Extreme sports have, in addition to giving the world the X Games, always been an exciting pastime. Whether you’re doing something unlikely at high speed yourself or just checking out some vintage footage, it always delivers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a spectator or a participant.
Sadly, most of us will only ever be spectators. This might go some way towards explaining why extreme sports video games have proved so popular over the years. It all started with Tony… actually, it all started with California Games in 1988. But it wasn’t until eleven years later, in 1999, that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came along and helped launched extreme sports (of many varieties) into the mainstream.
Let’s check out a collection of the greatest extreme sports games ever to grace a console. Or the PC, since many of these are still available there.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (2001)
There have been many, many Tony Hawk games over the years. Some are… better than others. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 is, arguably, the best of the bunch. Make no mistake, the first two games in the series were excellent but THPS 3 brought together slick controls, trick and level variety, a rudimentary storyline, and a brilliant soundtrack to create a game that almost measures up to the sort of skill Tony, Burnquist, and Mullen are able to display in real life. Almost. You could argue that the game series is responsible for popularising extreme sports in general. Well, this documentary argues as much, anyway.
Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX (2001)
You’ll notice that the first few titles on this all emanate from the same source — Neversoft, the studio that pumped out all the best extreme sports titles from the late nineties to the earlier 2000s. Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX was a logical offshoot of a video game featuring an iconic, slightly mental, skater. An iconic, slightly mental BMXer took the helm here. What’s remarkable is how the developers managed to take a series of really unlikely gravity-defying tricks and make them both accessible and awesome. The settings players got to explore were pretty badass as well. And then there was the whole grandmother thing, which included its own live-action video…
Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003)
Tony Hawk’s Underground (appreciated as THUG) was a novelty when it launched. Previously, players could create a custom character but games were all about the pros. For this release, the player-created character was centre-stage, locked in a cross-country rivalry with a colossal dweeb named Eric Sparrow. Part Tony Hawk title, part Jackass episode (though THUG 2 was even more so), Underground managed to include an engaging rivalry story, well-realised and challenging settings and acted as a precursor to the more involved open-world games we see today. Also, you got to play as Iron Man (if you played long enough).
Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer (2003)
You’d think that surfing games would be everywhere. As extreme sports go, it’s pretty visual. The whole idea of riding waves, these massive lumps of water formed out at sea, is an awesome one. But nobody’s really managed to convert surfing into video game format all that well. Part of this is the ocean’s fault. It’s super hard to replicate. Ask a scientist about that sometime. But Aspyr did arguably the best job of anyone with Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer. A few concessions were made in order to let players feel like they were pulling off strings of combos (waves don’t work like that) but paddling into and taking waves everywhere from J-Bay to Cortez Bank was incredible. The problem? It didn’t do well enough to justify any sequels and Kelly was too busy winning championships to punt anything as lame as a video game.
SSX On Tour (2005)
Skating and surfing, as extreme sports, are safer (in theory) than snowboarding. Skaters face traffic and cops (and broken bones). Surfers contend with massive waves, drownings, and sharks (and broken bones). Snowboarding is basically all broken bones. Plus mountains that want to kill and eat you. Also, possibly, polar bears. It’s much safer to hit the slopes in a video game. SSX On Tour is our pick for this list because of its wacky menus, scaled challenges, a wide roster of snowboarders, and physics-defying stunts. SSX Tricky is also worth considering, even today if you can dig up a PlayStation 2 and a physical copy of the game. On Tour, though… On Tour has the absolute best soundtrack ever featured in the series.
Skate 2 (2009)
The Skate series from Electric Arts is widely considered a more pure version of the sport. Many of the concepts from Tony Hawk’s games turn up here — getting off the board to better positioning, for one — but players are encouraged to manipulate the environment as they go, dragging impromptu ramps into place to create better lines. It’s more like an actual skate session, where there’s thought and deliberation before you attempt to 360-no-scope the Grand Canyon. There’s extreme sports and then there’s just ridiculousness. Skating in Skate 2 offers more realism (but not too much) but we could just as easily have liked Skate or Skate 3. It’s really just a question of when you walked in the door with regard to this particular series.
It’s something of a mystery why Nail’d, a high-speed quad-bike title from Techland and Deep Silver, didn’t do better. It had the gameplay behind it — brutal, aggressive, and tight where it needed to be. The soundtrack was an excellent presentation on its own, with contributions from various alternative and metal groups making it stand out from the pack. And yet, it just shrivelled up and died. A large portion of its gameplay was resurrected for Codemasters’ ill-fated OnRush, which featured larger vehicles in addition to quads, but that one was killed off by loot boxes. It’s a pity in both cases because the adrenaline rush is just fantastic. Nail’d… well, nailed it better, though.
Trials Evolution (2012)
Trials Evolution, at its heart, is a very simple game. At least, it was until Ubisoft jammed it full of microtransactions and unicorns. It’s basically a (still amazing) older title from 2000 called Elasto Mania mashed up with foot-ups (a sport otherwise known as Trials). Get from point A to point B without being blown to bits, smashed, drowned, squished, or falling off your bike. Unless that’s the name of the game. This title is a physics puzzler that calls for precise control balanced with speed in order to get to the end a) without making errors and b) in a short enough time for a gold medal. Even Trials HD, on the Xbox 360, is also still worth a play in 2023.