‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater,’ Hugely Influential In Both Music + Video Games, Turns 20
One of the most influential video games of all time, 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater,' is celebrating its 20th anniversary. For two decades, the game has turned hordes of young gamers into fans of rock music through its legendary soundtracks. To celebrate, we spoke to Mr. Hawk himself, along with many others, including Goldfinger's John Feldmann, former My Chemical Romance vocalist Gerard Way and pro skater Ryan Sheckler about its massive impact.
A rare fraction of all content is capable of not only permeating a particular culture to become ubiquitous therein, but to break through and endure as a universally beloved pillar of entertainment for multiple decades.
In August of 1999, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was released for the Sony PlayStation, cementing itself as a pioneer of modern action sports video games and a beacon of community within the late 1990s/early 2000s zeitgeist. Later ported to additional consoles, including the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast, THPS quickly became an after school go-to for virtually every child, teen and 20-something with a console and even the slightest interest in skateboarding.
If Tony Hawk wasn’t already a household name in the summer of ’99, his inaugural video game would see it so. And beyond helping to thrust skateboarding into mainstream popularity alongside events such as The X Games, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater would introduce many to the punk side of the rock music spectrum via its innovative soundtrack. Bands such as Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, Primus and The Vandals would be given a new and unexpected opportunity to reach listeners.
"Skateboarding was counter-culture, so [skaters] were interested in a different kind of soundtrack." — Tony Hawk
Combining skateboarding with music was by no means a revolutionary idea in 1999, but Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was certainly one of the earliest video games to utilize licensed songs by bands for its soundtrack. And because music — particularly the more raucous genres — has invariably been an absolute ally to skateboarding, this particular soundtrack was crucial in amplifying the game's authenticity that Hawk and the game's developers at Neversoft Entertainment were determined to create.
“Skateboarding was counter-culture, so [skaters] were interested in a different kind of soundtrack; the kind of do-it-yourself, against-the-establishment thing,” says Hawk. “I was excited to dig deep into the culture and lifestyle of skating and the music that went along with that that I grew up listening to at the skatepark. On the first game, my influence was mostly the older punk stuff.”
Hawk's history with rock and punk music runs deep, and when asked who some of his earliest favorites were, his credibility surfaces immediately as he rattles off some essentials. “Devo is definitely at the top of the list,” he answers quickly. "Black Flag, X, Sex Pistols. More new wave stuff, too, like Adam and the Ants; Psychedelic Furs before they were more, you know...” he trails off, laughing. “But the main ones would be Buzzcocks, 999, The Dickies — all that stuff.”
As Hawk continues to reflect on his favorite memories of music and skateboarding merging in his journey as a young skater, he recalls his days with the Bones Brigade, driving to competitions with teammates such as Rodney Mullen and Steve Caballero. “I remember Devo's 'Freedom Of Choice' coming through the speakers, and I had this feeling like, 'This is where I belong. This is the soundtrack to what I do.'”
Nearly two decades later, that influence and visceral discovery would translate into an unassuming, 10-song soundtrack that would gradually secure iconic status. “People enjoyed playing the game so much that I think it was almost subconscious that they started to love the music surrounding it,” says Hawk. “I didn’t know much about how music licensing worked but at the very least I thought [the bands] would like the exposure and the authenticity of it. I never thought it would be something that was considered so revolutionary.”
“We weren’t really taking our cues from other games, but more looking to skate culture for inspiration." — Scott Pease, 'THPS' lead producer
Almost everything about the creation of the game was a “renegade” operation according to Hawk, and Scott Pease, lead producer on the game via Neversoft, concurs. “Everything was brand new and a total unknown,” Pease adds. “We weren’t really taking our cues from other games, but more looking to skate culture for inspiration. We tried to get some known bands and some up-and-coming bands — just a mix of stuff we thought would fit skate culture and the game.”
According to Brian Bright, an associate producer at Activision who also handled in-house audio, the soundtrack was put together for about $30,000, which he says was remarkable for a music licensing deal. “Today you can pay that much for a single song!” he adds. But beyond budget and gathering enough bands willing to contribute to something that carried a certain amount of risk, including the soundtrack at all was a logistical challenge for the sound team working for Neversoft and Activision, the game's publisher. “Back then, the PlayStation had a CD drive with about 650MB of usable space,” explains Bright.
With the actual gameplay and video components being the more vital elements of the formula, the sound team would eventually trim the songs and loop parts to accentuate the speedy gameplay to fit all the necessities on the limited disc space. When the game was later ported to the Nintendo 64 for release in March of 2000, Bright would fashion a similar creative process to fit the tracks on the N64 cartridge, which contained even less space. Using a sound tools cart, an adapter and midi/sample software, Bright says, “I cut up the songs into the smallest bite-sized sample bits I could and then sequenced those samples to recreate the song. It was one of the first N64 games to have licensed music in it, not specifically composed for video games.”
Due to the resourcefulness of those involved and their dedication to the game’s authenticity, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater would ultimately set the precedent for countless sports video game soundtracks to come. Everything from the Madden NFL and Need For Speed franchises to handfuls of extreme sports titles toting similar superstar names including Shaun White and Dave Mirra would in one way or another look to THPS as an example for what was possible for music within a video game.
