Skateboarding is for the young, the hip, the underground. Except online, of course, where the most common image of a skateboard you're likely to see is that slung over Steve Buscemi's shoulder as he asks “how do you do, fellow kids?” In the world of video games it's hard to tell where we are with skating games: the heyday of Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater seems long gone. But maybe I've been looking in the wrong places.
In the real world skateboarding is more popular than ever and, in places like House of Vans London, in brash, exciting health. Located in the tunnels under Waterloo station, with its own custom-built concrete bowls, ramps and courses, the venue combines skating and biking with live music and creative artists in its gallery spaces. It’s this that has me visiting this evening, as House of Vans also introduces gaming with the new interactive exhibition, Whoop This Arcade.
Created by LA-based multimedia designer and developer Ashten Winger, who also goes by the name Whoopi, the exhibition is made up of three skating games fitted into custom-built mini-arcade cabinets. The 2D pixel aesthetic might have you thinking mostly of Roll7’s OlliOlli series but, when I actually get to grips with the joystick and buttons, it turns out this is less a skateboard sim than a classic Japanese rhythm-action arcade game with a skateboarding theme.
This makes sense if you've come across Winger’s work before. His first game Drizzy Tears, released three years ago, was for mobile and directly inspired by rapper-slash-human-meme-generator Drake. Partly because Winger was personally obsessed with the rapper, this wasn’t just a lazily cut-together Drake app, but a surprisingly tough game where you have to stop the pixelated rapper’s tears from reaching the bottom of the screen. “A lot of people who hated Drake had fun with it, and it allowed people who loved Drake to have fun with it too,” Winger tells me.
Winger’s next gaming venture was for English indie band Glass Animals and their music video ‘Season 2 Episode 3’, which sees the protagonist sucked into a side-scrolling pixel-platformer before meeting the band in game form at the end. More than just a cool-looking video, it also exists as its own free standalone game (you can play the desktop version here).
It’s a straightforward endless runner, with one button to jump and another letting the girl throw skateboards like missiles. But for all its simplicity, it’s also surprisingly and dare I say annoyingly difficult. Perhaps that’s down to the arcade nature of these games; they seem made for people who like to keep coming back and chase a high score. Perhaps the developer's just a fan of hardcore games.
“I’m really not!” Winger laughs. “It just happens like that. But I really want people to spend some time with the game. It’s simple functionality, fun design, and I think that’s OK. I try and not make people feel like losers for the most part."
It’s no surprise that the games at Whoop This Arcade are also music-based, and tricky in their own way, though this may just be down to needing a few goes to grok what they're each doing. Really it's one game, but split across cabinets and themes. The mini arcade cabs consist of a joystick and six buttons, although the game only uses an up/down waggle and three colour-coded buttons, and come in three flavours: Roll Beat London, Grind Beat Tokyo, and Flip Beat LA.
Each setting has its own style and song: there's Winger’s LA hometown (specifically the hip district of Fairfax), a neon-lit futuristic vision of Tokyo – surely the soul of skateboarding video games – and for this exhibition another set in the London Underground.
While the LA and London settings make sense, Tokyo was the original inspiration for this concept, which Winger was visiting at the time. “I love Japan, I’ve been going every year for the past five years. It’s the main reason why I went with making a rhythm-based game – I love rhythm games.”
And sure enough, in the hands they play much like any other arcade rhythm game; you hit the inputs in time with the symbols, the music plays, and your avatar keeps on pulling off sick stunts. It doesn’t take too long to get used to the flow of the gameplay (ya boy topped the leaderboard that evening – flex!) even though, because you’re so focused on the chart at the top of the screen, it’s all-too-easy to ignore the tricks your skating avatar is actually performing (or missing) alongside your taps.
This might leave you thinking the skateboarding aspect is a bit tacked-on simply to justify itself as a House of Vans commission. But Winger is a longtime fan of skating games too, citing his love for the Tony Hawk series in particular (just don’t mention the last entry).
“When it comes to Skate versus Tony Hawk, I’m more of the Tony Hawk style,” Winger says. “I kinda like when you could grind and then jump off a hundred feet high where it’s very surreal and weird, and you can create different characters and then you can play with weird characters as well. Also, that was one of the games I hacked and modded the most.”
Video games may yet see a great skateboarding renaissance: the Kickstarter-backed Sessions made a big splash on Microsoft’s stage at E3 this year, while developer Roll7 has recently hinted at bringing its acclaimed OlliOlli series to Switch. Whoop This Arcade may play its own part, with Winger keen to expand on the game beyond its exhibition run.
“The big plan is to make this a mobile game,” he ends. “I’ve always wanted to do a rhythm game and it starts here. But I want to make it a platform where musicians can submit their songs and then we can create a level out of that. I love working and collaborating with people.”
Whoop This Arcade is running at House of Vans London in Waterloo until Thursday 6th December, and the venue is open Thursday to Sunday.