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The underappreciated genre-busting of Resident Evil 4

It sounds ridiculous to call Resident Evil 4 ‘underappreciated’ and yet, here we are.

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Underappreciated genre-busting of Resident Evil 4

It sounds ridiculous to call Resident Evil 4 ‘underappreciated’.

Resident Evil 4 – affectionately known as Resi 4 is probably placed in ‘Top 10 video games of all time’ lists more consistently than just about any other video game. It had arguably the most significant influence on console gaming of any game of its generation. It’s been remade, remixed, and re-released approximately 1000 times. Whether you love it or hate it, you’d be hard pressed to call it underappreciated. And yet, here we are.

Resident Evil 4 is remembered fondly, but it’s generally as a great codifier. It defined the action horror game by giving us its most realised version. It’s video games’ Jaws. It stars an American secret agent who rescues the President’s daughter from an evil monster cult. He wears cool jackets, flirts with all the women, and makes terrible jokes. The cheesiness of the script is part of the charm; Resi 4 has all the subtlety and heart of Indiana Jones.

This isn’t in any way incorrect, but it is incomplete. Summing up Resident Evil 4 as a cliche ignores the ways it subverts and plays with the audience’s expectations. Capcom’s 2005 masterpiece isn’t only a traditional action story, it is also a self-aware breakdown of that story. Resi 4 was so influential because it succeeded in performing both of these contradictory roles simultaneously. Underappreciating these subversive qualities, therefore, not only ignores half of what made the game revolutionary, it ignores a historically critical influence on videogaming itself.

Fair warning: This article contains a truckload of spoilers for Resident Evil 4. Tread carefully, intrepid reader.

[youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/5EGjuZPaZsY” autoplay=”no”]

As the game opens, Leon Kennedy narrates a recap of previous Resident Evil games. This montage serves several important purposes: first, it emphasises the centrality of Umbrella, the American pharmaceutical megacorporation behind Resident Evil’s zombies. Umbrella has since been dissolved, yet it’s established as the series antagonist immediately.

Next, the montage reminds us of Leon’s roots. In Resident Evil 2, Leon was a beat cop. His survival is more determined by luck and the intervention of more competent characters than his own resourcefulness. Being reminded of who Leon was frames his appearance in this game. His new demeanour takes on a hint of affectation. Leon may or may not be a hardened badass, but he’s certainly trying to be one. The recap ends by reminding us of the controversial decision to nuke Raccoon City, the site of the original zombie outbreak. When the bomb dropped, the zombie threat – along with evidence of Umbrella’s misdeeds –disappeared.  

If this montage has the effect of framing Resident Evil 4 as a Resident Evil game then it also steers the player’s attention towards the ways Resi 4 picks apart the Resident Evil formula. Resi 4 immediately follows up this montage by subverting expectations yet again. The first enemy who attacks Leon was calmly tending to his fireplace moments before. He doesn’t have any obvious wounds, he’s not moaning for brains, and he isn’t covered in blood; he’s just a man. When Leon asks him about Ashley, he looks at Leon and speaks to him in Spanish. Then he swings his axe. When the player examines the body, Leon notes, “He’s not a zombie.”

Resident Evil 4Source: http://ngemu.com/threads/resident-evil-4-comparisons.160072/

Resident Evil’s zombies are frightening because they lack humanity. There’s never a sense that anyone ‘in there’. The enemies in Resi 4, ‘Ganados’, are scary for the opposite reason: They’re people. We fight them in their homes, surrounded by their beds and food. When Leon first arrives in the village, he spots the villagers going about their daily routine. A woman is moving hay bales, while a man is tending to his pigs. In the town centre, a cop is burning in a pyre. When they’re trying to kill you, the Ganados think, use tools, and work together. When you barricade a door, they get a chainsaw. When you climb a tower, they burn the tower down.

Appropriately, Resident Evil 4’s Ganados manage to be monstrous and humanised at the same time. They’re ‘classic’ enemies for Resident Evil in the sense that their numbers are endless, they can’t be reasoned with, and they transform into hideous creatures. However, unlike classic enemies, they think and feel. That means we think and feel about them. Killing Ganados never quite feels automatic or comfortable like killing zombies does. When you shoot an enemy they gasp and hold their face in pain. As you wander through the villagers’ homes, Leon will comment on their personal belongings and wonder how they got to be the way they are. In previous Resident Evil games, killing zombies was a relief; it meant you had one less thing to worry about. In Resi 4, killing Ganados is troubling.

The fact that Leon’s new enemy can think dramatically changes the rules of engagement. Leon – and the player – aren’t used to being outmanoeuvred by the plans of an enemy, so we aren’t considering the obvious trap when Leon walks himself into a corner. The Ganados planted another one of their prisoners, Luis Sera, as bait for Leon. Instead of rescuing Luis, Leon lands him in even more trouble. After getting his ass kicked, again, Leon wakes up tied to Luis.

Resident Evil 4 Leon and Luis

Luis Sera is probably the clearest way Resident Evil 4 pokes at its audience’s biases. Everything about Luis suggests that he’s the action movie sidekick. He and Leon seem like kindred spirits. They’re both disillusioned ex-cops thrust headlong into situations they could’ve never prepared for. They’re both resourceful, wise-cracking pretty boys. They even flirt similarly. The main difference between the two seems to be that Luis is Latino. Luis is supposed to be the minority sidekick who provides comic relief and information to move the plot forward. He’ll make Leon look cool and heroic by comparison. By the end of the game, Leon will have inspired Luis to believe he can make a difference again, and he’ll join the fight for ‘good’. This is exactly what Luis – and the game – want us to think.

Luis was never a cop. The story he tells Leon is a fabrication. Luis is the chief researcher responsible for the Las Plagas parasite controlling the Ganados. Luis is from the infected village. When he agreed to work for Saddler, the leader of the cult, Luis didn’t know what the Los Illuminatos were. He had hoped to prove himself to his hometown and was fascinated by the scientific potential of the Las Plagas. Tragically, he didn’t realise – or didn’t want to realise – what Saddler intended until was too late. Luis returned to the village to attempt to redeem himself by stopping the Los Illuminatos, saving his people and the world in the process.

Leon and Luis are still meant to be compared, but the result is less favourable for Leon. Luis has considerably more right to the role of protagonist than Leon does. Luis has a personal reason to be involved in the fight against Los Illuminatos. He has a heroic flaw he is seeking to redeem. He understands the situation that’s unfolding and what he needs to do to stop it. Luis is a genius, understands what’s going on, knows his enemy, and has an actual plan. Leon has none of these things, and it’s terribly apparent. What’s also terribly apparent is how screwed Leon would’ve been without Luis, and how Luis got screwed because of Leon.

Resident Evil 4 Leon infected

The first time the Los Illuminatos capture Leon, they infect him with the Las Plagas. This constant ticking timebomb looms over Leon and Ashley – and the player – throughout the game. Resi 4 is a race against time. External threats take a backseat to internal, existential threats. We’re not just worried about being killed; we’re worried about becoming the thing we’re fighting. Enemies mock Leon constantly by reminding him that all his work will be undone. Saddler constantly alludes to how ‘useful’ Leon will be as another pawn in his army.

