There are innumerable reasons why people pick up a skateboard for the first time, but we run into three common culprits pretty often: A brother, a neighbor, or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Launched in 1999, THPS introduced countless gamers to the world of skateboarding, and whether they kept up with the culture or curbed their pro aspirations in the garage, it catapulted skateboarding to the masses in a way no one expected. It was such a shock that over 20 years later people are still considering the ripple effect it had on skateboarding at large, so much so that author Cole Nowicki wrote a book about it.
Right, Down, + Circle dives into the history, rabbit holes, and nuances of skateboarding’s most notorious game, and from mysterious portraits of women to the 900, he covers every detail. If you, like us, are intrigued about who this Tony Hawk guru is, check out an excerpt of his book here and read through our interview with him. We guarantee you’ll learn something about the game and its impact that you didn’t know before.
Where did the inspiration to write a book about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (THPS) come from?
It was an idea that came together after I wrote an essay for my newsletter talking about Tony Hawk’s enduring legacy and how he’s transcended generations while all along being a supreme marketer.
I thought about a book pitch focusing on what I believe to be the keystone to his success, which, pop culture-wise, is the video game. I wanted to understand the game from a macro level, and the book explores the history of the video game, how it borrowed skateboarding culture in its own stilted way, became incredibly successful, and then changed skateboarding culture itself.
What would you say to someone who says the book holds less weight because you didn’t talk to anyone in it?
I’d say that the voices of the people who made the game and are featured in it are all throughout the book; I just didn’t speak to them personally.
Then I’d ask if they’d read the book, and if not, I would suggest they pre-order it now from their favorite local bookshop or my publisher, ECW Press.
Is right, down, + circle a specific trick in the game?
That’s the 900 in the original PlayStation version of the game. I’ve had a number of folks be like, “Oh, Christ Air?” and I’m like, “No.” There’s no explanation for why that’s the title of the book which I love. Not very intuitive on my end for the readers, but a little mystery is good.
Which THPS release do you think is the best?
In my opinion, the first five games are the best, specifically Tony Hawk’s Underground. There’s a narrative involved in that one. Fuck Eric Sparrow. Spoiler alert, he betrays you. I’m still hurt over that one [laughs].
Why do you think skateboarding games that came before THPS didn’t necessarily have the same level of impact?
I think the culture was primed at that moment for a skateboarding game to take off in a greater capacity than with the other games. 720 came out in 1986, and from what we understand that’s the first skateboarding game on Atari. When that game came out skateboarding was still seen as a novelty to the public at large.
In 1999, before the game launched, skateboarding had a bigger cultural foothold. Tony Hawk landed the 900 just a month before the game launched and became relevant to the culture at large. It was a special sports moment in time, like he got onto Sportsnet [Canadian ESPN] highlight reels and stuff like that. I think that did help push the game further into the public consciousness and helped carry it. Also, the game was just fun to play.
There have been other games fronted by “action sports” ambassadors, like Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, etc. Why do you think those were less successful at breaking into the mainstream?
I’m not as involved in those communities, so I can’t really speak to the impact those games had on them, but from my perspective, I think THPS being the first action sports title in that vein to break through — and especially in the monumental fashion that it did — really set it apart.
The other ambassador-fronted games were clear efforts to capitalize off THPS’ success and ultimately ended up living and dying in its wake. I’m obviously biased, but I think skateboarding also had more cultural cache at that moment and was “cooler,” more accessible, and easier to get behind.
“I think the culture was primed at that moment for a skateboarding game to take off in a greater capacity than with the other games.”
Are there any aspects of skateboarding that the THPS games completely failed to capture?
In the first game, there weren’t manuals, so there’s that. I find that it’s hard for any medium that isn’t based in skateboarding to capture skateboarding accurately. I don’t know if there is a skateboarding film that accurately depicts skateboarding in a way that I can watch and feel only a minimum level of cringe.
In terms of the THPS games specifically, they’re meant to be more of an arcade-y version of skateboarding that is easily accessible and very surface level in terms of the culture being represented. That being said, they still represent it fairly well for the most part. I think a lot of people learned the names of skateboarding tricks just from playing the game, which might seem like a small potatoes thing, but, you know, would The Berrics have their “Do a Kickflip” series if everyone didn’t know what a kickflip was?
Do you think, at the time that the game came out, Tony Hawk was the best representative of the skateboarding culture at large?
I think he was the right person for the job. He’s very polished, and he had a lot of practice beforehand being a public personality. I think he was he was ready to take on that mentally. You know, if it was Chad Muska’s pro skater, would it have been as big? I’m not sure, but he is definitely a more family-friendly persona to lead that game to the heights that it went.
Are there any other names that come to mind that had the cultural hold to be the game’s namesake?
Chad Muska was having a moment at that time, so who knows, maybe he could have transcended a little bit. But yeah, I mean, Tony was the biggest name at the time. He was being courted by a number of different games. Do you know the Thrasher Skate and Destroy game? Tony Hawk was supposed to be attached to that, but then Activision poached him to be on their game.
