’s, have evolved to become huge, all-encompassing activities that millions of people build their identity around. These two things have successfully crossed paths many times before, and now in 2020, with the latest Tony Hawk game breaking franchise records for sales, we may be on the verge of yet another big skateboarding video game boom. As someone intimately familiar with both of these subcultures, I decided to look into how these two very different activities came together, changing both of their industries forever.

Origins of the Skateboarding Game

The first skateboard game I’m aware of coming out is 720 degrees, released to arcades by Atari in 1986. I was 1 year old when this game came out, so I was too busy shitting my nappies to really get my hands on this one. Even still, from what I know about it, the structure of the game established the exploration and free form nature that we see in skateboarding games today. The idea of exploring skateparks, discovering lines, and player decision of tricks was there from the first skateboarding game. It would’ve been easy for a developer to make a platforming game or a racing game, or something that just doesn’t really line up with what we understand skateboarding to be – but 720 degrees is critically acclaimed and regarded highly as being something special and unique.

Following 720 degrees, several competing games appeared in 1987: Including California Games (a hybrid mini-game selection which had a small Skateboarding Vert Ramp portion) and Skate Boardin’. We actually had California Games on the Commodore 64, and I remember it being one of the first games I ever played. The skateboarding was incredibly difficult for a 3 year old to get to grips with though! 

Skate or Die! / EA / 1988

1988 saw EA release Skate Or Die (which, I think, is unofficially the real first game in the EA Skate franchise). Skate Or Die opted for more of a “competition” based format, with players given a time limit to score as many points as possible: this format might seem familiar for anyone who has played any skateboarding game from the early 2000’s. This early selection of games set a precedent for high scores and time limits, which was a reaction to the skatepark focussed competition scene of the time. In the late 80’s, this was a true representation of what the mainstream thought professional skateboarding was.

1990 saw the release of Skate Or Die 2 – a game that introduced some weirder elements which started to stray further away from actual skateboarding. In this game the player skates around in an action adventure where the plot appears to be to shoot the mayor’s wife with a paintball gun, because he banned skateboarding, which was a reaction to you accidentally killing their dog… It’s utterly weird and makes no sense.

Following Skate Or Die 2, the well of skateboarding games began to dry up for a while. This was the end of the first big “boom” in skateboarding games, and from what I can tell skateboards only feature in platforming games featuring colourful mascots, such as 1991’s Yo Bro (a game starring a skateboarding bear with a catapult) and a loose connection with a hoverboard riding Marty McFly in the Japan-only 1993 SNES release Super Back To The Future II.

The PlayStation, The 900 and The Second Boom

Tony Hawk’s face when he got his first THPS royalty cheque… or maybe it was just after he landed the 900 at the 1999 X-Games? I dunno.

In 1998 EA took another swing at creating a skateboarding game, with the release of Street Skater on the PS1. I remember playing this game a few years later after I started skateboarding, and you could see the building blocks of what later, more popular games would use as their backbone. It still lacked authenticity, gameplay and levels that could have cemented it as a classic, though. The sequel, Street Skater 2, managed to nail things a little better, but still, EA would bow out of skateboarding games entirely after the release of this game until the PS3/Xbox360 generation.

There are two other games worth mentioning before I go onto the big gun (you know what game I’m talking about). Sega’s Top Skater was an arcade game with a physical skateboard you stood on. You held onto handlebars at the side of the unit that enabled you to carve, pop ollies and do spins. It wasn’t very realistic and your motions didn’t usually translate into what happened on screen with tricks, but cruising downhill and bombing through the levels was worth the 1 pound price to play.

Thrasher presents Skate And Destroy / Z-Axis & Rockstar Games / 1999

The other noteworthy game here is Thrasher presents Skate & Destroy. It was published by Rockstar Games (creators of GTA and Red Dead Redemption), and aimed to be a proper skateboarding simulator: tricks had to be prepared, you have to wind up for spins, and you had a health bar which can completely destroy a run if you had a bad slam, or straight up gave you a game over if you got hit by a train. You could even get chased by cops and kicked out of spots if you spent too long on a two minute run! I’ve gone into detail about this previously (it’s one of my top 5 skateboarding games), but it was an early indication that game developers really understood skateboarding and were working with legit brands to keep their games authentic.

This leads us onto the literal game changer. Tony Hawk, a long time video game fan who actually had some games industry experience editing trailers and media for video games, was in talks with several developers to create a new skateboarding game. I could go into the history of how Tony Hawk ended up working with Activision and Neversoft on the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, but I would be repeating a lot of the information from the excellent documentary “Pretending I’m A Superman”. Neversoft, a team of game developers with very little experience of actually skateboarding, embraced Hawk’s extensive knowledge and feedback to create a game that felt authentic and grounded in real skateboarding. 

