I doubt I’m exaggerating when I state Tony Hawk is by far the most famous name in the history of professional skateboarding. While skateboarding enthusiasts can certainly name other influential skaters who moved the sport forward in different ways, even people who have never once stood on a skateboard know who Tony Hawk is and might even recognize him (or not, based on all those Tony Hawk tweets about people encountering him and telling him he sort of looks like Tony Hawk).
I am no skater. I may or may not have goofed off on a friend’s skateboard once or twice in my youth, but skating was always one of those things the popular kids at my school did. I’m sure this comes as a huge shock, but I was not one of those popular kids. Maybe buying a skateboard would’ve helped me become less of a misfit, but somehow I doubt that. I also generally prefer my bones intact and on the inside of my body, and skating didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would make them stay that way. Despite all this, I definitely knew who Tony Hawk was and why he was a big deal, and for that I had his video game series to thank.
Before we start talking about the crossover appeal of the Tony Hawk games, we need to make our way back to the ancient past, also known as 1994. This was the year three former employees of Malibu Interactive formed their own little development studio by the name of Neversoft. The studio’s first game was the 1995 Saturn and PlayStation sidescroller Skeleton Warriors, based on the toyline and cartoon of the same name. The next few years were troubled, as Neversoft’s Ghost Rider sidescroller for Crystal Dynamics and the 3D action game Big Guns (later called Exodus) for Sony were both canceled, which nearly spelled the end of Neversoft despite their solid work on the 1997 PlayStation conversion of Shiny Entertainment’s MDK.
However, in 1998, Activision chose Neversoft to work on their Apocalypse project featuring the voice and likeness of Bruce Willis, a project which at that point had spent about two years in development hell. Activision was impressed by the tech Neversoft had created for Big Guns/Exodus, and Neversoft was able to finish the project by the end of the year. While Apocalypse met with mixed reviews upon its late 1998 release on the PlayStation, Activision was satisfied with Neversoft’s work. By May 1998, the publisher had given the green light to Neversoft’s next project – a skateboarding game for the PlayStation.
While skateboarding was enjoying a rise in popularity in the late 90s and had previously been featured in video games such as Atari’s arcade classic 720° and various computer and console titles like Skate or Die, California Games, and the more recent ESPN Extreme Games and its sequel 2Xtreme (as well as 3Xtreme and Street Sk8er, which were released while Neversoft was busy developing their game, and Thrasher Presents Skate & Destroy, which showed up the month after Neversoft’s title), the only real template for a 3D skateboarding game in 1998 was Sega’s Top Skater arcade machine, which had released the previous year. The Model 2-powered title allows the player to skate through different downhill courses and perform tricks to earn extra time, all of which is controlled using a bespoke skateboard controller on the cabinet. As it happens, the bowling alley near Neversoft’s studio had a Top Skater machine, which the team would play regularly and which heavily influenced the early prototypes of their game.
Early on, the game that would eventually become Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater focused on downhill courses in the style of Top Skater. At the end of the course would be a skate park, where the player could spend time in and perform tricks at their leisure. It eventually became clear that messing around in the skate park and pulling off tricks was more fun than the downhill gameplay, so the development pivoted away from the Top Skater-inspired formula and focused on the trick portion.
In the final game, you are given five objectives in the form of “tapes” – two score-based ones, S-K-A-T-E letters to collect, a hidden VHS tape in some hard-to-reach location, as well as one objective tailored for each level. These level-specific objectives generally focus on destroying five items of some description, such as the boxes in the Warehouse or “no skating” signs in Downtown. You’re given two minutes per run, and in that time you can complete as many or few objectives as you like.
Once a tape for an objective is collected, it stays that way so you can focus on a different goal. Obviously, the more tapes you collect in one run, the quicker you get through the game, which encourages mastery of the gameplay systems while also remaining accessible to beginners. The tapes were directly inspired by Nintendo’s legendary Super Mario 64 and its Power Stars.
Of course, none of this would’ve mattered if the game didn’t feel good to play. Fortunately, it did and still does. The control scheme of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is the epitome of easy to pick up, difficult to master. Your skater is controlled with the d-pad (or analog stick, but the d-pad is the better option because you need precise directions), X is your ollie (i.e. jump) button. Holding X and releasing makes your skater ollie higher than tapping the button, and holding the button also makes them crouch and move faster. The square and circle buttons are used for flip and grab tricks respectively, triangle performs grinds and lip tricks. When you’re performing a trick in the air, you can spin with left/right or L1/R1 or instantly spin 180 degrees with L2/R2. If you tap or double-tap up just before you ollie, you perform a nollie or fastplant respectively and gain extra height to your jump. Nollies and fastplants also count as tricks, so you earn a few points and a combo multiplier from them.