Los Plagas inverts typical zombie infection. There is still the fear of what your enemy will turn you into should you fail. However, failure in Resident Evil 4 doesn’t mean being ‘defeated’ by your enemy; it means becoming your enemy. The infected victims of Los Plagas don’t lose their sentience, rather, they become ‘true believers’. Usually, the external threat of zombification is met with physical resistance. In Resi 4, the threat is internal. Your physical resistance against it is insufficient. It’s only a matter of time.

In typical horror media, fear comes from ‘otherness’. We don’t understand what the enemy is or what they want, and that makes their savagery terrifying. However, otherness is not the fear that drives Resident Evil 4’s horror; it’s the enemy’s similarity our ourselves that makes them terrifying. Instead of an esoteric religion, Los Illuminatos is closer to a modern terrorist group. Saddler affects the act of being an enlightened priest – the same way Leon affects his badassdom – but in reality he’s a pragmatic, self-aware, and manipulative leader. The goals of the Los Illuminatos aren’t mysterious or even particularly ideological; they want to use their tools to expand their influence and gain power on the world stage. They’re not doomsday cultists, they’re colonisers.

Resident Evil 4 is broken into three distinct stages: the village, castle, and Island. In the village, you fight villagers (go figure). In the castle, you fight cultists. Finally, you confront Saddler on the Island. Here, you fight soldiers, armed with modern weapons and wearing body armour and camo. The Island looks more like an American military base than the headquarters of an evil cult. As you understand your enemy, Resi 4 transitions from the alien to the familiar.

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This shift is epitomised in Jack Krauser. Krauser is the dark version of Leon, which makes his involvement in the plot critical. Obviously meant to evoke the classic American soldier, Krauser looks like a Rambo wannabe and talks with over-the-top bravado.  He rants about being an American almost obsessively. He and Leon knew one another and worked together once. They fight the same way. Leon even puts together why he’s there uncharacteristically quickly for him; Krauser attributes this understanding to Leon also being American.

Krauser kidnapped Ashley for the Los Illuminatos. He incited the events of the game. And he did it for Umbrella.

Krauser and later Ada – secret protagonist and yet another manipulator – reveal that the American soldier is working with Wesker, the original Resident Evil big bad. Together, Krauser and Wesker infiltrated the Los Illuminatos in order to steal the secret of the Los Plagas. They wanted the Plagas in order to use its power to Make Umbrella Great again. Wesker is working with virtually unlimited resources supplied from the mysterious organisation he’s working with, an organisation that is implied to be connected with the American government. There’s a reason those nukes were used to erase Raccoon City, after all.

The true enemy in Resident Evil 4 was more familiar than we could have realised. Instead of an evil cult, the power manipulating events is, essentially, American capitalism. Krauser manipulated the Los Illuminatos because he wanted their power; Wesker manipulated Krauser because he wanted Krauser’s power. Saddler isn’t a zealot, he’s just another power-seeking player in a shadow game of geopolitics. The Los Plagas isn’t an alien force poised to change everything forever; it’s another ‘opportunity’ to be seized. Wesker and Krauser, representing America, are doing the same thing the Los Illuminatos are. Ada, representing a third, even more mysterious power, has an agenda of her own. In Resi 4, everyone is either manipulating or being manipulated, usually both. The player is the most manipulated character of all.

The idea that our enemy was different from us was only ever a ruse. Just like Los Plagas is literally an evil from within, the evil ideology of Resident Evil 4 was an American ideology. The same ideology, in fact, that Leon assumes with his disaffected, badass demeanour, his leather jacket, and his big guns. The evil of Resi 4 is not the evil of an ‘other’; it’s an evil we understand. An Evil within. A resident evil, if you will.

Resident Evil 4 Leon and Ada

Eventually Leon triumphs over Saddler, at least, superficially. Under examination, however, Leon’s ‘victory’ is called into question.

First of all, Leon does none of the work that actually stops the Los Illuminatos. Luis invents the procedure that cures Las Plagas and ensures Leon and Ashley have time to use it. Ada provides Leon with information and directly saves his life twice. She even provides Leon with the only weapon that can kill Saddler during their fight. After Leon has killed Saddler (and done the rest of the work she wanted him to) Ada simply puts a gun to his head and makes off with the sample.

After we beat Resident Evil 4 we unlock a sub-story called ‘Separate Ways’. In ‘Separate Ways’ we see Resi 4 from Ada’s perspective. Ada manipulates every other party involved, especially the player themselves. Her plan involved keeping Leon distracted from the real conspiracy unfolding around him, using him as a directed wrecking ball to dismantle the Los Illuminatos for her while she focused on her goal. Ada is depicted as the classic genre femme fatale, right down to the provocative red dress. Again, this is exactly what she wants you to think. Many femme fatales are ultimately side characters in the male protagonist’s story. They sacrifice their agency or even their lives for the sake of the main character’s goals, but not Ada. If anything, she manipulates the player’s understanding of her role to her advantage in the same way she does to Leon.

Leon bumbles through Resident Evil 4, dispensing one-liners, throwing his knife around, and whining resignedly about ‘women.’ He’s clearly under the impression that he and Ada have a ‘star-crossed lovers’ thing going on. It fits into his – and our – narrative for the game; we’re a secret agent saving the world and getting the girl. Ada encourages this, because it’s crucial to her plan as the real primary agent. At the end of the game, Ashley asks Leon about Ada. He looks out over the ocean and wistfully tells her, “She’s a part of me I can’t let go.”

Meanwhile, Ada hangs up with Wesker and looks down at the apocalyptic biological weapon she just stole, satisfied. It doesn’t seem likely she’s thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about Leon. Like Saddler tells Leon before the final battle, “The American prevailing is a cliche that only happens in your Hollywood movies.”

Resident Evil 4 wants you to feel like a hero so when it’s revealed that you were a pawn, it stings. Ada’s ‘Separate Ways’ and Leon’s failure are left to hang as lingering questions. What are Ada’s real motivations? Why were we so predisposed to see this game’s plot the way we did? If this plot isn’t what we thought it was, what else did we get wrong? Resi 4 manipulates its player in order to force them to confront their assumptions and reveals the fallacies of how we think about history, heroism, foreign intervention, and even the American way of life itself. Resi 4 uses cliche to implore its player to see cliches differently.

When we remember Resident Evil 4 as a straight example of the cliched story it subverts, we’re missing this crucial nuance. A big part of both Resi 4’s success and the influence it had on other games lies in the subversive questions it asks. Any conversations about the games that followed and were inspired by it, therefore, are incomplete if they don’t consider the ways in which Resi 4 broke down genre conventions.  


Buy the Resident Evil 4 HD remaster from Amazon.

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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Harry Mackin is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His work can be found at Paste, Playboy, Game Informer, and hopefully some more places soon. His mediocre but very on-brand twitter is @Shiitakeharry. He promises he isn't always hopelessly sentimental. [fontawesome icon="fa-twitter" size="14px" color="#00aced"] Follow Harry

Features

An idiot’s guide to Crusader Kings 3

Crusader Kings 3 might be good, but it’s the astonishing stories the game produces that have been the real hit. So, naturally intrigued, we sent an idiot to do a king’s job.

