This year, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater turns twenty years old. After its release in August 1999, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater became the foundation for a franchise that would span two decades. Tony Hawk made such a big impact on the industry that even today, some people consider a few of the entries in the franchise to be a part of their favorite games of all time. Whether you played them or not, it cannot be denied that the games helped grow and support the popular trend of skateboard culture.
The only question is, where did the critical acclaim for the franchise go? It’s hard to believe that a franchise as big as Pro Skater is almost nowhere to be found in today’s market. Some of this could easily be explained by the fact that skateboarding was at its peak popularity in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s (Beal, Weidman, 2003) and has diminished over the years. More importantly, the franchise became stretched so thin with various spin-offs that the fan base became fatigued with the number of games that appeared to miss the mark year after year. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the last twenty years and discuss the evolution of the franchise to help figure out where things started to go wrong.
By the 1990’s, street skateboarding was at an absolute high in popularity and began creeping its way into mainstream culture. What started as an extreme action sport had morphed into a powerhouse trend which everyone wanted to be a part. Video game publisher Activision wanted to capitalize on the popularity of skateboarding by giving developer Neversoft the direction of creating a skateboarding simulation game. Tony Hawk was brought in on the project to lend his name as well as his expertise on skateboarding. Pro Skater allowed the player to play as a variety of famous professional skateboarders all while completing trick based objectives that were both entertaining and challenging. The game created a great combination of simulation, while at the same time providing senseless fun. I also can’t fail to mention its emphasis on providing a stellar soundtrack to pair with the gameplay.
Pro Skater was not the only good Tony Hawk game. Neversoft extended the success with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, 3, and 4. They continued to keep the core elements that everyone enjoyed and allowed them to evolve and create new and exciting gameplay experiences for the players. It was difficult for competitors to achieve the same level of credit as Neversoft. The company dominated with their advanced skateboarding based physics and gameplay mechanics. Even after Pro Skater 4, Neversoft continued to push the boundaries on what was possible.
A New Era
The video game industry was rapidly growing and Neversoft had to ensure they kept up by progressing the franchise with new systems. Tony Hawk’s Underground was the first game in the series to really change up how career mode was played. Unlike the previous games, Underground focused on allowing the player to have a unique individualized experience by allowing them to create and shape their character for the story. Even though the career mode was the same for all players, you felt more connected by receiving the freedom of choice where it was available, while also allowing you to take your time in each area to explore. The game is also the first title to allow players to get off their skateboards, introducing the idea of pushing the boundaries of where your skater could go in the level. Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 continued this direction, but added the antics of MTV’s reality stunt/prank T.V. show Jackass. The insanely ridiculous stunts you could pull off added a new level of enjoyment for the player. Creating absolute chaos in a world is something that gamers continue to enjoy to this day (David Hutchison 2007).
Games like Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, Project 8, and Proving Ground continued to work off the success of its predecessors, but it was clear that with each game added, it was getting harder and harder to make the games feel new and fresh. It was also becoming difficult to stay relevant as skater culture was starting to become a declining trend. Eventually, Activision decided to have Neversoft merge with Infinity Ward, marking an end to an era that saw some of the best developed skateboard video games in the industry.
Spinning Out of Control
This is the era in the Tony Hawk franchise where things really go downhill (pun intended). Activision decided that they wanted to take the brand in a new direction by innovating how the games were played. Developer Robomodo was handed the license to develop a new game in the series. A motion sensing balance board was created and paired with the new title Tony Hawk: Ride. The new peripheral upped the cost of the game and was also mandatory; no more sitting on the couch with your controller. I believe that both of these factors played a huge role in why the fan base did not want to jump on board with this new way of playing (Yeah, that’s right. Another pun). Those who gave the game a chance were welcomed with wonky controls and a lackluster gameplay experience. You would be better off learning how to ride a real skateboard than go through the suffering of learning how to do specific tricks with the skateboard controller. Tony Hawk: Shred was one final attempt to keep this new vision alive. After both games received a negative reception, Activision decided to put the series on a hiatus.
Back to the Beginning?
Thirteen years after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 was released, Activision revived the series by launching Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. It had been eight years since the franchise had seen an entry into the main series, and many fans were excited to see a revival. By this point in time, gamers had multiple opportunities to play other notable skateboarding titles, so expectations were high for the comeback. Robomodo was clearly looking at nostalgia by returning the franchise back to what made it successful in the first place. Unfortunately, the game launched with multiple bugs, stale gameplay, and bland level designs. Metacritic even listed the game as the fourth worst game of 2015. As a big fan of the series, I decided to wait past release to see if patches and updates could possibly save the game. Two years after it had released, I decided to give it a chance. Although I did not experience any game breaking bugs, I stopped playing after approximately four hours. It was apparent that the game was the last nail in the coffin for what was the Tony Hawk video game franchise.
More recently, Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam was released on iOS (December 13, 2018) and Android (February 1, 2019 ). After the licensing deal between Activision and Tony Hawk expired, the license was given to Maple Media LLC. to develop a mobile game that featured mechanics from the original games while still adding new elements.
Goodbye, Old Friend
With skater culture not nearly as popular as it once was, I don’t believe gamers have as much of an interest in skateboarding video games as they once did. Pair that with the bad spin-off games and an under-performing reboot, and it becomes very transparent on why this series was put to rest. It really is upsetting to see the downfall of such a well-received franchise. The Tony Hawk video games meant so much to my childhood that it’s sad to know that I may never have those kind of experiences again. Since there is no longer a licensing deal between Activision and Tony Hawk, the chances are slim that we will ever see another Pro Skater. A lot of fans are crossing their fingers for the chance that Tony Hawk may cross over to collaborate with EA and their skateboarding franchise, Skate, but that seems far fetched. For now, we are best left to booting up our old consoles to experience a memorable moment in gaming history.