Finally, filling the Special meter and then hitting certain button combinations performs special moves, which are worth extra points. Your stats are also boosted when Special is active, so you can deploy it strategically to reach certain objectives that would otherwise be difficult, such as jumping over a huge gap between buildings.
Speaking of points, the more you repeat a certain trick, the less it’ll be worth. Even the biggest and fanciest special move is eventually worth a paltry amount of points if it’s spammed over and over, so using all the moves in your arsenal is key to obtaining the high and pro score tapes and winning the three competitions in the game. The competitions are all about flawless execution, as you need to earn a high points score without falling off your board (a.k.a. bailing). Your overall score in each of the three one-minute heats depends on how many points you can score and how few times you bail, and only the best two runs count.
Earning a high enough score in the later competitions is genuinely challenging, and here it’s all about knowing your moves and the best lines to skate because the game doesn’t yet focus heavily on combos. You can perform a couple of consecutive vert tricks if you get enough air or chain together some flips and grinds for a combo multiplier, but the first Pro Skater isn’t yet built for chaining big combos.
As the gameplay began to take shape, Tony Hawk entered the picture in late 1998. The Birdman was immediately impressed by the playable demo he was presented with and signed on for the project, regularly receiving updated builds from Neversoft and offering invaluable feedback to the team. Nine other pro skaters would lend their names and likenesses to the game’s roster (which also includes two fictional unlockable skaters) as development went on. Hawk also did a motion capture session for the game, but according to Neversoft this was just a publicity stunt and none of the footage was actually used in Pro Skater. Every move was animated by hand, based on reference footage of Hawk and other skaters.
On June 27, 1999, three months prior to the release of Pro Skater, Tony Hawk landed the 900 at the X-Games, becoming the first skater to successfully perform the incredible feat of two and a half rotations in a single air. Hawk was already the biggest star in skateboarding, but that first 900 catapulted the Birdman into megastar status. Naturally, this also meant more publicity for the upcoming video game. Who wouldn’t want to be Tony Hawk and perform the 900 themselves?
The move itself was implemented very late in development (since Hawk hadn’t successfully performed it until three months before launch), but it had to be included because its absence would simply have been unacceptable. Appropriately enough, the 900 is the most difficult move in the game to land as you need a significant amount of air to avoid a massive faceplant, but also worth the most points.
With the rock-solid mechanics in place and the world’s most famous skater on board (heh) while interest in the sport was rapidly rising, there was one more important thing to consider. Music is an essential part of skate culture, and if Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was to portray skating authentically, it needed the right soundtrack. Top Skater and Street Sk8er featured punk and ska tracks by artists such as Pennywise and Less Than Jake, while Thrasher Presents Skate & Destroy went for old school hip hop from the likes of The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had to come up with something along those lines to create the right vibe, and it basically overachieved on that front.
The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack features songs by artists such as the Dead Kennedys, Primus, Suicidal Tendencies, and Goldfinger, and every single song in the game fits absolutely perfectly. Everyone who has played Pro Skater for any amount of time has this soundtrack stuck in their head for the rest of time, and I’d wager most of those people will always associate these songs with skateboarding. The ultra-catchy “Superman” by Goldfinger is particularly legendary in this context and has become something of an unofficial theme song for the Tony Hawk series. There’s a reason why the first thing you hear after the “Guerrilla Radio” intro in last year’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is “So here I am, doing everything I can…” and why this article is titled as it is. “Pretending I’m a Superman” also happens to be the name of a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater documentary film, which I should point out is in no way related to this retrospective.
The licensed music would always be a tremendously huge part of the Tony Hawk series’ appeal and go on to influence the musical tastes of countless people around my age. For some reason, I always sort of assumed Tony Hawk himself had some input on selecting the songs and we were basically listening to his mixtapes, but as far as I’m aware, all the tracks were in fact chosen by Activision. Whoever actually handled the music selection, we salute you for a job ridiculously well done.
Now that everything was finally in place, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released on the PlayStation in North America on September 29, 1999. The PAL release followed a few weeks later on October 18 and was re-titled Tony Hawk’s Skateboarding. As the story goes, someone at Activision’s UK/EU branch thought people might mistake Pro Skater for an ice-skating game, although I’m not sure how well that reasoning holds up considering the fact the game’s box prominently displays Tony Hawk performing a trick on what is quite clearly a skateboard. Some later NTSC revisions also carry the “Skateboarding” branding for an unknown reason.
Ports to the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast followed months later (along with a Game Boy Color version developed by Natsume, which is completely unrelated and won’t be covered here), so let’s take a look at the different versions and see how they compare. The results are quite interesting and perhaps not what you’d expect.