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Idiots Guide to Crusader Kings 3
Paradox / Thumbsticks

Crusader Kings 3 might be good, but it’s the astonishing stories the game produces that have been the real hit. So, naturally intrigued, we sent an idiot to do a king’s job.

About two years ago, I decided it was high time I got myself a shiny new gaming PC. While I’d brushed shoulders with the console riffraff for years, I figured – now I was an esteemed video game journalist – it was time to join the ranks of the PC enthusiasts. (Who would, no doubt, be very welcoming and not at all snobbish.) Along with my newfound way of life, I decided to try some acclaimed PC classics, which led me to Crusader Kings 2.

The only problem? Crusader Kings 2 was essentially like sitting through simultaneous rocket science and brain surgery seminars. Who knew medieval nobility were such avid fans of spreadsheets? And why do I have to micromanage my bid to disinherit my son because he’s ugly? In the end, I managed to last a respectable 20 minutes with the Crusader Kings franchise – a feat I was, understandably, immensely proud of.

That was until two weeks ago, when a third Crusader Kings was unleashed unto the world and strategy fans everywhere started posting impassioned threads about the logistics of their absurdist, nudist dynasties.

“Say no more,” I heartily announced. “I shall return to Crusader Kings with my two years of PC gaming credentials.” I can reveal that I did just that, and the experiences I have brought home will be sung about by tavern bards for centuries to come.

It is with this revelation that I can introduce thee to an Idiot’s Guide to Crusader Kings 3!

“Wales was unfortunately captured by nudist Spaniards within a matter of months”

Embarking on my first conquest, I did what all rational lieges do when challenged by a densely packed, comprehensive strategy experience. I pressed the big “skip tutorial” button the first chance I got and, armed with my enhanced political and tactical knowledge, founded a new dynasty. As many might not know, I was actually born and raised in the beautiful lands of Wales. Who better to lead the proud nation of Cymru than its greatest creation?

One tiny problem did emerge, though. Back in the good ole days of 867 AD, three men ruled Wales: Lord Rhodri, Lord Gwgan, and my eventual in-game surrogate, Lord Hywel Ap Rhys. I quickly learned that I’d have to get busy if I ever wanted to take my true place as the Welsh king, and that meant knocking off some of the competition.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Lord Gwgan was the weakest link of our little trio. He held the smallest land, had the ugliest son and, frankly, his unironic bowl cut offended me. So, I decided to declare war on him and see where it went. I can’t say it was the most tactical affair – I literally just sent 1,000 men to oust him from his castle – but somehow I triumphed over the mighty Gwgan and his bowl cut, gaining myself a tasty morsel of land.

crusader kings 3 screenshot 1

With this victory under my belt, I decided next I’d get myself into bed with Lord Rhodri, marrying my heir to his oldest daughter. For some ungodly reason he accepted, and our houses were unified under one beautiful banner. I also figured I’d seduce his wife, thus forming the mother of all pincer movements as I got closer to wiping poor Rhodri off the map. Bafflingly, this also worked, but that’s not to say it went off without a hitch. My second-born son Owain uncovered my genius political plays after I’d drunkenly blabbed them at a feast, and boy, he was not happy.

One year later and, while fighting a brutal war with one of the Irish lords, he’s blackmailing me into replacing my battle-hardened field marshal with him. I buckled and Owain – a boy with about as much military knowledge as Dora the Explorer and a face that looked like a cherry tomato – was commanding my forces. We lost that war, and things only got worse when an army of Spanish nudists decided to dominate England before turning their attention to the west. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Wales was unfortunately captured by nudist Spaniards within a matter of months.

Not to worry though, I decided my talents were truly wasted on Owain and the now-indecent countryside of Wales. Instead, I’d venture to the wide lands of Africa and stake my claim there.

“Toro eventually became a Ugandan province, but Jim got a nice trip to the beach”

This time, I took up the role of Farbas Bannu of Toro. You see, when Bannu and I met, he was depicted as an honest, wise, and just liege. He openly cared more about family than conflict. Unfortunately, Owain had taught me that nice guys finish last, and I soon turned sweet Bannu into a feared warlord whose name inspired dread.

There was just one catch: Bannu’s kind nature didn’t exactly agree with my cold-blooded need to amass new lands. You see, in Crusader Kings 3, your avatar is overwhelmed by stress when you push the boundaries of their moral code, and I had long since leapt over that boundary and was frolicking in the dark recesses of Bannu’s mind. In turn, he succumbed to drink and then to food; he eventually started lashing out at his family and locking himself away in his tower. By the time he was 55, poor Bannu kicked the bucket due to obesity, splitting the vast lands of Toro between his nine children.

I took over as the heir to the Toro dynasty, Koba, who to my joy, was a much dastardlier protagonist than his deceased father. Not only was he evil at heart, but he also held the “sadistic” trait, meaning our goals were almost perfectly aligned. Problem number one was that Bannu’s decision to share his kingdom between all his kids meant Koba’s bratty younger sister, Hawa, had decided to go independent. She’d created her own kingdom to the east – and at 12 years old too, she’s definitely getting on the Forbes under 30 list – leaving Koba to forcibly remove her from the map.

With that done, Koba set about continuing his father’s mission. He married three women, had 10 children, and soon became the mighty Faama of Toro. The only problem was the colossal nation of Uganda that sat above him, and I soon realised that he’d have to ally with this great foe to succeed. Thus began Koba’s new mission to marry into the Ugandan bloodline, which, with a lot of murder and bribery, he managed to accomplish.

crusader kings 3 screenshot 2

The communion of Koba and the Ugandan princess Malika was a storied one, and soon they conceived two children. But all was secretly not well within this fragile alliance. It didn’t take long to discover that Malika had been cheating on Koba – pipe in the Corrie theme in your heads guys – with his own brother! Scandalous, I know. There was nothing for it. The pair had to be executed for their heinous, soap-opera cliff-hanger of a crime, and Koba was happy to oblige.

All things considered, I probably should’ve thought about how the whole “dead daughter” thing might look to the Ugandan king. With no alliance in place, war broke out. Now, while I’d love to tell you Koba died heroically on the battlefield, bravely defending the honour he lost when Malika lay with his own brother, he actually just died of gout… which, uh, was anti-climactic, I’ll say that much.

He was then succeeded by his son and the next great Faamu of Toro: Jim. I’ll admit, I’d just gotten back from the pub when I granted such a lofty name to the rightful heir to the Toro throne, but after you hear his story, such an uninspiring name feels appropriate. Essentially, Jim was in a bit of a pickle. Uganda’s invading, Koba’s vassals hate him, and he’s deemed a sinner by the church for conceiving a child out of wedlock. So, his solution? Go on a 3-year pilgrimage and let fate do the rest. Needless to say, Toro eventually became a Ugandan province, but Jim got a nice trip to the beach, so it wasn’t all bad…

Through these two epic tales, I hope I have imparted some worthy knowledge. Firstly, that Crusader Kings 3 is an exceptional strategy sim that strips away the soulless conquests of the genre and puts engaging, naturally evolving character interactions at the forefront. It’s involving for all the same reasons Game of Thrones became such a cultural landmark – it shows that politics, people and the subtle underhanded warfare of diplomacy can be so much more engaging than the clashing of steel.

