summer 2020

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 +2 Forever Altered the Course of Gaming and Music

The remake arrives in September.

Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo Courtesy of Epic Games
Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo Courtesy of Epic Games

Skate culture caught fire in the ’70s thanks to crafty Cali kids turning empty pools into hangout spots and linking with the satellite network of photographers, manufacturers, and builders responsible for creating the early skateparks and founding the first magazines. In the ’80s, films like Thrashin’ and Gleaming the Cube made messy attempts to bring the burgeoning movement to the masses while actual skate crews like the Bones Brigade shot videos of their own in Future Primitive, The Search for Animal Chin, and others, showcasing gifted riders like Bucky Lasek and Tony Hawk. But it was the ’90s that blew the lid off the scene. In 1995, ESPN, sniffing around a growing youth demographic into fringe sports beyond football and basketball, launched the X Games, giving BMX, street luge, and skateboarding competitions a home on cable television. In 1996, the veteran skate apparel brand Vans got behind Warped Tour, a traveling festival dedicated to punk rock, which had come barreling into the mainstream on the success of Cali bands like Green Day and the Offspring, who streamlined the pop-punk sound pioneered by forefathers like Bad Religion and the Buzzcocks all the way to the bank with 1994’s Dookie and Smash.

In the same era, Playstation, Sony’s emergent disc-based gaming console, gave developers space to play around with more intricate graphics and sound. Action and fighting games took immediate notice; late-’90s gems like Parappa the Rapper, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Tekken 2 made music that was as enticing as their stories and gameplay. In the late ’90s, gaming giant Activision tapped the fledgling developer Neversoft, then on its last legs, to design a competitive skating game. Neversoft sought Tony Hawk, the most famous American rider, for input, and Hawk liked what he saw. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in 1999 to rave reviews and promising sales. The game paired airtight mechanics with creative level design and a soundtrack full of killer punk and alt-rock jams. A blueprint was drafted that would alter the course of both gaming and music. Before Tony Hawk, the chaotic car mayhem series Grand Theft Auto featured music made in-house; afterward, developer DMA Design’s GTA III licensed songs from Blondie singer Debbie Harry, rapper Sean Price, and more.

If you were a kid into games at the time, you got a crash course in music that was left-of-the-dial. If you had a surface understanding of what punk rock was about, thanks to radio and MTV latching onto Rancid, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, etc., the Tony Hawk soundtracks put you onto hardcore through Suicidal Tendencies and the Dead Kennedys. The announcement this month that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will be released in remastered form at the end of the summer is a reminder of the initial impact of the games and a pivotal point in the future of a series that, as of right now, has seen better days.

The early Tony Hawk games reinforced the close bond between skating and rock music, cherrypicking tunes that lent themselves to action sequences, like “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” the 1991 slap bass workout and unexpected alt-rock chart hit by funk-metal trio Primus, and “Screamer” and “Nothing to Me” by Texas rockers Speedealer. The soundtracks also featured actual skate-punk scenesters and admirers like the Vandals and Unsane, whose iconic “Scrape” video, a staple on MTV for a while in the ’90s, was literally just a homemade reel of brutal skateboard wipeouts spliced with tour footage. There’s also songs that date the first Pro Skater as a document of the awkward late ’90s. Third-wave ska tunes by the Suicide Machines (“New Girl”) and Goldfinger (“Superman”) stroke nostalgia but invite a faint whiff of cringe, reminding rock fans of the three-year stretch where it seemed like there was a horn section on everything. Left-field picks like U.K. dance-music producer Grand Unified’s “Le Hot” signaled an interest in genres outside punk, rock, and metal that the Tony Hawk series would explore in greater depth on subsequent entries.

The soundtrack for 2000’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 is a small coup, mixing mainstream punk, rock, and rap hits with stoner rock, underground hip-hop, rap-rock, and nu metal jams. There were kids listening to all of this music at the time, but it was so rarely seen in the same frame. (Respect to Happy Walters, the executive producer on the soundtrack to the 1993 action flick Judgment Night, which got Sonic Youth to make a pot anthem with Cypress Hill.) 2000 was a transitional year; Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes had gone to pasture, meaning only the most watched videos earned space on television as MTV pivoted from music to reality television. Tastemaking in music at the scale MTV achieved in the ’90s fell to the internet and to savvy movie and video game soundtracks in the early aughts. If you were hungry for music outside top 40, you were learning about country from O Brother, Where Art Thou? or techno from The Matrix or swanky French lounge music from The Virgin Suicides.

Pro Skater 2 saluted smokers with SoCal desert rockers Fu Manchu’s “Evil Eye”; mainstream sorta-goths with Powerman 5000’s disco-metal banger “When Worlds Collide”; backpack rap aficionados with the Eastern Conference posse cut “B-Boy Document ‘99,” from Philly’s High and Mighty, featuring Virginia’s Skillz and Brooklyn upstart Mos Def (n.k.a. Yasiin Bey) and “Subculture” by Cali quartet Styles of Beyond, who’d feature heavily on Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda’s Fort Minor project in a few years. Rap-rock and nu metal fans got a triple-shot of bars and guitars with Papa Roach’s “Blood Brothers,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerilla Radio,” and the Public Enemy and Anthrax summit “Bring the Noise.” Tracks from Lagwagon (“May 16”), Millencolin (“No Foundation”), and Bad Religion (“You”) kept Pro Skater 2 rooted in its punk rock foundations. The breadth of style helped cross-pollinate scenes at a moment when the lines dividing genres were coming down. The success of Pro Skater 2 is an important footnote in any history of how we got to a point where collaboration between rappers and rock bands is a daily operation.

Revisiting Pro Skater 1 + 2 at the end of the summer will serve valuable nostalgia to gamers, skaters, and music nerds (although the latter should be advised that it’s looking like the Unsane, PE/Anthrax, and High and Mighty songs might not make the cut this time). But it’s also smart business for Activision. The Tony Hawk series lost much of its luster in later years thanks to dodgy sequels, cloying Jackass tie-ins, and questionable plastic peripherals. (If you own a PS4, you’ve been shit out of luck on a good skating game since day one, as 2015’s critically reviled Pro Skater 5 is the only option, and Electronic Arts’ enhanced version of the excellent Skate 3 is an Xbox exclusive at least for now.) The first rush of excitement about a new Tony Hawk game in five years is a chance to revisit lost youth and a shot at restoring faded glory. September can’t come fast enough.

Tony Hawk Pro Skater Altered the Course of Gaming and Music