The PlayStation version is the original game created by Neversoft, so if you want the most authentic realization of the developers’ vision, this is the version to play. And it does play very well to this day, with a few caveats. First off, the frame rate is rather unstable and dips well into the 20s more often than I’d like. This was not a massive issue back in the day because most 3D games at the time suffered from performance issues to some extent, but Pro Skater can definitely feel a bit chunky nowadays.
The draw distance, while not abysmal, is also quite limited, and the PlayStation’s trademark affine texture warping is on full display here. The animation is often quite jerky as well, thanks to the relative imprecision of the integer math used by the programmers. Not that they exactly had any other choice there, since the PlayStation hardware doesn’t support floating point math. But despite these drawbacks, the PlayStation version still holds up well and is definitely worth playing.
Oh, and while I only own the NTSC release, the PAL PlayStation version of THPS is notable for swapping out some of the music for different songs. I’ve listened to the PAL-exclusive songs, and even though they’re not bad I definitely prefer the original tracklist.
Next up is the Nintendo 64 port, developed by Edge of Reality and released on February 29, 2000 (March 24 in the PAL region). The N64 version is generally considered “the bad version” that should be avoided, but that is not strictly the case as this port boasts some genuine improvements over the PlayStation original.
The graphics are obviously smoother, with filtered and perspective-correct textures. The N64’s hardware anti-aliasing and secondary blur ensure that the visuals are rather soft, even with the Expansion Pak installed (as far as I’ve been able to tell, it only affects the menus, which are now in high-resolution interlaced mode), but at the very least the game looks more solid on Nintendo’s console. The animation is also quite a bit smoother, thanks to Edge of Reality using floating point math instead of integer math for added precision.
Most importantly, the frame rate is much more stable than on the PlayStation. While I don’t have the tools for accurate frame rate measurement (and according to the fine fellows at Digital Foundry, measuring frame rates on the N64 can be somewhat difficult even if you do have the tools for it), the difference is obvious when you start playing. The N64 version sticks to the 30 fps target quite well, and as a result I actually find it more pleasant to play than the original release. The controls are adapted to use the C-buttons for tricks, and while the N64 d-pad isn’t the best Nintendo has ever built, it works very nicely on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
So, the N64 version is no slouch where it counts the most, which is the gameplay. However, as we established earlier, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is more than just the gameplay. Not only is the licensed soundtrack essential for the full experience, but the PlayStation version also makes extensive use of FMV to enhance the presentation. When you beat the career mode as your chosen skater, you’re treated to a video of them showing off their tricks (medaling every competition also unlocks a bails video, so you get to chortle at guys landing on their heads and/or junk), there is of course the intro with more fancy tricks from our cast of pro skaters, and there are even video walls in various levels. These play skating clips and music videos while you skate, and they’re effective at adding flavor even though you don’t really have time to look at them unless you’re in Free Skate mode.
As you might expect, all these FMVs are absent from the N64 version, so completing the career mode doesn’t really get you anything, the intro is entirely in-engine, and the video walls have been replaced with static images. The music is also severely trimmed down, which is particularly unfortunate. We do still get a respectable loop of “Superman” but other songs have been cut out or shortened dramatically, usually with all the lyrics removed. It’s all in mono as well, and I noticed the sounds of your board only come out of the left channel. The audio situation here is far from ideal, but it bothered me surprisingly little when I made my way through the career mode on the N64. Your mileage may vary, of course. The N64 version also lacks the blood splatter during bails, but I can’t say that is a deal-breaker by any means.
Despite the audio and FMV-related drawbacks, the N64 version is much better than its reputation suggests. If you’re a fan of the N64, I recommend giving Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater a shot because it really does play very well!
Finally, there is the Sega Dreamcast port. This version was developed by Treyarch and released on May 22, 2000 (June 29 in the PAL region). Interestingly, the Dreamcast version was published by Crave Entertainment under license from Activision, because apparently Activision was hesitant to release Dreamcast titles after Blue Stinger underperformed at launch. You know, I’m no Activision executive, but I would imagine Blue Stinger underperformed because it was a bizarre and not particularly good survival horror game from the people who would later bring us ILLBLEED, not because the Dreamcast wasn’t a viable platform… at that point, anyway.
In any case, this is also the best version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in my book. The controls are solid despite the awkward design of the Dreamcast pad, the visuals are massively improved – now running at a solid 30 fps at 480p, with enhanced draw distances, higher polygon counts, and additional visual detail. Treyarch opted to use Edge of Reality’s floating point math as well, so the animation is once again smoother than the PlayStation version. The full NTSC soundtrack is intact, as are all the FMVs. The video walls caused some headaches because the libraries for overlaying FMV onto textures weren’t finished, but that was eventually sorted out and the video walls made it in. These levels would show up in later games in the series on various platforms, but the video walls wouldn’t make the cut.