But, more importantly, I hope it revealed that I’m perhaps the most skilled general and politician this side of Toro. When Geoff Keighley and his army of weaponised World Premieres rise up and overthrow our governments, forcing us to rebuild – and trust me, they will – you’ll know where to find me.


Enjoyed this long read? Support Thumbsticks on Patreon to enable more of it. (With more freelance budget, we can commission our resident idiot to write more idiot’s guides!)

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It’s frankly obnoxious how big the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are

Have you ever stopped and thought about just how bloody big the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are? It’s obnoxious. That’s what it is.

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PlayStation 5 Xbox Series X obnoxious size
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Have you ever stopped and thought about just how bloody big the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are? It’s obnoxious. That’s what it is.

Over the weekend, a bunch of scale mockups appeared of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X on Twitter. They’re cute and fun pictures, but what they show is not comfortable to look at.

The first batch – all of these are by Twitter user and character artist Kei Sawada – shows how the PlayStation 5 will stack up against a Nintendo Switch, a small figure of a pumpkin and a ghost, and a 30″ television (including feet/stand).

The beauty of making these 3D models is that they can be moved, manipulated and adjusted as required. So the next logical stage was to add a PlayStation 4 into the mix, to see just how much bigger the PS5 is than its older sibling.

Pretty big, I think you’ll agree. But what about when you lie the PlayStation 5 on its side? Is it any less ridiculous?

No. If anything, it’s more ridiculous laid on its side, sitting on that little circular foot. It looks like it’s on a tiny Lazy Susan, a futuristic white train on a too-small turntable.

But this all feels like we’re bashing the design of the PS5 specifically, doesn’t it? Does it make the PlayStation 5 look any less massive when it’s compared to the Xbox Series X?

Slightly. But at least the Xbox Series X is a somewhat regular shape, if a bit square. (And of course, the Xbox Series S is the only one of the bunch that you could comfortably fit under your telly. It’s a diminutive hero in a rogue’s gallery of titans.)

And finally, for good measure, here are all the next-gen consoles placed near various sizes of television, from the original 30″ screen – which is basically the same height as the PS5 – right the way through to a 50″ panel. And another pumpkin figurine. And a handful of PS4 game boxes. And a cartoon cat, obviously.

The scale of the problem

What does all this mean? Well, it means I’m not sad for missing out on the pre-orders for the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, for one thing. (When I say “missing out” I mean to say that I didn’t even try. We have a baby on the way a week before the release of the new consoles, so I will have neither the time nor the finances, but I’m sure the FOMO will hit soon enough.)

The jokes about the big, square Xbox Series X, that it looked like a fridge freezer – it all seemed ridiculous. That Microsoft would bring out a console that big, that you’d struggle to fit under your living room TV, it felt daft. It’s basically a mass-market custom gaming PC in a mid-sized tower case, which is a brilliant value proposition but still, tough to live with on a daily basis.

Then Sony said, “hold my beer,” and unveiled the PlayStation 5.

It’s almost as wide as the Xbox Series X. It is almost twice as deep. It is about a quarter taller. And the PlayStation fanboys mocked the Xbox for looking like (and being as big as) a fridge! The PS5 looks like the world’s biggest internet router, but instead of hiding it in a cupboard, Sony thinks you’ll put it under your television. Well, if you have an entertainment stand that the damn thing could fit into, which I certainly don’t.

Let me tell you: I struggled with the Nintendo Switch, and that’s tiny. The fact that you can’t lie the Switch dock down on its side, that I can’t put it under my TV where consoles are supposed to go, is so inconvenient to me. The Switch dock sits behind my 55″ TV because there’s nowhere else I could put it – save for collecting dust and cat hairs on the floor – where the Switch wouldn’t be obscuring the screen. Occasionally there are issues with the JoyCons pairing because of the interference (caused by all the other devices) between the Switch and the sofa. I have to reach over the top of my telly to dock and undock the Switch; my wife’s arms aren’t even long enough to do it! It’s such a pain for an otherwise incredibly convenient console.

The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? The Xbox Series S, the Series X’s diminutive little brother, seems like the right choice. You get the benefit of Xbox’s backwards compatibility and Game Pass stance, its next-generation power, and it’s actually smaller than the previous generation’s Xbox One S. You certainly can’t argue with the value of the Xbox Series S. It offers an entry into gaming, with a brand new console in a new generation, at a price not seen since the PlayStation and N64 era. (And that’s not adjusted for inflation, by the way.)

Xbox Series S horizontal

But there are a couple of compromises with the Xbox Series S that are causes of concern.

There’s that 512GB hard drive, for one thing. It isn’t tiny by any stretch, but as the size of games grows forever larger – and with no disc drive meaning everything needs to be downloaded and installed – it could quickly become a pinch point.

And then there’s the lack of native 4K output. Again, that might not be an issue for some on an entry-level console, but I’ve already got a 4K telly. It seems daft, almost wasteful, to be buying a next-generation games console that won’t make the most of it.

So where does that leave me?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. If I throw away all the other consoles under my telly, I can probably just fit an Xbox Series X in there. (While an Xbox Series S would be an easy, straight replacement for the Xbox One S, but those slight niggles are holding me back.)

The PlayStation 5, on the other hand, is never going to fit, and with the all-digital version practically the same size (just without a disc drive) that isn’t going to help, either. And before anyone says it, getting a new entertainment unit isn’t an option as it matches the rest of the living room set.

So where does that leave me?

Let’s be honest: it’s never ideal to be an early adopter of any new technology and games consoles are rarely any different. There are almost always teething problems and false starts and a lack of compelling software, so maybe it’s better waiting. But how long do you wait? Microsoft promises its games will be cross-generational for years to come, but the fate of PlayStation and third-party titles is less clear cut.

I think what I’m really asking for is the mid-generation, “slim” refreshes of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, that offer all the same power and features but in a more sensible chassis. But given both console makers are already offering “lighter” versions of their consoles, right at the start of the generation? I might be waiting a while.

Waiting. Looking at those obnoxiously big consoles. Wishing I could have one, but knowing they won’t fit in my living room. Resenting them.

Stupid, Brobdingnagian monstrosities.


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Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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The 3D Super Mario games ranked, from worst to best

As Super Mario 3D All-Stars comes to the Nintendo Switch, we take a look back at the long and varied history of Mario’s adventures in three dimensions.

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Super Mario 3D games ranked

As Super Mario 3D All-Stars comes to the Nintendo Switch, we take a look back at the long and varied history of Mario’s adventures in three dimensions.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars might not be the celebration of Mario that many fans wanted, but there’s no denying the quality of the games it includes. Each one has its fans – even Super Mario Sunshine – but how to do they rank among Mario’s other 3D exploits?

