Well, it’s official, I’m old. What gave it away you ask? It’s not the crows feet or the grey hair, It’s not even my penchant for dried fruit. No, it’s the fact that skateboarding classic Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released 20 years ago this year. Grab me some Velcro shoes, a Zimmer frame with tennis balls on the feet and throw me in a home already.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (Or Skateboarding if you’re in the UK or Australia, as the bigwigs at Activision figured we wouldn’t know what a ‘pro skater’ was) was the first game in the long-running series that came to a drizzling, pitiful end with 2015’s awful Pro Skater 5 before mercifully being Ol’ Yeller’d behind the big barn. But we’re not here to talk about that pile of crap (yet?), we’re looking at the granddaddy of them all, the OG game that launched a franchise.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or THPS for short, was released first and foremost on the original PlayStation in November 1999, before eventually being ported to exactly every console known to man shortly thereafter. Developed by the minds at Neversoft, a California-based game studio whose previous work before the Tony Hawk series included fan-favourite classics of gaming history such as… Erm… Skeleton Warriors and weird Bruce Willis-led shooter Apocalypse (Bruno himself would assist development as the Apocalypse engine was the framework the THPS engine would be built upon). Neversoft approached already legendary professional skateboarder Tony Hawk to see if he’d lend his name and likeness to the title. He agreed and also came on board as a skateboarding technical advisor of sorts, helping them out with animation accuracy, mo-cap, trick choice, character selection and more. It all came to a glorious crescendo when, at the 1999 X-Games, held shortly before the game’s release, Tony Hawk became the first man ever to land a 900 degree spin, or 2 and a half rotations (a feat that to this day only a small handful of other skateboarders have achieved), forever cementing him in the annals of skateboarding history, and giving his name more gravitas than ever. It was the perfect marketing storm. So perfect in fact that there’s actually a popular conspiracy theory about It being a huge publicity stunt for the game, which it wasn’t, because that’s ridiculous.
In case you’ve been living under a rock or are a time traveller from the 1980s, THPS is a sports action title, wherein you traverse various locations around the world, performing the sickest of sick skateboard tricks to rack up high scores, complete stage goals and win competitions. This is all achieved using the tightest, most robust control scheme in gaming history: X to Ollie or Jump, the core button in the entire scheme, which could them be followed by Square for flip tricks, where the skateboard flips and spins around under the skaters feet by the power of science and magic, Circle for grabs, where you reach down and hold the board in all manner of elaborate ways and Triangle for grinds, whereby you slide your board along rails or block edges, with L&R used for spinning your skater when in the air. There’s a reason this control scheme was basically stolen by almost every THPS clone released during the series heyday. Landing a successful run of tricks increases your special meter and maxing it out will allow you to perform high-scoring special tricks via combo button presses, such as Tony’s eponymous 900. And that’s the core of it, perform tricks, get multiplied points for combo-ing tricks together and hit those high scores.
Obviously Tony Hawk himself is a playable character in his own game, but Neversoft went out of their way to select a playable roster of the very best pro skaters the world had to offer in 1998, or hell, even in 2019. People such as Bob Burnquist, Andrew Reynolds, Rune Glifberg, Geoff Rowley, Chad Muska (my personal favourite), Jamie Thomas, Kareem Campbell, Bucky Lasek and Elissa Steamer were here, guys and gals no-one had ever heard of before who became household names overnight, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, styles of skating and unique special tricks.
So what’s a skateboarding game without places to, ya-know, skate? Tony Hawk 5, that’s what. But I digress, You have these cool-ass tricks done by these sick skateboarders, so obviously you need some great places for them to do their flippy grabby magic and this game delivers. It’s a worldwide skate tour with now iconic locations like the Warehouse, the School, Chicago skatepark, Downtown Minneapolis, the Shopping Mall, Burnside skatepark and even Area 51. Each level contains a number of challenges to complete within a 2 minute time limit, like high scores, collecting hidden tapes (who remembers VHS?), collecting S-K-A-T-E letters, smashing things, performing certain tricks in specific locations and more. Each challenge feels unique and, for lack of a better word, suitably challenging so that you won’t get bored. Some stages, such as the Skatepark, Burnside park and Area 51 are competition stages where you have to score big in a best of 3 rounds situation, just to keep the format fresh and to test your skills.
Completing a set number of challenges and getting at least bronze in all the competition stages finishes the game and will earn you the bails video, where you can watch professional skateboarders basically annihilate themselves in the name of your entertainment. If you 100% all the challenges and get gold in all competitions you will unlock a highlights video for whichever skater you were playing as in the career mode. So 100%ing the game with every character will get you all of the highlights videos AND a new secret skater, an overweight cop named Officer Dick. Congrats! A Winner is You!
I’m ignoring the elephant in the room, the music. Oh my effing gosh the music. It’s the perfect mix of popular jams and undiscovered gems, blending rock, punk and hip hop to create something that WAS skateboarding for a lot of people, and giving punk kids like me some new bands to discover! It features some truly amazing bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Goldfinger, Dead Kennedys, Primus, Speedealer, Suicide Machines and many more great bands. For kids like me growing up, it was a definitive lesson in what music is cool.
I’d just like to share my own personal experiences with THPS if I may. I started skateboarding in 1998 after seeing a friend of a friend who had a skateboard and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’d been skating about a year when the demo for THPS was released on a cover disc with Official PlayStation Magazine (a disc I still have) and I was immediately obsessed! In the demo you could only play as Tony Hawk in the Chicago skatepark in a 2 minute free skate. From the demo, you could just feel how authentic a skateboarding experience it was, and none of the arcadey nonsense of games like Street Skater or Top Skater. I managed to obtain a copy of the game when it was released and I was immediately hooked, it was the only game in my PlayStation for the longest time, possibly until Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out. It was just game and life changing, it helped me to learn trick names, discover new music and live my life vicariously through these digital avatars. It remains one of my favourite games of all time and I’ll always have a great love for the series, even as bad as it got before the end.
Taking off the rose-tinted glasses for a sec, THPS is still a fun game to play, but at the same time it does feel very clunky and robotic compared to later instalments in the series. It’s hard to score big combos and create big trick chains due to the luxuries of newer tricks such as manuals and reverts from later games, so it can feel a little archaic. That being said, I had a heck of a lot of fun replaying this on Twitch recently. I hadn’t played properly it in a long time, probably 6-7 years so it was a joy to revisit once more although It did make me want to play other games in the series too, such as THPS 2 and NO, YOU’RE CURRENTLY 80% OF THE WAY THROUGH TONY HAWK’S UNDERGROUND. Ahem.
It’s definitely worth a look if you’re curious, it started an absolute phenomenon and helped to turn skateboarding from dirty kids in the streets to mainstream coolness. Without that we wouldn’t have had things like Jackass, Viva La Bam or Dirty Sanchez, although some might see that as a plus. While it’s not as good or as influential as its direct sequel, it still blazed a trail in video gaming and pop culture in general. Honestly, unless you were a skateboarder already, few people had even heard of Tony Hawk before this game came out, and now he’s a household name, albeit one now having somewhat of an existential nightmare. Check out his Twitter account for more of that story.
Seriously though, the game still holds up, even if it’s not in the same league as that which would come after. Check it out and relive some childhood memories.
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