For what would go on to become a series of Tony Hawk's titles over the next several years, the success of the initial game’s soundtrack would allow more freedom and potential. “The fun part for me,” says Hawk, “was that it opened up so many possibilities for me to start throwing out some of my dream bands, like Joy Division and Sex Pistols, and the answer would come back as ‘Yes.’ It was exciting because we had this world of music available to us because people were hyped to be in the thing.”
The bands on the soundtrack would of course see the most noticeable effects of their inclusion. Texas rock band Speedealer, one of the lesser-known bands on Pro Skater, contributed their song “Screamer (Nothing To Me).” “For a working band playing tiny bars for next to nothing, it was a great opportunity,” says guitarist Mike Noyes. “I'm sure it gave us a bit of cred being as off the radar as we were at the time.”
Even some of the more established bands involved couldn't deny the benefits. “We were thrilled. We needed stuff like this,” says Vandals bassist Joe Escalante. “It’s just a big honor. 11-year-olds started coming to our shows, which is great! We loved it. [“Euro-Barge”] has always been one of the top three songs on iTunes and Spotify for us because of the inclusion in the game.”
For many, Goldfinger's “Superman” served as the unofficial theme song to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and to this day it remains one of the band’s most popular songs. “The first thing I really remember was opening for Bloodhound Gang in England before anything was really happening for Goldfinger over in the U.K.,” recalls frontman John Feldmann. “The second we played ‘Superman’ the crowd went ballistic.
“I just know that one day we were touring in a van and playing the same songs to people, and it was fine, but then like three weeks later it was this moment, like, ‘Holy shit.’" — John Feldmann, Goldfinger
“I had been in a band before Goldfinger, so I was used to the idea of touring and playing and maybe being lucky enough to get on the radio to have people hear your music. Back then there was MTV and all those avenues, but through videos games I never would have guessed that it would have made that much of an impact,” he continues. “I just know that one day we were touring in a van and playing the same songs to people, and it was fine, but then like three weeks later it was this moment, like, ‘Holy shit.’ That was the biggest song of the set. Being on Tony Hawk’s game was definitely part of the puzzle. It felt like our fans had their favorite song because of that video game.”
Feldmann echoes the sentiments of many who say that the influence of a video game soundtrack never would have crossed their minds as a way to get their music to new listeners in the late ’90s. “That game was really helpful in marketing our band in a way that we never imagined possible. That’s the remarkable thing about our business,” Feldmann explains. “At one point in time MTV didn't exist, and then all of a sudden it did and it became the biggest way to promote an up-and-coming group. There’s always something that’s gonna come along that’s unexpected. It’s always evolving, so it’s really exciting to me when a vehicle like a video game becomes a way to also cross-market another brand.”
“I’ve been to a bunch of punk shows through the years and have had people tell me, ‘I got into this music because of your video game.” — Tony Hawk
The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack has been influential to droves of millennials and beyond. “I’ve been to a bunch of punk shows through the years and have had people tell me, ‘I got into this music because of your video game,’” says Hawk.
Beyond professional skateboarders such as Jamie Thomas and Chad Muska who were playable characters in THPS, the game and its soundtrack were an exciting revelation for young, aspiring skaters who would go on to see massively successful careers in the sport. “The game was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to get home from school and play it,” says Ryan Sheckler, one of the most influential skateboarders of all time. “I loved the music so much, and I think the soundtrack made me love fast rock.”
"I think it's generally ‘outsider’ music, and skateboarding is kind of an ‘outsider’ thing. But much like what happened with my band, skateboarding is very much a part of the mainstream now. [Tony Hawk's Pro Skater] definitely pushed the culture of punk and skateboarding out there. — Gerard Way, My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance, one of the most beloved rock bands of the last 20 years, cite Tony Hawk's Pro Skater as one of the forces that would result in the band’s earliest solidified lineup with guitarist Frank Iero. As the legend goes, pre-Iero MCR had a shared practice space with Iero’s band Pencey Prep and THPS sessions in their down time would be the catalyst to lead to triple platinum single “Welcome To The Black Parade” and the rest of the band’s beloved output.
“I think it was definitely our love for the game that connected us on a social level,” says Gerard Way, vocalist of the now-defunct My Chemical Romance. “I think we had all been stuck in our moms’ basements playing that in the years before the band. It was something we were all familiar with and able to connect with.”
Way notes that it's likely that the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack helped pave the way for what was possible for bands similar to his. “It was inspiring for sure. I think it's generally ‘outsider’ music, and skateboarding is kind of an ‘outsider’ thing,” Way says. “But much like what happened with my band, skateboarding is very much a part of the mainstream now. [Tony Hawk's Pro Skater] definitely pushed the culture of punk and skateboarding out there.”
Less than five years after the formation of My Chemical Romance, Way and his bandmates would cover Misfits' “Astro Zombies” — a true callback to the spirit of the first THPS soundtrack — as a contribution to another Tony Hawk title in 2005’s American Wasteland. Looking back on the full-circle experience, Way says, “It was cool to be part of a Tony Hawk game knowing how much I played the first two, and how much [they] reinforced my love for punk music.”
Twenty years later, that succinct, 10-song soundtrack to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is still revered by many as one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time. It’s an audible punk rock idyll that helped shape a generation, from its music tastes to its motivations. “I never thought of it in lofty terms of what it could be,” Hawk admits. “I wanted the game to represent skateboarding well — to be authentic. That was all we focused on because I wanted skaters to be proud of it. I wanted to include punk music; a soundtrack to skating that I grew up with.”
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