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The Best (and Worst) Skateboard Video Games, According to Skaters

If you can’t get out and skate, at least do the next best thing

The summer of COVID is here, and the forecast looks… shitty. How to make yourself feel better? Hell, you could always get back on your skateboard. Or you could just do the next best thing and fire up your console — even the Birdman himself used to play 720˚

But what’s the best game of all time? Obviously the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series casts a long shadow over skateboard video games, but are they really the best (besides THPS 5, of course)? Or is it one of the more recent Skate series? (Surely it’s not T&C Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage, is it?)

We asked skate-shop employees, an adult getting back into skateboarding, a pro, an instructor and a video game historian for their picks (and remember, Skate 4 and a remastered Tony Hawk 1 and 2 are both set to drop in the near-ish future).

Skate 3

Collin and Dominic, Overload Skateboard Shop employees

Collin: Best skate game of all time? Skate 3. Tony Hawk was definitely good. I think the Skate games definitely rise above them all though.

Dominic: Skate 1, 2 and 3 are the fuckin’ best, hands down. They just announced Skate 4 last week, and it’s all I’ve been thinking about. I played Tony Hawk growing up, so there’s that nostalgia factor. But when Skate came out, they destroyed Tony Hawk, in my opinion.

Collin: In Skate, to kickflip you have to flick on the joysticks as you would for your foot. In Tony Hawk games you’ll press a button, then another button to flip the board, where on Skate you push down, which will simulate the popping of it, and you flick the other joystick, which will simulate the flick of the board — like your feet. My friends aren’t even gamers and they’ll play the Skate video games. A group of friends come over to my house and play the Skate games for hours, and play S.K.A.T.E. on it, which is like P.I.G., essentially, in basketball, but with tricks. It’s super cool.

Dominic: The Skate games feel organic. It makes you feel like you’re doing the trick. You have to spend some time learning, like, how to actually flick it, but it feels like you’re learning tricks the way you learn them in real life. It takes a little bit, but you’ll get it. It’s a lot faster than actual skateboarding — that takes a lot of muscle. You’re using your legs instead of a thumb!

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1

Mike Owen, pro/skateboarding instructor: My first skate game was probably California Games or Skate or Die! for Nintendo. I thought they were super cool but really limiting. Then I got into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I played the first couple Skate games. Those are pretty rad. It seems like everybody’s more into those than Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. They offer a little more.

[As an instructor] I think skate video games are an easy way for people to relate to skateboarding, for sure. They get you to learn the tricks and the lingo, the brands and lifestyle of it. Most kids may not know much about skateboarding but they’re like, “Oh yeah, I know so and so, and I know this trick,” so I think it’s cool for that.

Of all the games, I’ve probably played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 the most. And I loved the soundtracks of them — I thought that was pretty awesome. It was like a lot of stuff I’d hear from the Warped Tour, and a lot of bands that were kind of influential at the time. I thought that was the raddest part about it.

I think there’s been more interest in learning how to skateboard from playing video games, but the problem always lies in actually getting the kid out of their chair and skateboarding. I get a lot of parents who are like, “I need my kid to skateboard more, so please get them off of video games and let them actually try it!” That’s pretty cool because a lot of times the kids end up having fun skateboarding and they’re like, “Sweet, cool, I’m doing something.”

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

Adam Taylor, pro vert skater: It might be a little outdated, but the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games were so ahead of their time when they came out. To be honest, I haven’t played much of the newer games like Skate, which is more realistic. By the time those came out, I was skating so much as a pro skater that I didn’t want to play video games about skating also! It’s like, can I get a break and do something else?

My favorite is probably Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. The first one’s great. I’m a gamer, and they had the second version more fine-tuned — the mechanics of it. That’s really what made the difference.

Are skateboarding video games applicable to real skateboarding? They don’t relate at all. I mean, the concept is there, but there’s no relation. It’s like playing Call of Duty, then going to a real war zone.

