Please allow me a quick comparison: Skitchin’ was to Road Rash what Beavis & Butthead were to The Simpsons. Where Road Rash was direct, brash and kind of rude, Skitchin was instead rad, in your face and never afraid to flip the bird. While Electronic Arts did release a few “different” games in the early 90s, Skitchin’ took their original idea and steered it in a different direction.
Grab your skates, steal a ride on a car bumper and we’re off!
Skitchin’, for once on this blog which usually explodes with weird gameplay ideas pretty difficult to explain in a single paragrah, is a relatively easy one to describe: imagine Road Rash, but instead of motorbikes, there are rollerblades. Even the ads in the magazine just went with “Remember Road Rash?” (they would have had a field day on Twitter…), along with using the word “bitchin'” which caused more than one kid to write an angry letter to the magazines. I know, different times indeed.
Developed by a different team than the one that worked on the main series – this was Electronic Arts Canada (ex-Distinctive Software) – it was released in the spring of 1994, during the rollerblade craze. At the time, the most recent title in the series was Road Rash II, from which Skitchin’ repurposed the graphical engine. It might be easy, then, to just lump the rollerblade game as a quick cash grab done by our friends at Electronic Arts, but the truth is actually different. To find out what happened, I’ve had a talk with Dave Warfield, lead designer for Skitchin who clarified some very interesting points about the development.
Let us address, right away, the elephant in the room: what does the title even mean? From the pages of the March 94 edition of GamePro, producer Stan Chow comes to our aid: Skitchin is a combination of two terms – skating and hitching. “A term coined by a New York journalist while watching the skaters hitching a ride by holding on to cars and trucks,” Dave tells me. He continues that he and Dave Ralston, having read the aforementioned article, by a sheer coincidence, ended up pitching the same basic idea during the weekly meetings at EA.
Management liked the idea and development quickly took off at their Canadian branch after that. Using the Road Rash engine just felt natural – Dave confirms – since it was about “taking a basic activity and develop it into an underground sport”. But wait, wasn’t “skitchin” illegal? I think we all remember that scene in the original Back to the Future where Marty McFly, on his skateboard, hitches a ride on a car, with The Power of Love blasting in the background.
Warfield tells me most concerns about the dangers related to rollerblading actually came from the team itself: they wanted to make sure that EA understood they were marketing a potentially dangerous activity to kids. In fact, as soon as the game starts up there is a warning for the player “not to try this at home” and the boxart follows suit. “If we had to go through the approval process at Nintendo, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have passed” remarks Dave. Indeed, Sega had a whole different attitude about censorship, as they already proved with the release of the uncensored Mortal Kombat.
The development team went in-deep on the research about the whole culture of skateboarding and rollerblading, considering how interest in rollerblade was definitely on the rise in 1994, “especially around the seawall of Stanley Park in Vancouver” recalls Dave. The team also went cruising around the city to take pictures of graffiti, looking for a look that would suit the menu screens. According to Stan Chow, the team was also looking for a crew that would actually paint new art to feature in-game. In the end, this proved to be no easy task at all since the kids were so young that they weren’t even allowed to drive. The first meeting between the team and a group of young graffiti artists was actually held at a train station.
Dave remembers a funny anecdote when the team set up a ramp and landing pad in a warehouse while their stunt skater rode around a warehouse on the back of one of the programmers’ car to gain speed for the massive tricks. “We filmed the whole thing to use for rotoscoping the character and animations for the game. We also all felt the ill effects of carbon monoxide for the remainder of the day.” he says with a laugh. That’s dedication to the craft, for sure!
Each race in Skitchin’ takes you across America and Canada, before the start of each competition there is a TV broadcasting with the presenter (actually several of them, since they will all gradually get arrested) and one of the contestants giving the player some tips. Naturally, all of the digitized portraits used in-game were people from the development team (Dave was Fester).
As mentioned several times, Skitchin’ does play very similar to Road Rash: fend off the opponents and get to the end of the race without “dying” or getting busted by the cops. While not being on a motorcycle does make the player feel more vulnerable, it is easier to control one’s movements. While some of the easier races are mostly spent holding onto a car, others are way harder since drivers will start to pop the trunk to make the player fall off and swerve along the street. Getting at least to third place is required to progress to the next race. From then on, it is rinse and repeat for the subsequent races across America and Canada to finally win the game. Skitchin’ also features a split-screen mode for two players co-op or head-to-head racing.
As it might be easy to guess, Skitchin’, unfortunately, never fixed the main flaw in the series: repetition. With one race after another, on a single two-lane road with different cities in the background, there’s not much in the way of graphical or gameplay variety. Also, I was never a big fan of the combat, which feels a little tacked-on, especially grabbing weapons scattered on the road feels way more difficult than it’s supposed to. I usually finished the game without even grabbing a single one.
Once the player has made peace with that, Skitchin’ does offer a slice of delicious 90s fun. EA Canada also introduced stunts, a concept missing altogether in the Road Rash series. It is possible to get points for jumping from ramps or over cars, also by doing tricks while in the air, with judges giving the player points. If Skitchin’ had actually featured a free-roaming 3D engine, it basically would be universally recognized as the grandpa of the Tony Hawk series. It also features a better upgrade system than the one in Road Rash: the player has to look after their equipment, by replacing it or buying better quality items. Letting it degrade over time might mean instant game over on the first hit from an opponent.
Finally, I need to take a moment to talk about the soundtrack. The producer went on to joke about how they locked composer Jeff Dyck in a basement with only grunge and rock CDs, then forced him to listen to everything before letting him go free. Well, I don’t know what kinda magic (or psychological torture) they worked on the guy but the results are clear: the “metal” soundtrack is nothing short of amazing. Not only is the limited Mega Drive/Genesis chip used to perfection, but its limits become strengths, everything sounds typically 90s with almost-real sounding distorted guitars.
Electronic Arts had probably already developed their very own audio drivers for the Genesis by this point, but it was still rare to hear such good quality music on a console not really known for its audio quality. Above all, I love how the soundtrack even goes as far as featuring stereo-panned drum solos and double pedal attacks, like a Judas Priest album from 1981! Now, I’m not saying to go ahead and headbang while playing, but I’m not judging, should you decide to. My favorite track was the awesomely titled Bellybutton Lint:
I asked Dave about the trivia floating around on the net about Ocean’ supposed interest in converting Skitchin’ to Amiga, even though that version never went anywhere. He responded that he has no recollection of EA’s execs considering future platforms, since “saleswise it never came close to the Road Rash series” even though, he remarks, “it seemed like everyone that was a Genesis gamer, at one point, seemed to have owned a copy or had, somehow, played Skitchin!“.
Personally, I thought the game would have been a perfect match for the Sega CD. Think about it: a grunge soundtrack on CD, actual videos of tricks and jumps, some upgrade to the graphics… that would have been a really sensible marketing choice. But, alas, by 1994 it was too late to have such luck. Skitchin‘ remained a one-off for Electronic Arts Canada which, then, moved on to the NHL hockey game series.
Skitchin’ might really not be the most innovative game for the 16-bit Sega console nor the most varied or well aged. But it is a time capsule of incredible value, along with being a brilliantly designed action sports title, developed by a team that took an incredible amount of care in making sure the subject matter was treated fairly.
It also offers a decent amount of fun even for a quick play or a competitive race, an amazingly well-done soundtrack and so much radness and awesomeness that even MTV would probably be jealous. Recommended for a spin, a thrash and a… skitch.