Friday, April 11, 2014

The Most Important Skateboarding Game You've Never Played

Now for a scholarly* essay on the least-known Skate or Die title.  It's a game you've probably never played, because, well, it's pretty much crap...but it's IMPORTANT CRAP.

The game is Skate or Die: Tour De Thrash, and it was released by Electronic Arts in 1991.

Chief developers Kosaka, Bunch, and Knopp made this game from components recycled from their other games in Electronic Arts' Skate or Die franchise, and they added nothing to really tie these different bits together.

The main chunk of the game (The "Stale Fish (sic) Tour") is just a reworked version of the halfpipe snowboarding event from Ski or Die which was released in 1990.

Luckily for us, the event was reworked into the best form of skateboarding known to man: drainage ditch skating. You bomb down miles and miles of ditch and try to not fly out of the side or smack into walls. There are no tricks other than a defensive ollie, but you can carve and weave around huge obstacles that really have no business being in a drainage ditch in the first place.  I mean...adding a wall that blocks the entire basin of the ditch will kind of do the exact opposite of you want a ditch to do.

Left: Ski or Die, Right: Skate or Die Tour de Thrash
The other part is just the "Double Trouble" halfpipe from Skate or Die 2; except in this game it's been renamed the "Retro Rocket Ramp." This name change can be attributed to the bonus round that was added to it in the jump from NES to Game Boy.

At random points in play, a UFO will fly across the top of the screen, and you can reach the ship if you perform...a rocket air.

*Sound of waiter dropping a tray full of dishes in the background*

"Rocket Airs, Guys!"

Your rocket air gains little boosters, and it propels you up into a UFO. Then you're bombdropped into a moon crater where you can skate despite the fact that you are not donning the requisite googie-style bubble space helmet.

Lunar Landing

The graphics on this part are obviously recycled from the Skate or Die pool joust sequence. The only major change is that a little volcano was added into the middle to accommodate the "Double Trouble" skating mechanics.

So yes, the two main parts of this game are made up of parts recycled from literally every other "__ or Die" game and haphazardly slapped together.

The remaining elements that hold the game together are also mostly recycled.

The music, for example, was lifted from Ski or Die, a fact impossible to overlook for anyone who cares at all about game music. It was composed by Commodore 64 legend Rob Hubbard who created the Skate or Die theme song that everyone knows and loves.

The one-player ditch skating mode includes more content lifted from Skate or Die 2, i.e. the graphics for Lester and CJ whose presence is explained in no way whatsoever.**

Game Boy Lester (left) looks like he got a sunburn.

That digression brings us to the important part of the game.  The Stale Fish Tour has two modes: one player, and versus mode.

The versus mode actually pits you against the 1991 Santa Cruz Skate team in a worldwide ditch skating tour circuit.

Sessions Advertising in 720 Degrees
Officially, Sessions was the first skateboarding-related company to lend its brand to a video game. Atari Corp's legendary 720 Degrees from 1986 featured a couple of well-placed Sessions adverts.

It was extremely basic, but it was a first.

Santa Cruz came in a relatively close second with its appearance as a sponsor in Epyx's California Games just one year later.

With Tour de Thrash, Santa Cruz took the next big marketing/sellout step.  It became the first skate company to license out the likeness of its skaters for use in a video game.

That's right, Skate or Die: Tour De Thrash was the first video game to feature actual skaters, and it wasn't the Bones Brigade!

So the one thing about this game that wasn't recycled from another game was actually a first in the history of video games.

What's more, the skate team it features is awesome. It's part of the Risk It/Reason for Living-era Santa Cruz line up, including:

  • Eric Dressen
  • Jason Jessee
  • Tom Knox
  • Corey O'Brien
  • Bod Boyle
  • Claus Grabke
  • Rob Roskopp
  • Jeff Kendall
In this part of the game, you and one member of the Santa Cruz team race to the finish down those long, perilous, and poorly engineered drainage ditches.
Doubles Run in the L.A. River

These ditches are located in places like Los Angeles, Baghdad, Hanoi, Easter Island, Chernobyl, and Atlantis...places that could have only been chosen by someone with the bugout sensibilities of a Reagan-era Californian.

Before each race, you're shown your location on a world map, and then given a bio of the skater you're racing against.

This screen is where we learn intimate details of the Santa Cruz team. You learn, for example, that Jeff Kendall has a pet snake named 'Snake,' or that Jason Jesse's favorite breakfast food is bean curd.


There are no pictures of the skaters or graphics to represent them.  Rather, they're all the same exact sprite, which is also the same sprite as player one.

Despite the bland profiles and lack of unique graphics for the skaters, their simple appearance represented a major breakthrough in skateboarding culture.  Their identities were important enough to be licensed to an EA sports franchise at a time when skateboarding was tumbling toward a post-vert nadir of popularity.

This sinking popularity might actually explain why Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash is so half-assed, but it's more likely that Electronic Arts was just putting out whatever it could on Nintendo's platforms.

Because as skateboarding was sinking in popularity, so too was Electronic Arts.

According to author David Sheff, EA had "backed the wrong horse" in the late 80's by putting massive support behind the Commodore Amiga.  In hindsight, it was a bonehead move, but back then, it wasn't a bad choice at all. The Amiga had amazing graphics and audio, and had a devoted body of users largely in the arts and entertainment community.
Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and an Amiga, 1985

However, home video game consoles proved to be infinitely more popular for video games, and EA watched Nintendo and Sega thoroughly trounce the previous titans of the home computer industry.

In 1989, EA had its worst year on record, and posted its first losses in more than six years. Its PC software business shrank from 93 percent of total sales to 66 percent, and the company did a quick turnaround and sunk more effort into non-PC gaming.

Long story short, between 1989 and 1991, EA was going through a major change.  It lost its CEO and founder, went public, and started the EA Sports label, putting the Skate or Die series to bed for good.

Like skateboarding, EA quickly rebounded in popularity, but it left a lot of its kookiness and personality in the past.

*not really as funny as it could be.

**I failed to mention that Rodney also skates by at random points in the halfpipe part of the game, too.  It would be wrong to not include him in a Skate or Die game...This is why Skate or Die: Bad n' Rad is the ultimate travesty, but we'll talk about that at a later date.

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