Here is our official ranking, ordered from worst to best.

7. Super Mario Sunshine

Well, this is a rare pleasure, a ranked list of video games in which there are no absolute stinkers. That said, it’s probably no surprise to see Super Mario Sunshine as the first entry.

Despite its flaws, Super Mario Sunshine only sits seventh place because of the high quality of the titles that surround it. Its problems are well documented: the camera can be a nightmare, some of the character design is dreadful, and the fiddly blue coin quests overstay their welcome.

But, there is so much to like. Delfino Isle is a wonderful, secret-filled playground. The swoonsome music and balmy holiday tone is a delight. And consider the flawed but fun FLUDD mechanics, which have subsequently influenced Splatoon, the Zelda series, and Super Mario Odyssey. Sunshine is the weakest 3D Mario game, sure, but it’s still full to bursting with wild ideas and concepts. And, of course, it has that adorable rideable Yoshi.

6. Super Mario 3D Land

Super Mario 3D Land

Although positioned in the lower reaches of this list, Super Mario 3D Land can comfortably lay claim to being the best handheld Mario game ever made. Alongside Mario Kart 7, it helped to revive the fortunes of the stumbling Nintendo 3DS, proving that the device was capable of delivering immersive and fresh experiences.

On release, 3D Land felt like a slimline version of Super Mario Galaxy, but in retrospect, it’s clearly the first title in a third tier of 3D Mario games. In contrast to the open sandboxes of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, or the kaleidoscopic planet-hopping of the Galaxy series, the game takes a more controlled approach. With a wealth of levels to explore, 3D Land’s bite-sized structure is closest to NES classic, Super Mario Bros 3. The result is a joyous game that will forever remain the franchise’s best portable-only excursion.

5. Super Mario Galaxy

One of Super Mario Galaxy‘s greatest achievements is how effortlessly it surpasses the constraints under which it was made. Developed for Nintendo’s breakout – but relatively low-powered – Wii console, the game had to both improve on its flawed predecessor, and make complex three-dimensional gaming accessible to the console’s casual audience. It also had to do it using an idiosyncratic control scheme that swapped sticks and buttons for motion and pointer controls.

Super Mario Galaxy achieves all of these things with ease. The game’s emphasis on spherical worlds removes the reliance on a user-controlled camera and keeps the moustachioed plumber centre-stage at all times. The sandbox structure of Mario 64 and Sunshine is replaced by a series of increasingly elaborate and carefully constructed miniature worlds to negotiate.

An abundance of gameplay ideas display a refreshed enthusiasm from Nintendo, with Yoshiaki Koizumi’s team flexing their creative muscles with new power-ups, enemies, and gravity-bending platforming. Combined with sumptuous visuals and a triumphant, orchestral score, Super Mario Galaxy is a giddying adventure from start to finish.

4. Super Mario 3D World

Ranking Super Mario 3D World above Super Mario Galaxy may prove contentious. The game may not be as recklessly inventive as Mario’s Wii adventure, but it’s a masterclass in the art of 3D platforming. 3D World is a more measured outing, but this allows for every block, platform, and jump to be crafted and polished with scientific precision.

The game is equally enjoyable played solo, or in multiplayer with up to three friends. And Cat Mario is an elegant – and often hilarious – way for younger or less skilled players to keep pace. Super Mario 3D World also looks glorious, with a chunky, toys-to-life consistency that is lacking from the next game in this list. And let’s not forget that one of its finest achievements was spun off into its own game with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

3. Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is the toughest game to place on this list. Its biggest achievement is not the level design, or its cap-based transformations – although they are all quite wonderful – but its generosity. Every corner of the game rewards experimentation, risk, exploration, and curiosity.

Super Mario Odyssey charts an expansive – and often overwhelming – new direction for the series, but it also doffs its cap to those that came before it. On at least two occasions, a nod to the past brought a tear to my eye. At all other times, I was grinning from ear to ear. It’s an amazing experience and capped (pardon the pun) a wonderful launch year for the Nintendo Switch.

2. Super Mario 64

If you wanted to put Super Mario 64 at the top of this list, it would be hard to argue. Much of what we take for granted in the series – and 3D game design in general – debuted here. Like many titles of the era, it can feel rough around the edges, but its ideas still feel fresh, playful and creative.

Having refined the art of 2D platforming with Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island, fans might have expected Super Mario 64 to be a cautious first step into three dimensions. But no, its a supremely confident long jump, followed by a ground pound to mark the game’s place in history.

1. Super Mario Galaxy 2

On paper Super Mario Galaxy 2 has the simplest brief of all the games on this list: make more of the same. Using the core concepts introduced Super Mario Galaxy, Koizumi and his team expand upon that template, and then some.

Gameplay mechanics and ideas that could easily be the foundation of entire games are introduced, chewed up, and disposed of with abandon. The variety is astonishing. Each course is a memorable test of mental mettle and physical athleticism. Each power-up is a delight. Each boss is a thrilling, fast-paced puzzle to solve.

In its post-credits end game, Galaxy 2 is also one of the most demanding, and fulfilling, platformers Nintendo has ever created. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is where Nintendo’s talents in design, artistic expression, and desire to entertain all come together. It’s Mario’s best ever game, and its omission from Super Mario 3D All-Stars is baffling.


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Tabula Rasa: In defence of the amnesiac video game protagonist

It’s a trope so overused it borders on cliché, but perhaps the amnesiac protagonist route is so well-trodden precisely because it is so effective?

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Breath of the Wild silent princess
NIntendo / Zelda.fandom.com

It’s a trope so overused it borders on cliché, but perhaps the amnesiac protagonist route is so well-trodden precisely because it is so effective?

Plato theorised that we are all born with all the knowledge in the world – we simply need to remember it. Marie Antionette once said, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”

Playing with memory and memory loss is a staple of media, and always has been. In The Madness of Hercules by the ancient Greek poet, Euripides, the hero is gripped with madness and can’t remember his own family. In this crazed state, he murders them all and must make amends by undertaking his famous 12 labours. In film it’s been used in every genre – from action movies like Total Recall to romcoms like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Amnesia is also an absolute staple of soap operas – the Australian mainstay of Neighbours uses it frequently. One famous example was in 2002 when fan-favourite Susan slipped on some spilt milk (queue obvious jokes) and lost 3 decades worth of memories. That other beloved form of soap opera, wrestling, also uses amnesia. In 1993 Cactus Jack was powerbombed by Big Van Vader into the concrete floor of the stadium. The character was institutionalised, eventually escaping his mental hospital and developing amnesia before eventually returning to the ring.

Video games are no exception to this ancient trend – and though amnesia plotlines have a reputation for being lazy and schlocky, I am here to defend them. So from Hercules to Cactus Jack to Link – what makes memory loss and retrieval so appealing?

Let’s start with Monument Valley. This British app-game won a Bafta in 2015 for Best British Game. It’s deceptively simple – you must twist and turn the Escher-inspired architecture to navigate the beautiful and geometric landscapes. But as we progress through the first level we are told that Princess Ida must return all the Sacred Geometry that she’s stolen. Just like Hercules, Ida must undertake her own series of labour. We follow Ida on her emotional journey – the shame of discovering her crime, the loneliness of the empty cities, the fear of the antagonistic crows and eventually the joy of redemption and release.

