Most popular sports games are photorealistic simulations now. When you fire up the latest installment of NBA 2K or MLB: The Show, you’re tasked with advancing the profile of your young, prospective athlete through a series of promising events and crucial interviews, or answering burning stat-nerd questions like how the ‘96 Chicago Bulls might fare against the ’17 Golden State Warriors. Success in PGA Tour 2K21 is a matter of precise micro-movements, savvy club choices, and incremental gear upgrades. Your career in Need for Speed Heat is only as lucrative as your visits to the chop shop are plentiful. Realism is king. Stadium lights reflecting off beads of sweat collected on shiny foreheads and shoulders is progress. Management is key. Players preside like invisible gods, guiding gifted subjects to excellence, minding the rules and regulations, always treasuring goodness and virtue. The road to reward is straight and narrow.
This wasn’t always the case. Sports games got weird and surreal toward the end of the ’80s, as the tech moved beyond the choppy simplicity of Tecmo Bowl and Excitebike. Cyber Stadium Series—Base Wars and Mega Man Soccer imagined what robots could do on the field that humans couldn’t. Mutant League Football let you compete between post-apocalyptic teams of monsters. NFL Blitz and NBA Jam loosened the rules on fouls and tackles, making a good offense the best defense. At the tail end of the ’90s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater revolutionized gaming. It didn’t have rules. The goal was to explore your surroundings and score through a series of guided point and collection challenges. The field was the real world. Tony Hawk encouraged the player to think like a skater by placing them in a seemingly benign setting, like a sprawling school campus or a shopping mall interior, and inviting them to see how everything connects, to find a secondary utility in fences, stairs, and fountains. Each level is a puzzle. Each line is a freestyle.
Youth interest in skate culture boomed in the ’90s thanks to the talent and burgeoning business smarts in the ’70s and ’80s of West Coast collectives like the Zephyr Competition Team and the Bones Brigade and the Shut crew in New York City. Speaking on the phone from the West Coast last week, skating legend and Bones Brigade alum Tony Hawk remembered the shift in attitudes firsthand: “When I was a kid, I never understood why more people never understood skating … As I saw it start to gain popularity and acceptance, I was excited because I felt like so many people devoted their lives to skating. It finally justified all that effort and all that devotion.”
After its release in September 1999, Pro Skater quickly took off, eclipsing contemporary skate titles like Thrasher’s Skate and Destroy and EA’s Street Skater thanks to the involvement of Hawk as a consultant and a playable character. He gave the game star power, more refined movement, and a selection of real-life professional skateboarders the competition at the time couldn’t muster. It was a much-needed hit for Neversoft, an upstart developer on its last legs at the time (which would parlay its success with the Pro Skater series into continued renown with the Guitar Hero and Call of Duty games), for publisher Activision, and for Hawk, who quickly became a household name, as much for personal achievements as for the smash hit carrying his name. Hawk reminisced about the moment he knew he’d changed the game: “It reached the tipping point when the fourth game was released, and the previous three were still in the top ten in sales. At one point, we had four of the top ten best-selling video games at once.”
After the first entry, Pro Skater followed the path of every ambitious and critically acclaimed sports title: It became a franchise. The early sequels (see: Pro Skater 2 through 4 and Tony Hawk’s Underground) were slick refinements of the original premise, adding new mechanics, increasingly elaborate levels, online features, and career stories to the already airtight gameplay. But the need to keep retooling a game that wasn’t broken in the first place eventually cost the series some of its luster. Later entries and spinoffs hit sour notes with reviewers for bugs and clunky peripherals that hampered gameplay. “[The game] defined a generation,” Hawk said, but “it was hard to keep reinventing the wheel.” It seemed like skating games were on the way out over the last decade, as the wait for news of a sequel to Electronic Arts’s beloved Skate 3 stretched out into a ten-year journey, and development on 2015’s Pro Skater 5 suffered, racing against the clock to make it out before Hawk and Activision’s contract ended. Recent titles like 2016’s open-world extreme sports game Steep and this summer’s Skater XL restored a glimmer of the feeling, but Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 truly feels like a rebirth.
The idea to revisit the early games came about through sheer coincidence. “I’d been talking to Activision about doing a fundraiser for [the Tony Hawk Foundation],” Hawk said. “In discussing it, we realized that the 20th anniversary of that first release was approaching. It came up organically: ‘Why don’t we remaster that first game?’” But remasters are a gamble. Sometimes they bring great games up to speed with modern graphics, but sometimes they show how far the industry has come in 20 years by forcing players to revisit mechanics that feel outdated. (2019’s Batman Arkham Collection is a winning reminder that Rocksteady Studios’ Dark Knight games are meticulously crafted puzzle boxes; 2018’s Secret of Mana redux is a window into the era where the influence of The Legend of Zelda loomed large over 3D adventure games.) The Pro Skater remaster is a perfect piece of late-’90s nostalgia and a necessary reset for the franchise. It reunites the cast from the original game, including veterans like Hawk and vert champ Steve Caballero, alongside a selection of modern-day skate heroes like Tyshawn Jones from the Bronx and 19-year-old Tokyo sensation Aori Nishimura. The old soundtrack’s mix of classic punk-ska, metal, and hip-hop jams is offset by another three dozen new and old songs, scratching the itch for anyone who ever wanted to bust tricks and combos to Skepta’s “Shutdown” or Sublime’s “Same in the End.” (On the role of punk rock in the advancement of skate culture, and these games by extension, Hawk said, “Punk was closely linked to skating because it had the same ethos and attitude. It was do-it-yourself … A lot of skaters I knew were playing music. A lot of musicians were skating. There were definitely parallels.”)
Speed and exploration are the twin thrusts of a Tony Hawk game, and the remaster plays like a dream at 60 FPS. Developer Vicarious Visions, which handled the Game Boy and Nintendo DS Tony Hawk ports for Activision and helmed the publisher’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy collection in 2017, re-created Pro Skater 1 + 2 with loving attention to detail, tastefully pulling moves like reverts from later installments to open up greater possibilities for trick lines. For savvier players, this could potentially make the objectives on the early levels a bit of a walk in the park, so they might want to opt to play in the classic style, which limits mechanics in each game to what was offered at the time of release. Difficulty spikes in ranked sessions and online multiplayer, where there’s always a better skater breathing down your neck. Crisper level and player designs, an elaborate merch spread, deep create-a-park and create-a-player options, a speed-run feature, and a seemingly endless array of player- and level-specific challenges ramp up replay value. For $39.99, this is a steal. With respect to Skater XL and its fascinating focus on kinesiology, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is easily the skate game of the year, perhaps even the last five years or more.
The question of the day is whether the Pro Skater remaster will be a one-off or a reset, an epilogue for a vibrant chapter in sports and gaming or a new beginning. Will there be more sequels? “I can only hope,” Hawk said. For now, he’s spending his time working out how to pull off events in an era where public gatherings present unique safety issues and health concerns and hoping that the new game will tide fans over until a solution is found: “I know everyone’s struggling, and these times are the most challenging. I’m happy that we get to provide some kind of entertainment.” For now, we’ll have to settle for Pro Skater 1 + 2’s pristine reconstruction of our X-Games-obsessed youth and the comforting familiarity of an old favorite that rediscovered its groove.