Across the industry, they realized that Tony Hawk was the guy to really help a skateboarding game break through, and he is still sort of the North Star of public-facing skateboarding. He is just so ubiquitous in the culture, like he broke through into pop culture. He’s in commercials for the NBA Finals and stuff like that. You’re not going to see anyone else do that.
Are there any skateboarders currently that could launch a game like Tony Hawk did?
Rayssa Leal is primed to be a big star. Will she have the crossover appeal as Tony Hawk? I’m not sure. At the moment, I think Tony Hawk is still the standard in that regard.
Let’s say you had to pick the cast of a new THPS today — who would you pick?
Going under the assumption that I can’t pick people who have already been in the game: Mami Tezuka, Kyle Wilson, Bradley Sheppard, Jim Gagne, Kyota Umeki, Marbie, Rayssa Leal, Dustin Henry, Vitória Mendonça, Jesse Plemons.
When you look back at the original game, were there any characters that should have been included but weren’t?
Tony Hawk said in an interview with The Ringer that those were the biggest names at the time. Could Mike Carroll have gone in there? Probably, so I’m sure there are a lot of names that could have been interchangeable. Maybe having the roster not be mostly straight white dudes, but that was the way it was at the time.
I think that speaks to the evolution of the game and the culture itself. In the recent releases, the roster is more than 50% women, trans folks, and people of color. That speaks to the evolution of the culture and skateboarding demographics in general, because I think things have changed a lot since the game initially came out.
When you’re looking through other types of video games that were coming out around a similar time, did you find any that had the same effect on the culture it was representing, like a niche culture being blown up because of a game?
It’s a good question. I’m not sure if anything comes to mind. I think THPS is one of the more successful examples of that, but I could be missing something. I wonder if Mario Kart really boosted the go-kart industry [laughs].
How much research did you do in terms of the creation of games, like the technical aspects of making something like THPS?
Not too much from the tech standpoint, but the story is that the Neversoft team was called in to save a game called Apocalypse. It featured Bruce Willis as the main character working his way through this apocalyptic wasteland. The game was a shit show, so the development team that would eventually do THPS were brought in to save it. They did a decent enough job and were given a chance to make a game. They suggested a skateboarding game and I think they had a year to nine months to make Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which they built off the framework of Apocalypse.
The original demo that was shown to Tony Hawk to pitch him on the game featured Bruce Willis riding a skateboard, and he had like a shotgun on his back skating through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They used the tech that was available and then built the game out from there.
Will the games Skate 1-3 hold the same cultural significance as THPS?
I think so. For the subsequent generations, totally. I didn’t play too much of Skate, but it definitely took the mantle from THPS. THPS5 has one of the worst ratings of any video game ever, and that was around the time Skate was really picking up steam. There are whole generations of kids who fell in love with skateboarding through Skate, similar to what happened with THPS earlier.
I think the Skate games still hold up well to this day. There is a YouTuber ZexyZek who still makes YouTube edits of himself playing Skate that get millions of views. The game still has a lot of relevance even though a new one hasn’t been put out for over a decade now.
Are there any notable secret cheat codes you found or other secret aspects of the game?
I don’t use cheat codes [laughs], but there are some interesting easter eggs in the games. A different company made the port for the original N64 THPS, and that company, Edge of Reality, did this thing where if you entered different codes into the game’s pause menu, it would reveal the photos of a number of unnamed women. People would find them and be like, “Why is there this weird portrait of a woman here?
It led to a lot of conspiracy theories, including people wondering if the women were Tony Hawk’s girlfriends or something, which is not true. He was married at the time. It was just these executives. They put photos of their significant others in the game as little love notes. I think there were two to three in the N64 port.
What are your thoughts on the connections players create with the characters they use?
They’re very surface-level in a way. There’s one quote in the book where Elissa Steamer talks about how she was getting frustrated at fans coming up and only knowing her from the video game and not from her skating.
I would hope if you play as Elissa in the game, you’re going to go watch her video parts, like please check out Welcome to Hell. That’s what happened to me when I played THPS. You see those clips in the intro and you’re like “Wow, who’s this guy doing this giant Benihana? I need to find out more about this guy.” It, at least for me, lead me to research more skateboarders and get into the culture more deeply. As an entry point, the video game has been successful in introducing people to those skateboarders and skateboarding at large.
100 years from now, in your opinion, is Tony Hawk going to be remembered for his skating or the game?
I think after the series of climate disasters that leave us all in an arid hellscape someone will find an old PlayStation, and inside that PlayStation will be a disc of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and they’re going to play that game. I hope that they have the nostalgia from the game and also remember the dude for who he is and the impact that he had on skateboarding and skate culture at large.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that to become an expert on something, you have to spend 10,000 hours on it. Have you played 10,000 hours of THPS?
I have not played 416 days worth of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, so I’m technically not an expert on it, but I am someone who was profoundly impacted by the game and was inspired to research it and write about it in an attempt to put words to the experience and effect that playing it had on myself and countless others.
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