Monument Valley

In 1922 Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time, which includes his famous “madeleine moment”:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me […] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings […] my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

This hugely evocative moment has been referenced and resurrected many times – most famously in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, where the food critic Anton Ego is instantly transported back to his rural childhood with just one bite of the eponymous dish.

Old Man’s Journey, like Monument Valley, is another literal voyage into memory and emotion. Like Proust with his madeleines, the player character of this game has memories periodically triggered as you traverse the dreamy landscape. We all know this feeling – a long-forgotten memory that floods our minds, transporting us into a past moment. (As Proust said: “And suddenly the memory revealed itself”.)

This game perfectly represents that feeling. The memory washes over the screen, the sounds and colours so evocative of the past moment. But it is also fixed and nearly static, a fragment we can recall but can’t interact with. As Proust was in search of lost time, so is the main character in Old Man’s Journey. We already know where he has ended up – old and alone on the sea shore – but as we walk with him we uncover that lost time and what has come before.

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most well-recognised legacy properties in the games world. But significantly we know it as Zelda, and it’s her name we remember, even as we take up another game to play as Link. Link is left deliberately blank so that we can project ourselves into him. Scott McCloud, in his excellent book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he writes: “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon , you see yourself.”

The blankness of Link, the simplicity of the sketched out person, leaves room for projection. Enter: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Breath of the Wild wake up link

This is Link at his most blank, most characterless. As the game begins he is stripped of even his iconic outfit – as well as all of his memories. Even the marketing of the game plays into this, the website stating: “Forget everything you know about The Legend of Zelda games”. Forget what came before, just as Link has.

Gradually he recovers his identity, his memories, even the landscape opens up and unfolds before him as he recovers memories. Critically we, the player, build our skills, knowledge and identity alongside Link. This mirroring leverages an enormous emotional payout at the game’s conclusion – good friends of mine wept at the close of Breath of the Wild.

Amnesia used in clumsy hands can be silly and schlocky. But when the rediscovery of memory is used with skill, it builds the closest of relationships between the player and the player character. The Tabula Rasa – or blank tablet – of the character allows us to project ourselves onto them. We discover the past and personality, abilities and history of the PC at the exact moment as the character themselves. We might be separated by the screen, but in that moment our minds are as one, the feelings evoked are perfectly in sync.

Roger Ebert once called cinema an “empathy machine” and games have the potential to create just as much, or even more, empathy for our main characters. Through amnesia plots, alongside the device of having us work to discover memories in tandem with the player character, video games are engineering a significant amount of empathy.


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The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack, as told by the bands who made it

The soundtrack of a generation: We spoke to Bad Religion, Consumed, Fu Manchu, Lagwagon, The Suicide Machines, Swingin’ Utters and The Vandals about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

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Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack the hawk mix
Activision

The soundtrack of a generation: We spoke to Bad Religion, Consumed, Fu Manchu, Lagwagon, The Suicide Machines, Swingin’ Utters and The Vandals about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

There had been licensed music on video game soundtracks before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. With the advent of Sony’s PlayStation, a disc-based system that allowed for full reproductions of songs rather than chiptune melodies, came the inclusion of licensed music.

Gran Turismo, released in late 1997, was one of the first. It featured a somewhat disjointed mix of British rock album fillers, including Ash’s Lose Control, Garbage’s As Heaven is Wide. Not that they’re bad tracks, of course, but why not Kung Fu or Girl From Mars from Ash? Or Stupid Girl or Only When it Rains from Garbage?

The only arguably “big” songs on the Gran Turismo soundtrack are Feeder’s Tangerine (the game also features a bunch of B-sides from the band) and Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers. But this rocky iteration of the soundtrack wasn’t even universal; in other countries, like Sony’s native Japan, the game featured a completely different list of tunes.

Meanwhile, the Grand Theft Auto series – most people’s go-to for “good” licensed video game music – didn’t really get its act together on licensed soundtracks until it hit its retro stride, with the 80s disco mix of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in 2002, and the heady blend of early 90s grunge and hip-hop in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004.

And then, slap bang in the middle of those two frames of reference for licensed video game soundtracks, is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s the perfect storm of gameplay, music, attitude and style. It’s crammed full of absolute bangers and, on its release in September 1999, fast became the soundtrack of a generation.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater screenshot 1

POSTER BOYS

I recall seeing Goldfinger at Leeds Festival in 2002. It wasn’t on the main stage, even though other US punk bands – including The Offspring, Weezer, Less Than Jake, and even Sum 41 – got the nod. No, Goldfinger were playing in a tent. It was also two in the afternoon on the first day, while the hungover (or still-drunk, or still-high) masses fought their way from the campsite to the stage area through a literal festival quagmire.

Third on the bill, in a tent, at two in the afternoon, on the first day of the fourth- or fifth-best musical festival in the UK. It was not what you would call an auspicious start.

But Goldfinger had a secret weapon. They still do, 20 years on. It’s a song with enduring popularity and reach that most any band would be jealous of. A song that brings with it a legion of fans and, even better, acts as a conveyor belt to bring in new ones. That song? Superman, the de facto anthem of classic PlayStation game, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, released worldwide three years earlier.

I think it was early – maybe I was hungover, or drunk, or high? – but I don’t remember at what point in their set Goldfinger hit the staccato, ska-punk intro to Superman, but the effect was instantaneous and inspiring. A half-empty tent began to fill. The dribble of crowd meandering outside became a torrent. It was as though they had flipped the switch on an enormous electromagnet, attracting every punk, geek, and skater for miles around.

There were, of course, a few gatekeeping grumbles in the crowd, people complaining that the PlayStation generation weren’t “real” fans of Goldfinger. But those dissenting voices were soon crushed under a throbbing mass of jubilation, of far too many people crammed into far too small a space, united in a singular goal: to dance their asses off to the song from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

I really don’t recall much else of that Goldfinger show. It was a delirious blur. I had come dressed for the occasion, in a Superman “costume” cobbled together from a vintage DC Comics t-shirt and some things I had begged, borrowed, or stolen then the night before, and spent pretty much the entire set crowd surfing. At one point, I came together with an inflatable – I think it might have been a rubber dinghy? I have no idea where that came from, or how I collided with it – and was dumped into a crashing heap in front of the stage.

Winded and a little groggy, possibly sporting a concussion, a very kind security guard got me a bottle of water and allowed me to sit on steps on the edge of the stage. I recall singing along to 99 Red Balloons, looking out at the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen crammed into a festival tent.

I’m not saying that Goldfinger owes their success to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, of course. They’re a brilliant band with an incredible catalogue and a killer live show. But the positive impact of featuring on that soundtrack is obvious.

And they’re not the only band who saw a shift following the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 2

SIDE A: TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER

The Vandals, formed in 1980 in California, were part of a burgeoning punk rock scene with the likes of Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and Social Distortion. They signed for Epitaph Records, the Los Angeles label run by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, in 1982, and the band’s popularity grew.