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater / Neversoft & Activision / 1999

The games prior to THPS had been an initial rumble of the thunderstorm of video games that would follow. THPS opened the floodgates, as other developers jumped on the bandwagon. The original Playstation was a Wild West of action sports games, with THPS, and skateboarding, leading the charge. Pro riders from the Skateboarding, BMX, Rollerblading and Snowboarding world were signing deals with every publisher on the planet to create their own Tony Hawk beater. In skateboarding, this led to games such as the fantastic “Grind Session” (starring Daewon Song and Ed Templeton), and the abysmal “MTV Skateboarding starring Andy Macdonald”. None of these games were better than THPS, and the boom surrounding the franchise brought thousands of new people to skateboarding in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

The popularity of THPS was amplified by Tony Hawk landing the first 900 in competition at the 1999 X-Games, 2 months before THPS came out. This pushed the popularity of skateboarding games into overdrive and this continued way past the 32-Bit era, and into the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era.

A Steady Decline

Evolution Skateboarding / Konami / 2002

The boom in skateboarding games from the original THPS had an extremely long tail, which lasted the whole of the following console generation, and part-way into the generation after. I would attribute the bulk of this to the continued popularity of the Tony Hawk franchise, which saw 5 games released in the PS2 era. These were all excellent games, which gradually started to move away from the timed 2-minute run the early games were known for, and started to feature open levels and worlds, encouraging exploration, and story modes which pulled on skateboarding history and trends of the time. Leveraging the success of Jackass and Bam Margera definitely helped the series stay relevant, as well as tuned into the most popular aspects of skateboarding at the time. 

Outside of Tony Hawk’s games, there were very few games that could compete. The PS2 generation began with the release of X-Games Skateboarding, released in 2001. The biggest thing about this game was that Konami had managed to pry Bob Burnquist away from the THPS franchise to be the game’s cover star. The game, however, wasn’t amazing, and hid a lot of it’s best features away in favour of trying to funnel players into an interactive X-Games TV broadcast in the same way FIFA apes TV football. 2001 also saw the release of the Japanese game Yanya Cabalista: City Skater – a bizarre, anime-styled skateboarding game where you fight aliens. Outside of Japan I don’t think this game had much of an audience, so fell to the wayside.

Konami returned in 2002 with a fresh new franchise – having lost the X-Games license (and Bob Burnquist), they released Evolution Skateboarding, using the best parts of their previous game to make a much better, and more confident successor. I had this game and if memory serves correctly, it’s the best skateboarding game outside of a Tony Hawk entry on the PS2 (not that there were many to choose from). The game featured an extensive “sticker decal” system that let you customise boards with stickers. It also had a great selection of Pro Skaters that were a real “who’s who” of awesome street skaters of the era including Arto Saari, Mark Appleyard, Rick McCrank and Stevie Williams. Some of the levels were a little strange and silly, but overall it was a solid package (there was also a Metal Gear Solid level, which was rad).

It’s also worth mentioning that there were some bizarre licensed skateboarding games in this generation, including Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure and The Simpsons Skateboarding. The Simpsons Skateboarding is widely regarded as one of the worst games of the PS2 generation, but the Disney game is actually pretty good – the game was published by Activision and is a modified version of THPS4, so it stands to reason that it would play really well.

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland / Neversoft & Activision / 2005

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, the first fully open world Tony Hawk game, was released on the PS2, as well as consoles in the following generation, kicking off the transition to the PS3 and Xbox360. The Nintendo DS port of this game, Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land, was developed by Vicarious Visions (who developed this year’s stellar, record-breaking THPS 1&2 remake). American Sk8land is the peak of VV’s amazing THPS handheld ports, where the developer managed to squeeze every ounce of power from Nintendo’s handheld consoles to perfectly translate THPS in a way that showed they really understood what made those games tick.

The PS3 and Xbox360 era is where things began to decline for the second big boom in skateboarding games: a revolution which started with THPS was now getting long in the tooth, as the Tony Hawk franchise added gimmicks which didn’t really have much to do with actual skateboarding (remember freakouts, wacky vehicles and sticker slaps?). Tony Hawk’s Project 8 attempted to bring the focus of these games back to core skateboarding, including the new “nail-the-trick” mode, which allowed you to flick the board in all kinds of bizarre ways. The problem was players were getting tired of this format, and the increasingly bloated feature set.

