Skater XL is not a great skateboarding game. It plays like Skate with moon physics. The tiniest alteration in speed can make the difference between nicking a handrail or sailing over the entire stair set. Flip tricks look like they happen in slow-motion, totally detached from any sense of momentum or intent. The skaters bounce off surfaces like hollow plastic mannequins while their rubbery ankles twist and bend to account for every sharp turn or impossible landing. The levels are bland and static, with no room for laying out ramps or rails. I don't like it much.
And yet, I keep playing for the music. Skater XL's soundtrack is tiny, but it knows what I kept on shuffle as a skateboarding teenager. If Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2's prolific soundtrack captured the skaters' sound of the '90s, Skater XL's soundtrack knows the sound of skating in the '00s, at least a vital sliver of it. And as slim as the soundtrack is, it is still extremely potent, if only because every Tony Hawk and Skate game kept chasing the older Thrasher crowd with the same mix of punk and hip-hop that, while valid, failed to change with skating culture.
A new tune
Skater XL's soundtrack moves on from punkier sounds of the '90s and into the post-everything digital era of the '00s. The turn of the millennium marked the end for store bought CDs and the beginning of the MP3 era. Peer-to-peer software like Napster and Limewire hit in 1999 and 2000 respectively, while Apple's legit digital storefront iTunes arrived in 2001. Suddenly every teen with dial-up was combing through infinite bootlegs, filling up CD-Rs and cheap MP3 players.
New voices began rapidly trickling up through the pure abundance. Bands considered staples in disparate regions running small tours out of dive bars were going viral before the phrase meant much, or anything at all. Built to Spill, a rock band out of Boise, Idaho landed in my lap via a skateboarding forum. Some guy had bootleg copies of early Transworld Skateboarding videos, a couple of which were set to Built to Spill songs. It was eye-opening, watching montages that weren't pure aggression, but stylish and thoughtful, focused more on the art of the trick rather than the risk.
And if you know Built to Spill, you know there's a direct line to Modest Mouse's earlier music, which combines the jammy guitar-centric music of Built to Spill with post-grunge and -punk influences. Rather than screaming directly at and about The Man, they scream about empty strip malls and Interstate 90. It's gospel for all those rural kids who bought skateboards because they saw Tony Hawk spin around in the air on TV or played too much Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and thought their one-sidewalk town would suffice. Skater XL's inclusion of Paper Thin Walls isn't ideal for a montage, but it's pensive and bouncy enough to keep the energy up.
Silversun Pickups are the same flavor of morose guitar jammers, so Well Thought Out Twinkles is a nice fit. Interpol's sudden popularity introduced an entire generation of skaters, whose only concept of punk was what Warped Tour and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater told them, to the concept of post-punk. I would've preferred a track from Turn On the Bright Lights, but 2007's The Heinrich Maneuver has a similar upbeat energy to their more popular singles. There's even a cut from Band of Horses, a particularly mild-mannered rock group, and yet we would throw ourselves off of stairs to the stuff.
Even niche, experimental groups like Animal Collective were able to build massive followings due to the proliferation of the internet and digital music distribution. Who knew a jovial tune about building a house for your family would suit rail slides and technical flatland lines so well?
Every skater I knew was listening to this stuff. At the time I thought it was a localized phenomenon, but at 30 I'm constantly meeting lapsed skaters from all over the US who recall similar soundtracks to their own experience. It's clear to me that Skater XL's soundtrack was influenced by skateboarders from the same era, which makes it a shame I don't like how it plays very much. Maybe I'll give the mod scene a try.
Give the soundtrack a listen below. Not every song is a winner and some are from more recent years, but it's such a relief to see a skateboarding game attempt to capture an era largely glossed over by Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Skate, even if the budget wasn't big enough to go much further than a few songs.