In 1999, when Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater launched on the PS1 – featuring Euro Barge, from their 1998 album Hitler Bad, Vandals Good – The Vandals had been established for almost two decades. But the impact, even to a group of punk rock veterans, was noticeable.

“We were in our 20s and 30s when the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game was released,” Joe Escalante, founder member and bassist of The Vandals, tells me. “Soon we started seeing 8-year-olds at our shows. It took a while, but we finally started asking their parents from stage what they were doing there and they said it was [because of] Tony Hawk.”

The Vandals, along with Primus and punk veterans Dead Kennedys, were the big-name artists on the roster. For a band like The Suicide Machines, however, who had a much smaller fanbase and were by their own admission struggling to make an impact via traditional channels, being on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack was enormous.

“We were already pretty deep into DIY touring before Tony Hawk Pro Skater and would have a few hundred people at most shows,” vocalist Jason ‘Jay’ Navarro recalls. “We signed to Hollywood Records and they tried pushing our songs No Face and SOS at MTV and radio and it really didn’t work. I swear after the game our shows were packed up to 1000 people a night. It did more for our band then our label did for our band.”

Rumour has it that Tony Hawk himself had a hand in the selection of the bands and tracks. With such a positive impact on the bands involved, it’s yet another story of the good the skating legend has had on the community and the scene as a whole.

“I’m not sure how [it happened], honestly? We were on Warp [the Warped Tour] out West when Tony was on it a few days skating. Maybe he saw us? No clue how that song was chosen. We didn’t pick it,” Navarro tells me, but he is very glad someone did.

“The lyrics [to Euro Barge] are an homage to the pains of touring Europe, that’s why Tony latched on to it,” Escalante says, confirming Hawk’s part in selecting the soundtrack. “He’s paid his dues over there and there are deep cultural differences that all Americans struggle with. The “Euro-Barge” was our term for how Europeans have no problem cutting in lines anywhere. But the song goes on from there, calling them out for all their sins. All in fun, of course!”

The funny thing is, in spite of its popularity among their fans (in no small part due to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater), The Vandals rarely play Euro Barge live, if at all.

“We hardly ever played the song Euro Barge, maybe because we played the game so much in the tour bus we were sick of hearing it,” Escalante says. “But over the years, even though we seldom play it, it remains the #1, 2, or 3 top-performing song on any list ranking our songs, in sales or streams, etc.”

“The truth is it’s actually hard to play,” he confesses, “because Josh wrote it in this f’d up 7/8 time signature, so we never thought we were getting it exactly right, even though we love the song.”

Not all of the bands we spoke to for this feature played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – more on that later – but like Escalante, Navarro remembers it fondly.

“It was a fun game to play,” he says. “Played tons of hours on it. I have been skating since 1985? Or 86. I felt it represented skating well. As far as all spectrums of our culture.”

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Neversoft’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was, of course, a very good video game. It plays brilliantly and it captured the sense of freedom that comes with creative skateboarding. But that in itself is not enough. Games don’t get remade, 20 years down the line, unless they’re something truly special.

And Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was something incredibly special, probably because it fell at the intersection of so many different subcultures, a Venn diagram of things that are so close to overlapping, of punks and skaters and nerds. The soundtrack was a core element of that, stitching together skateboarders and gamers with a fabric of punk rock, with hints of ska, metal and hip-hop.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 3

SIDE B: TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER 2

With the success of the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. It was also inevitable that the stakes of the soundtrack would be upped. If people thought it was surprising to see anti-establishment punk pioneers Dead Kennedys on the first game’s tracklist, it was a real shock to see Rage Against the Machine’s Guerilla Radio and Bring the Noise by Anthrax & Public Enemy on the sequel.

But at the heart of the sequel’s California skate scene, punk rock roots, was You by Bad Religion, from their 1989 album, No Control. I asked Jay Bentley, bassist and founding member of Bad Religion, about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 on the band and the wider punk scene.

“The game went hand in hand with a burgeoning lifestyle that was taking hold, with the advent of the X Games and the Warped Tour,” Bentley tells me. “Bands like us were the soundtrack to this Southern California lifestyle. The impact of Pro Skater 2 just blew the roof off skate culture. We met a lot of people whose introduction to Bad Religion was from that game.”

For a massive band like Bad Religion, a younger generation of fans is a bonus. But Bentley found one young skater in particular, a lot closer to home, who he connected with over Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

“My oldest son was 9 when it came out. He loved it. Played it religiously. I thought the game was fantastic. I wasn’t any good at it,” Bentley admits, “but it was still cool. It led to us building a half pipe in the backyard for him to skate, and that’s all that matters.”

“Get out and skate!” He adds.

As with the first game, all of the bands I spoke to weren’t entirely sure how their track came to be chosen, but the underlying theme was that the skaters involved – and, of course, Tony Hawk – had a hand in selecting the tunes.

“It is my understanding that the individual skaters that Tony asked to be in the game came in with songs they wanted,” Bentley recalls. “It may have been Eric Koston (but I really can’t remember) that wanted You. Anyway, Tony reached out to Brett [Gurewitz, guitarist with Bad Religion] and that was that.”

Joey Cape, vocalist of Lagwagon, also credits Hawk himself with their place on the soundtrack. He also recognises the power of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 in pushing the band to a wider audience, far beyond the traditional reach of radio and MTV.

“I think a friend at our record label said Tony had reached out and asked for the song specifically,” Cape says. “I remember being offered the chance to be a part of a skateboarding video game backed by Tony Hawk and saying, ‘Hell Yeah!’. I do think the song choice was the right one for the game. I’m so happy they picked May 16th because, whatever song they had chosen, it would inevitably be on every setlist from then on. Lucky for Lagwagon, we still enjoy playing the song, and now we have our own day.”

“I have said it many times before, “Cape continues, “it’s almost like May 16th is our only single. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack made the song a hit in our world and beyond. Somewhat miraculous for a band that did little in radio and video. Other bands involved seem to feel the same way. The soundtrack is kind of legendary now.”

When asked if he enjoyed the game, Cape is one of the musicians that remembers it fondly.

“Oh yeah, I played it,” he says. “It’s a great game regardless of your background in skateboarding and even cooler if you grew up in board sports. I remember not being all that skilled at the game, but thinking it was so well-done and it was a rush to hear our song while playing it.”

But as I said earlier; not every band on this list played the game on their tour bus, jamming out tricks between shows. Scott Hill, guitarist and vocalist of Fu Manchu, is very quick to admit that he’s not a big gamer. But he does recognise the value of a new generation of fans brought in by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

“I’m not the biggest video game player,” he admits, “but I have younger nephews who played it a lot and I did play it. It was fun,”

“We did notice a lot of younger fans getting into the band,” he continues. “A lot of people that would have never heard Fu Manchu heard us because of that game. We get fans all the time telling us that they first heard of us from the game. Not sure about increased record sales, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt!”