According to the excellent postmortem article on the Dreamcast port, Treyarch played around with 60 fps but weren’t able to optimize it in the time they were given. Thus, they chose to focus on other aspects of the game, figuring that 60 fps wasn’t essential since this wasn’t a fighting game. I do think 60 fps would’ve been much more than a bullet point on the back of the box in this case, because Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater absolutely benefits from a smoother frame rate and improved controller response (the 2020 remake running at 120 frames per second on the Xbox Series X is basically the greatest thing I’ve ever played in my life), but sadly it just wasn’t feasible this time.
As I said, this is probably the best version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. The Dreamcast controller is not the best for… anything, but the d-pad works well enough for Tony Hawk and all the visual improvements make a noticeable difference, especially the longer draw distance which really helps line up tricks and find collectibles. This is the version I’d personally recommend if you were only going to play one (you know, like a sensible person and not the kind of guy who buys multiple copies of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for a long-winded retrospective nobody’s going to read), but you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
Oh, right, there’s one more port, but I unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) don’t have this one on hand. In 2003, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made its way to Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage handheld courtesy of Ideaworks3D, who also developed the Tomb Raider port and other titles for the N-Gage. From what I can tell, this version is a solid port of the PlayStation game and fairly impressive for the time, but I can’t imagine the N-Gage being a particularly comfortable way to play something like Tony Hawk. This version also lacks “Superman” so it’s obviously the worst game ever.
While Activision’s expectations were modest, Neversoft was quite convinced they had something special in their hands with Pro Skater. Neversoft’s assessment turned out to be correct, as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a critical and commercial success and ended up selling more than 3.5 million copies. A sequel was greenlit for the following year, marking the beginning of a long-running franchise that, sadly, would eventually crash and burn as spectacularly as it once rose… only to rise again, followed by what appears to be another fall considering the fact Vicarious Visions, the developers of the excellent Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 (which isn’t covered in this article because this focuses on the original releases – ditto for Robomodo’s abysmal Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, which I’d rather not think about), were merged into Blizzard a while back. Thanks, Activision.
In June 2022, it was also revealed that Vicarious Visions were working on a remaster of the third and fourth games prior to the Blizzard merge, but that project got cancelled because Activision’s gonna Activision. What an absolute travesty. Of course, Activision has since been bought by Microsoft, so hopefully Phil Spencer puts things right once that sale is finalized and maybe revisits some of the (undoubtedly numerous) cancelled Activision projects.
So what is it about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that gives it its appeal, even to people like me who have never skated in their life? Well, we’ve gone over some of those aspects already, but the main reason is that Pro Skater is just a very, very well-designed game that plays beautifully. If the game was just about high scores, I don’t think it would be quite as appealing. The goals in each level almost make the game feel like a platformer in the vein of Super Mario 64, and there are often multiple ways to complete these goals as well, which encourages exploration and skilled play.
The game makes you want to learn these levels and master all your moves to get through the goals more efficiently, and while that learning process can sometimes be frustrating, it’s also rewarding once you finally nail that difficult gap or grab that particularly challenging hidden tape. And the next time, you’ll be able to reach those goals quicker. It’s just a very effective gameplay loop, and being able to retry instantly ensures you’re not too heavily punished for mistakes.
Another crucial factor is the simple fact the game just feels good to play. This is a very important aspect and something Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater shares with classic games such as Super Mario 64 or, indeed, the Mario series in general where simply moving the character is fun. Indeed, just skating around in Tony Hawk is a lot of fun, especially when you combine that game feel with the soundtrack and overall presentation. The gameplay is far from realistic as Neversoft prioritized fun over anything else, but all the environments are well realized and feel authentic, and as you make your way through those environments you feel like a skating god.
Is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater a perfect game? Of course not. Some of the levels (*cough* Downhill Jam *cough*) are more frustrating than fun, and others have too much empty space that could’ve been used for extra objectives or, well, anything. You can’t create your own skater or even see your chosen skater’s move list in-game, so you have to look up the special inputs. Sometimes, objectives are annoyingly difficult to find and/or require more precision than the controls are really designed for, and you will run into all sorts of muscle memory issues if you go back to the original Pro Skater after playing the later games. That last one isn’t the fault of the game itself, but it’s still something that might bother you (I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve tried to wallplant and just faceplanted into the wall instead). The lack of manuals in particular makes the gameplay in the first Pro Skater unique in the series, as big combos aren’t really an option here.
I don’t think the first Pro Skater is many people’s favorite game in the series, but it’s still an excellent skateboarding game that holds up wonderfully after 22 years and a brilliant start to a classic franchise. Nearly all of the core mechanics and other aspects that define the series are already here, but it took another year for Neversoft to really nail the formula and create one of the all-time great video games. Maybe we’ll look at that next time…