Twenty-one years ago, punk music and skate culture aligned perfectly in the form of a video game titled 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater'. Developed by a small team at Neversoft Entertainment, the 1999 game, which allowed players to control famous skateboarders and their respective bag of tricks in various modes, became a massive mainstream hit and spawned a hugely successful franchise. Its ensuing eight sequels helped turn skateboarding from a niche hobbyist sport into a billion-dollar industry and made a celebrity out of the titular Tony Hawk. "A big reason that I'm still relevant, that I'm still here, is because of that series," Hawks says in Ludvig Gür's new documentary, 'Pretending I'm a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story'.
I was somewhat of a dabbler, in that I spent a lot of time hammering 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4', but I dropped off after 'Tony Hawk's Underground'. The franchise is definitely responsible for broadening my musical horizons, prompting me to delve into increasingly deep punk and ska cuts. For me, Flogging Molly's 'Drunken Lullabies' was a revelation, and I ended up listening to a lot of international folk music - not just Irish-influenced, but Latin American, traditional European/Asian instrumentals, polkas, mambos, tarantellas and taiko drums.
Gür's documentary gives the viewer a history lesson about skateboarding, beginning with grainy old-school skating footage from Stacy Peralta's videos. The film takes some time to establish the skateboarding scene during the late-80s, the transition from vertical skating to street skateboarding, the evolution of tricks, the lull in interest in the early 90s, and the fresh surge in the mid-90s that lead to the creation of the massively popular extreme sports event, the X-Games, in 1995.
The meat of 'Pretending I'm a Superman' lies in its talking head interviews. Besides Hawk, we hear from current and former professional skateboarders like Christian Hosoi, Cara-Beth Burnside, Rodney Mullen, Eric Koston, Chad Muska, Aaron Snyder, Eliot Sloan, Jamie Thomas and Bob Burnquist, who were either featured in the games or inspired by them to push the envelope of their own performances.
Gür also talks to some of the key figures at Neversoft, the video game developer behind 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater', who worked on several forgettable console games like 'Skeleton Warriors', 'Big Guns' and 'Apocalypse' before striking a rich vein of gold. I found the standout interviews to be with founder Mick West, a softly spoken Englishman, and lead artist Silvio Porretta. "I immersed myself completely for six months," he says of his process when coming up with the game's aesthetic.
Video game historian Walter Day (who appeared in Seth Gordon's documentary 'The King of Kong') also pops up to chat about the early skateboarding games like 'Skate or Die', 'California Games', 'Top Skater' and '720', the last of which made an impact on Hawk.
The soundtracks were a huge part of the franchise's appeal, each featuring a who's-who of music world rebels (if there's one song that epitomises 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater', it's 'Superman'). Gür talks to Jay Bentley (Bad Religion), Larry "Ler" Lalonde (Primus), and John Feldmann (Goldfinger) about how they became involved, which is particularly fascinating since licensed music in video games wasn't really a common practice up to that point.
Getting to see some of the footage of Hawk in a motion-capture suit doing tricks for the first game ("I got hurt a lot," he admits) is deeply interesting. So, too, is the revelation that his famed "900" maneuver (a 900 degrees aerial spin performed on a skateboard ramp and considered to be one of the most technically demanding tricks), performed at the X-Games in 1999, was made just months before the game's release and hurriedly included to capitalise on the buzz.
Getting to see some of the footage of Hawk in a motion-capture suit doing tricks for the first game ("I got hurt a lot," he admits) is deeply interesting.
While there are several people who mention at various points what the game meant to them - it made skateboarders think outside the box with their tricks, inspired kids to skateboard, taught people about trick terminology and who the personalities were in the skater world - 'Pretending I'm a Superman' could have delved more deeply when exploring the impact the game and it's many sequels had.
The documentary briefly touches upon criticism, namely that the game's trick terminology was sometimes debatable and that the series further commercialised the sport in much the same way as the X-Games had. The diversity element of 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater' is almost mentioned as an afterthought. The game notably featured both an African American skateboarder, Kareem Campbell, and a female skateboarder, Elissa Steamer, but the two interviews that discuss how groundbreaking it was to see that sort of representation in the game are over too quickly.
The film also skims over the habit of video game publisher Activision to develop great ideas and then run them into the ground, hard. 'Guitar Hero' and 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater', two of the best franchises ever, were completely overdone, handed to studios that didn't seem to know what to do with them, and then abandoned in disgrace. However, we do briefly get to see Hawk at an expo as he attempts to spruik a comically huge controller that looks like a hoverboard from 'Back to the Future Part II'. The peripheral (for the critically-reviled 'Tony Hawk: Ride') is shaped just like a real skateboard, and equipped with infrared sensors to detect motion and then display it on-screen. "People were over 'Guitar Hero' peripherals at that time," he laments, noting that the franchise had begun to lose relevance with 'Tony Hawk's Underground' before the market split after the release of a competitor series, 'Skate', from EA.
For a film that traces the history of skateboarding in a concise way, features plenty of footage of incredible tricks, and leans into just how groundbreaking 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater' was and how it changed the face of skateboarding, there's a lot more to tell rather than show. But 'Pretending I'm a Superman' is still an enjoyable and informative project that captures the joy of the sport in a way that anyone can appreciate - skater, gamer, both or none of the above.