“I’m embarrassed to say that I have never played it,” Johnny Bonnel, lead vocalist of Swingin’ Utters, also confesses. “I’ve watched it a few times and it looks fun, but I’m just not that dude. I had a few dreams playing it but my reaction time was underwater. Everyone that has played it says it’s siiiiiiick! I guess I’m missing out on the sickness.”

But like so many of the bands I spoke to, Bonnel doesn’t underestimate the importance of getting their shot on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack. (Even if he doesn’t know how they ended up there.)

“I wish I had a cool story about getting on the soundtrack. Maybe there actually is a cool story but I don’t know it. I remember Erin and Mike being happy about it, so that made me happy. Max was the one who told me and I couldn’t believe it!”

“It seemed so huge at the time that it made me nervous,” he recalls. “Five Lessons Learned was the song choice and it is one of my favourite songs. Jennifer Koski wrote most of it which makes it that much better! I dedicate Five Lessons Learned to all women skaters when we play it at our shows.”

“The game is globally popular so we were seeing an influx of new, younger followers on our tours,” Bonnel says. “It was the height of our popularity and buzz. I heard our sales increased – makes sense. I, often, mingle with the people who come to our shows and there is always a few people that offer unsolicited information about how they found out about Swingin’ Utters and most of the time it is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. All over the world, I am known as the dude who sings on a song on the soundtrack of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2.”

“Pretty sweet,” he adds. “Thank you, Tony!”

But for all of the big bands on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack, it was again the opportunity afforded to lesser-known bands that was most exciting. Far from the skateparks and sunshine of Southern California were Consumed, a punk rock band from Nottingham, right here in the UK.

“Consumed was never destined for huge success,” Chris Billam, the band’s drummer, tells me. “We were happy with being reasonably well known within the UK punk scene back in the day, but we lacked any real ambition to push the band to where it perhaps could have got to. After being picked up by Fat Wreck Chords in the late 90s, we were lucky enough to travel that bit further and reach a wider audience. These were good times for the band and we were very lucky to have the opportunities and experiences we had. One of the biggest opportunities for further exposure came when we were told by the label that Activision wanted Heavy Metal Winner to feature on the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.”

Like Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine, and other bands with an anti-establishment bent, however, Consumed faced some flak from parts of the punk rock world, who felt it was “corporate” and “selling out” to appear on a video game soundtrack.

“Inevitably, there were a few grumbles from the punk rock elite who believed Consumed had sold out,” Billam recalls, “and that we’d let the scene down terribly by agreeing to be involved. I also remember hearing rumours that we’d been paid enough money to set us all up for life. In reality, we did get a small one-off payment which went towards the band’s debt and a copy of the game each.”

I’d argue that if people are giving you the same grief as they’re giving Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion, you’re at least in some very good company. Like all of the bands I’ve spoken to, though, Billam was keen to reiterate how positive the experience was for the band.

“We were aware of the success of the first game,” he continues, “and that one of its biggest draws was the soundtrack, so we felt honoured to be asked to be on the soundtrack of the sequel. For a virtually unknown band to be sitting alongside huge names from the world of punk, metal and hip hop will always be something for us to be extremely proud of.”

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 4

BONUS TRACK: TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER 1 + 2

When the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remake was announced on May 12, 2020 – and the initial excitement over playing them again (without having to dig my PS1 out from the attic) subsided – my thoughts immediately turned to the soundtrack. Which songs would be on it? Would Activision be able to reacquire all the licenses? Would the bands involved the first time around even still be interested?

So began this feature and, over the intervening four months, I reached out to (pretty much) every band on the soundtrack from the original games. Some of the bands involved no longer exist, while others haven’t made it back onto the remake’s soundtrack for unknown reasons. But every band I spoke to, without exception, is thrilled to be back on the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.

“I’m honoured and grateful to be part of the remix,” says Jay Bentley of Bad Religion. “I hope it spawns a whole new generation of skaters. That’s how I grew up and look at me!”

Like Bentley two decades earlier, building a halfpipe in the garden with his son, Lagwagon’s Joey Cape sees his band’s presence on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 soundtrack as a link to his teenage daughter’s love of skating, in addition to a great opportunity for the band.

“When Pro Skater was first released, many of Lagwagon’s fans were already skaters. I do think the new version could bring some younger fans to the soundtrack and in turn, the bands,” he says. “My daughter, for example, is 16 and she and her friends are skaters now. It’s really cool to witness the relationship between skateboarding and punk rock resurface. It always made sense. The sound and sport reunite over and over again.”

“It’s great. It did turn a lot of people onto our band and if people like the song on the soundtrack, I think they will do some digging around to find more by our band,” Fu Manchu’s Scott Hill tells me.”

“Always looking to gain new fans!” He adds, acknowledging the function of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as an on-ramp for fans, turning them on to a band’s whole back catalogue through hearing one song while playing the game.

Johnny Bonnel of Swingin’ Utters, meanwhile, promises to make the most of being on the soundtrack for a second time.

“I’m really pleased with being on the remastered soundtrack! Looking back, I was not in a good frame of mind at the height of our popularity,” he recalls. “We were touring with Social D [Social Distortion] and NUFAN [No Use For A Name] and Lunachicks! I should have been ecstatic at the direction we were headed. Instead, I was a grump. I want to make a promise to the new generation of fans: I will love you unconditionally.”

“I played the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 a year or so ago and it still feels great when our song pops up,” Chris Billam says, of Consumed’s return to the soundtrack. “To be included in the remake feels just as exciting as it did 20 years ago. As well as a welcome nostalgia trip for us older folk, it’s a chance for a whole new generation of gamers to hear the original soundtrack and discover musical avenues they may not have explored without playing games from the THPS series.”

“Yes, I’m pretty excited,” Jason ‘Jay’ Navarro of The Suicide Machines tells me. “We are also on the documentary about the game with a new song. I just hope it’s as fun as the first game and or better. We were insanely lucky to be on this game it changed the path of our band I believe. I just hope it interests gamers of all walks of life to go out and get on a board for real.”

Only time will tell if Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 has the same impact as the original games. The critical reception to the game has been incredible (our review is coming soon) and if the game’s popularity follows the same trajectory as the originals, then the experience should again be positive for everyone I’ve spoken to.

But for a new generation of bands, they’re also getting their shot. For every song that didn’t come back for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, another three have taken their place. There are over three dozen new tunes on the remake’s soundtrack, including punk luminaries like The Ataris, Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish. But there are also bands you might not know, bands you may never have heard of if they weren’t featured on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack.

And that’s the most exciting thing, isn’t it? The idea that any scrappy little band can be given a meteoric boost, just because they got the nod from Tony Hawk and his crew.

The soundtrack of a generation is back, then. It’s still the soundtrack of my generation, but now, it’s the soundtrack of the next generation of skaters, punks and geeks, too.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 5

LINER NOTES

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the bands who took part in this feature, and to all the representatives who made it happen. You’ve all been excellent sports and this article literally wouldn’t have worked without you.

(And if you’re reading this, John Feldmann, I’d still like to talk to you and hear your thoughts on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Goldfinger quickly turned into my white whale for this feature!)


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