Most of those games all came out when I was pretty young. By the time I was 17 and skating pro, the games weren’t coming out as often. I can’t speak for other pros, but at that level, it was like what I just said: We do it for real, so why play the game? Not that there’s anything wrong with the game, it’s just that when every aspect of your life is skateboarding, it’s nice to sit down and play some Call of Duty. That’s me personally.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

Chris Alaimo, Classic Gaming Quarterly: In the 1980s, skateboarding became a pop-culture phenomenon when the 1986 film Thrashin’ turned the likes of Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk into overnight celebrities. Vans deck shoes and graphic tees festooned with logos from surfing and skating brands such as Santa Cruz Skateboards, Powell Peralta, T&C Surf Designs and Vision became the de facto uniform of America’s youth, with your cool factor measured by the quality of the stickers on the underside of your deck. Issues of Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding flew off newsstands, VHS tapes of Gleaming the Cube were watched until they wore out and countless quarters were pumped into Atari’s 720˚ in the arcades. 

At home, one cultural icon played host to another, as skateboarding games like Skate or Die and T&C Surf Designs Wood & Water Rage appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System. But as is the case with most fads, at some point, skateboarding as a lifestyle returned to those for whom it was more than just the flavor-of-the-week.

In the late 1990s, ESPN’s X Games helped bring skateboarding back to the forefront, providing a venue for veterans like Hawk, along with a new generation of pro skaters that included Bob Burnquist, Rune Gilfberg and the great Danny Way. Technological advancements in home video game consoles made 3D games the norm rather than the exception, and the same year that Tony Hawk successfully landed the first documented 900 at the 1999 X-Games, a video game bearing his name was released on the Sony PlayStation. 

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater became an instant hit, allowing gamers to play as their favorite skaters and to pull off the same tricks as the pros, all with a killer punk soundtrack playing in the background. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was released the following year and was a serious improvement over the original, with the addition of the “manual” allowing players to more easily chain multiple tricks together in order to maximize the number of points earned. The first two Tony Hawk titles were subsequently released on the Sega Dreamcast and became a major selling point for the platform, as the games’ graphics were much improved over their original PlayStation installments.

In the fall of 2001, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was released on Sony’s then-new console, the PlayStation 2, and it was here that the series hit its peak. The audiovisual upgrades that came with new hardware aside, the game’s levels were both more expansive and creative, and the soundtrack, a standout feature of the series as a whole, was once again excellent, punctuated by the Motörhead classic “Ace of Spades.” The “revert” was added, further facilitating the creation of multi-trick combos, and as a whole, the skating just felt as though it had been fine-tuned to perfection. 

It was also the last game in the series to follow the original franchise format of timed levels, before changing to the open-world style of gameplay that became more popular around the turn of the millennium. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 received multiple perfect scores from reviewers, is one of the highest-rated games in the PS2’s library and is also one of the best-selling, with more than 2 million copies sold over the course of the system’s lifetime. It was subsequently released on the GameCube and XBox as well.

Street Sk8er

Dan Ozzi, adult who recently got back into skateboarding: Skaters had to suffer through one miserable skateboarding video game after another through the 1980s and 1990s. 720˚ was more or less Marble Madness on wheels. The Skate or Die! series, while well-intentioned, had its 8-bit limitations. California Games had a halfpipe level that, amazingly, was less fun than playing the hacky sack level. PlayStation eventually came around, and we got those dreadful 2Xtreme games, which featured the favorite activity of skaters: Uh, riding through gates for points. 

But the last miserable game I can remember playing before Tony Hawk revolutionized everything was 1998’s Street Sk8er. It was an incredibly monotonous downhill racer in which the announcer said “Rippin’!” or “Sick move!” every five seconds. But I’ll give it credit for its soundtrack, which included ALL’s “Honey Peeps,” two Less Than Jake songs and a Weston song about Liz Phair that’s otherwise hard to find in the U.S. The next year, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out. I had one of those little basketball hoop garbage cans, and I threw Street Sk8er into it. It swished, and that alone was more exciting than the hours I’d spent suffering through Street Sk8er.