When it comes to nostalgic games, there are few that hold the same resonance for me as the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I have wonderfully vivid memories of playing this first entry in the now-lengthy Tony Hawk-branded games and, I’m sure like many a child, exulting in the feeling of rushing around on a skateboard, pulling off wild tricks and wincing with every bloody bail. It’s a game which has lived in my head rent-free for many years, but it’s one that I probably haven’t played in over 20 years at this point. I’ve been meaning to revisit this absolute darling of my youth for a long time, so let’s grab a board, cue up some raucous punk rock, and dive into a bonafide PS1 classic.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (GBC, N64, PS1 [reviewed])
Released Sep 1999 | Developed: Neversoft | Published: Activision
Genre: Sports | HLTB: 5 hours
One of my favourite things about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is it immediately feels so very ‘nineties’ in a way that really takes me back to my childhood. The Activision swirl, the creepy old Neversoft logo, the incredibly dated rap rock – it all combines together to form an imitable picture of 90’s era “cool”. I really mean it with the music, especially; I might not have booted this game up for nearly 20-odd years but the second the dirty grooving funk guitars and record scratches of the main menu music started up I was instantly transported back to my attic bedroom with its tiny CRT TV lodged in a corner cutout with the great grey box of the PS1 sitting on the floor beneath and the trailing wires of the controllers snaking across the grotty brown carpet on which I used to sit, cross-legged and eyes a-boggling. Everything about this game is caked with a wildly strong sense of nostalgia for me, but happily the quality is definitely there to back up the effusive praise and rose-tinted glasses.
Of course, if you’ve never played it then perhaps you’d fairly wonder what on earth the fuss is about. Skateboarding games definitely existed before this one, after all, and some of them were even fairly well received. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Pro Skater is where skateboarding games really, truly began. It was almost certainly the first high-profile 3D skater, and the budget afforded to the team at Neversoft was clearly great enough for them to not just license a Tony Hawk who was approaching perhaps the most famous moment of his lengthy career – indeed, his famous world-first landing of the 900 would occur only a few short months before the release of this game, and would be hastily incorporated into his in-game character’s trick repertoire – but also to afford to produce some of the finest audiovisual work the PlayStation had to offer. The end result was a game that received wild levels of acclaim and introduced an entire generation of kids and teenagers to the sport.
The first pillar of Pro Skater’s success has to be the excellent balance struck between making a skateboarding game filled with accurate tricks with a rewarding sense of skill-gating, and also managing to craft a finely-tuned arcade-style experience. The first Pro Skater game set out a basic formula for many of the subsequent games in the series to follow, and which has sort of become an image in my mind synonymous with skateboarding games and their design. The basic premise of a Pro Skater play session is this: you pick a character from the available roster of real-life professional skateboarders, you pick a level to plonk yourself down in, and then you’re given a series of objectives to try and achieve in a short, 2-minute time limit.
It’s a very simple idea, which is partly why it works so well, but the simplicity is also retained in the actual challenges you’re set. Each level has largely the same lineup of goals. Firstly, there’s a high score which you have to beat, and then a more difficult pro score for which you’ll undoubtedly have to push yourself to exceed, especially in the later levels. To do so you’ll really need to master the ebb and flow of Pro Skater’s skateboarding, understanding just how long you have to land a trick or not overextending on a spin so as not to land wrong and bail the trick, flopping off your board in a pathetic heap and losing your combo’s points. Secondly, in what has become one of the franchise’s most iconic objectives, you’ll need to find and collect the five letters of the word “skate”, which are scattered around each stage. Each level also has a hidden floating videotape (I know, it’s dated, but this was the 90s) which you’ll need to find and collect, and then finally every level has a set of 5 objects with which you’re expected to interact in some way, such as grinding 5 school benches or smashing 5 “no skating” signs.
The simplicity and repetition of these goals is one of the best strengths of the game’s career mode, helping to build a fast-paced arcade feel. It rewards constant replaying of levels in order to fully find each stage’s secrets and collectibles, which sounds potentially onerous, but the fact that everything in the game is so fast-paced helps cement the sense of exhilarating fun that comes with playing Pro Skater. This is a pretty important thing to have gotten right because you definitely will be replaying stages in order to progress through the career mode. As a rule, 2 minutes isn’t enough time to complete all 5 objectives in one run, but thankfully the game saves whatever ones you complete when your time runs out. This means you can safely pick an objective to focus on and knock them out as you please, plus it also means that should you chose to spend a run or two just exploring a stage to try and find the hidden tape, the “skate” letters, or the 5 interactable objects, it’s not time wasted.
Of course, if it was just a game where you rolled around on a skateboard, the exploring would be pretty dull. That’s not what Pro Skater is about though, and so you spend the vast majority of your time pulling all kinds of wild, occasionally physics-defying tricks and stunts both to accrue points for your high score objectives, and also purely for fun because it’s extremely enjoyable to do so. All of the skaters in the game have the same core types of tricks they can pull off; flip tricks are quick, low-scoring tricks that can be easily chained together in sometimes lengthy sequences, grabs can be held and easily spun for higher point totals, and grinds let your skater travel along any rail or edge-like surface, provided you manage to keep your balance. The specific tricks in those categories which your chosen character can access depends on whether they’re a specialist in vert skating (i.e. they’re most at home on ramps, pools, and pipes) or street skateboarding. The tricks are all much of a muchness, but the distinction helps give a little unique personality to the different skateboarders you can play as.
Playing through the career mode is the main challenge of Pro Skater, and the game does kind of expect you to get through it with each of the characters given that playing it allows you to unlock their individual board designs and improve their stats. That’s a bit much for me, to be honest; the career never changes so once you’ve gotten to know each level and how the objectives can be met, replaying it becomes a less enticing prospect. There is however a gamut of content in the game to keep players engaged. High score challenges and the endless free-skate mode both round out the single player modes, which are fun if only to continue enjoying playing, but the multiplayer is a particular stand out if you’ve got a friend to play against.
No talk of Pro Skater would be complete, of course, without mentioning its now-legendary soundtrack. The single stand-out track is, without a shadow of a doubt, Superman by Goldfinger, a high-energy, wonderfully boppy ska-punk song that seems to have acquired impossibly memetic adoration in the years since the game’s release. I’m always a fan of the Dead Kennedys, who are also an inspired choice for the game, and in particular I’m impressed with the choice of Police Truck, which was originally only a B-Side for the far more popular Holiday in Cambodia. In general the soundtrack is very punky, although it’s not just skate punk, but a mix that trends towards more challenging or heavy songs, with entries from bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Unsane. The maddest entry is easily Jerry Was a Race Car Driver by Primus though; amazingly despite Claypool’s energetic prog-funk basslines and nasally vocals, it somehow works just as well as the high-energy punk rock.
As a full disclosure, and not for the first time on this blog, my opinions about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater are clouded and informed by nostalgia. However, I try to maintain that even when I’m admittedly seeing through rose-tinted glasses, the quality on display here is genuine. Pro Skater feels wildly ahead of its time as a PlayStation title; yes, it looks and sounds fantastic, but the real wonder is the work gone into producing its exceptional physics and hyper-responsive controls, not to mention the effort spent on capturing an authentic experience. Even today, over 20 years on, Pro Skater remains a dazzlingly fun game, and one I deeply enjoyed revisiting.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.