The Second Crash

Skate / EA Blackbox / 2007

Enter EA, once again. In 2007, EA released Skate for the Playstation3 and Xbox360. With an innovative new control scheme, which went more down a simulation route, Skate was a breath of fresh air. Offering an open world set in the fictional San Vanelona, the game roped in several Pro Skaters who were, like stars of Evolution Skateboarding before it, an amazing selection of real “skater’s skaters”: including The Gonz, Dennis Busenitz, Chris Cole and Chris Haslam. The game was a huge success, but it split the market, and signalled the beginning of the end of the Tony Hawk franchise. Neversoft’s last THPS game, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, released a few months before Skate in 2007.

Skate would return in 2008, with the Nintendo Wii and DS exclusive Skate It. This game used motion controls, and lacked some of the shine that the first Skate game had. Even still, it didn’t put EA off from releasing a fully fledged Skate sequel in 2009, which expanded on the first game immensely, and is considered the best game in the franchise by many. 

Over in the Tony Hawk camp, Activision had regrouped after Proving Grounds, and assigned Chicago based developer Robomodo to create a new take on the franchise. At the time, plastic peripherals were all the rage, and Guitar Hero was a premiere franchise for Activision. This prompted them to release Tony Hawk: Ride – a game where you stand on a plastic skateboard deck controller and do fake ollies in your living room. Perhaps showing echoes of Sega’s Top Skater, which Tony Hawk admitted inspired the original THPS, Tony Hawk: Ride was poorly received, and real skaters were perplexed why they would ever buy a plastic skateboard when they could just go and ride a real board outside.

I mean… Just look at this thing.

Robomodo would take a second swing at the “plastic skateboard” idea the following year, with Tony Hawk: Shred. This came out against the far more superior Skate3 – a game which now boasted all of the hallmark features that Tony Hawk’s games had at their peak. Hawk has gone on record and said Shred is the game that Ride should have been, but many core skateboarders were still skeptical at shelling out a huge amount of money for a plastic skateboard deck, and non-skaters were too busy having a blast with Skate3.

Skate3’s sales, despite the game being great, were not what EA expected, and following the release of that game in 2010, the franchise was put on indefinite hold. Robomodo changed tact with the Tony Hawk franchise, and attempted to release a re-make of THPS1&2. Compared to the recent remake, made by Vicarious Visions, 2012’s THPS HD was awful. The game was very buggy, it didn’t feel like a THPS game, and it had a sepia toned, brown look to everything that contrasted with the vibrant, lively style in the Neversoft games. Following this, the THPS series went quiet again for a couple of years.

In the meantime, Shaun White tried to fill Tony Hawk’s shoes with Shaun White Skateboarding, released by Ubisoft in 2013. The French publisher, now one of the world’s biggest games producers, had been conspicuously quiet around action sports games for many years, and smartly timed the release of their game when the other franchises had decided to call it a day. Shaun White Skateboarding isn’t necessarily bad, and it tries some fresh and interesting ideas, but it is incredibly unrealistic and focused on a storyline that felt like it wasn’t so much about skateboarding, but about facism. Whilst offering a very strong message and trying to say more with it’s story than other games in the genre, it definitely didn’t fill the gap left by the THPS and Skate franchises.

OlliOlli / Roll7 / 2014

This brings us to the PS4/Xbox One era, a generation with a severe lack of games in this genre. 2014 saw UK indie studio Roll7 release the BAFTA award winning OlliOlli – this was a 2D side scrolling skateboarding game with punishing difficulty, but rewarding gameplay that was addictive and blisteringly fast. Designed by friend of the blog and discoverer of crazy London skate spots John Ribbins, the game was critically acclaimed by gamers. It took the THPS school of skateboarding games, and ramped it up (no pun intended) in a fresh, interesting way.

The following year saw OlliOlli get a sequel, with improved graphics and manuals! Roll7 would step away from the skateboarding genre following this, although skateboarding is a key component of the company’s identity, with several life-long skateboarders as part of their team, including former Heroin Skateboards Pro Arthur Tubb!

2015 also saw Robomodo finally release a new THPS game with… A game I would rather not talk about. The genre died off massively following this.

The Present Day

In case you didn’t know, this is THE OFFICIAL GAME OF STREET LEAGUE.

Following 2015, many studios developing on console refused to touch skateboarding games with a barge pole. The genre mostly thrived on mobile phones in this time – There was a sea of arcade style games designed for kids, but the two most notable games on this platform were True Skate and Skater. True Skate aka THE OFFICIAL GAME OF STREET LEAGUE, and Skater could most easily be described as finger boarding combined with video games. You swiped the phone to pop and flip the board and do different tricks. I spent a little bit of time with both when they came out: they were both interesting curiosities but not games you could get your teeth stuck into.

By 2017, the lack of a true sequel to Skate was at fever pitch. #Skate4 had trended for years previously, and The Berrics had campaigned to force EA to create a sequel. EA were silent in response, and nothing seemed to be happening with the franchise at all. Responding where EA remained quiet, a small Canadian studio called Crea-ture Studios began working on an ambitious open world game called Session, and announced their Kickstarter Campaign in 2017. The Campaign was very successful, raising the funds to create a game many were hailing as the spiritual sequel to Skate. 

Session / Crea-ture Studios / Entered Early Access in 2019 – Still in development

Whilst Crea-ture Studios went to work on their game, Tony Hawk returned, working with a new studio to release Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam on mobile. This game was better than THPS5… but still not as good as the series’ peak. At this point, Tony Hawk’s famous 15 year exclusivity deal with Activision had expired after the awful 2015 entry into the franchise, so it seemed like we were unlikely to ever get a new game as good as the original THPS. Part of me hoped that he might sign a deal with EA and we would see “Skate 4 Starring Tony Hawk”, but that wasn’t to be.

In 2018, whilst Session came along quietly, Easy Day Studios announced their popular mobile game Skater would be getting a sequel. The interesting part was that this sequel would be a full PC and console game, called SkaterXL. This game was released in Early Access on PC in December 2018. The growing light rivalry between Session and SkaterXL, with both games using similar, simulation approaches to the genre, gathered interest from non-skaters clamouring for a sequel to Skate, and the more realistic approach got skateboarders extremely excited. 

SkaterXL had support and free advertising from Chris Roberts and his Nine Club podcast, and managed to nab some really niche “skater’s skaters” like Evan Smith and Tom Asta. Session, on the other hand, came out in Early Access in September 2019, and featured a huge amount of board customisation options, a decent chunk of New York to explore, and managed to grab some more “if you know, you know” skaters like Dane Burman and Donovan Strain. 

Whilst these two smaller, independent games were clashing, the bigger companies were gearing up to re-enter the fray. SkaterXL was quickly hotting up for a 1.0 release in July of this year, when rumours began to bubble about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater getting the re-make treatment again. Activision had successfully made amazing remakes of their other PS1 era games, such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon, so Tony Hawk was a logical next step (THPS2 is ranked second in the list of greatest video games of all time on Metacritic, so why not?). THPS 1+2 was announced in May of this year, and the game looked fantastic.

I’m not sure if Activision forced EA’s hand, or it was in the works anyway, but during the EA Play Livestream in June, a formal announcement closed the stream, stating that a new game in the Skate franchise was in development. This was huge news. Not only did we have realistic, grounded games like Session and SkaterXL, but THPS was on it’s way back, and so was Skate! We had gone from a 5 year drought of no games, to 4 major games on their way. 

Skate Story / Sam Eng / In development

Outside of this, we have some smaller independent games worth mentioning as well, which don’t aim to replicate real life skateboarding, but offer something a little more outside-the-box. Skatebird feels like someone made a Dad joke about a bird riding a skateboard and made a full game out of it – it doesn’t really handle or feel like real skateboarding, but it’s charming little skater bird and the joke “Thrusher” magazines that can be seen in game are sure to make the game meme-worthy. Skate Story is a more abstract skateboarding game where you skate as a weird glass man through otherworldly skate spots. The guy developing this, Sam Eng, clearly skates, and is taking a semi-realistic approach to tricks and replicas of famous spots (like Southbank!), which grounds the game within skateboarding, but contrasts this with some trippy visuals which may begin to expand what a skateboarding game can be.

SkaterXL’s July 1.0 release was met with much excitement from skateboarders, and whilst the game is fun, and offers a realistic and laid back approach, there isn’t much of a “game” there yet (as I mentioned in my review). Whilst many skaters I know are still putting time into SkaterXL, there was a feeling that this new buzz of skateboarding games would fizzle out much quicker than any other boom in the genre. And then THPS 1+2 released.

On September 4th of this year, players got to experience THPS 1 and 2 again in the amazing remake – and the game is fantastic. This is exactly why THPS took off as a franchise, it’s why people got excited about this genre in 1999, and it’s why millions of people (myself included) picked up skateboards in the early 2000’s. Activision proudly announced that this was the fastest selling game of any Tony Hawk title, and based on comments from the Birdman himself, this may well set up more remakes of classic titles in the series, or brand new games. 

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 / Vicarious Visions & Activision / 2020

It remains to be seen if the new entry into the Skate franchise re-captures the glory of that particular series. We likely won’t see anything new from that game for a couple of years, as it’s extremely early on in development. Between THPS and SkaterXL/Session, skateboarders are well served for games to play, and in turn it’s got non-skaters extremely excited about skateboarding. Many people thought the Olympics would be the thing to bring in the next huge influx of new skateboarders, but little did we know it would be a combination of a global pandemic, and a revival of a video game genre that has persisted for almost 35 years.

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