Allow me the 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 rad, awesome and not afraid to flip the bird.
Grab your skates, steal a ride on a car bumper and we’re off!
Skitchin’, for once on this blog rich with weird gameplay ideas that are usually pretty hard to explain, is a relatively easy one to describe: it is Road Rash on rollerblades. Even the ads in the magazine just went with “Remember Road Rash?”, along with using the word “bitchin'” which caused more than one kid to write an angry letter to the magazines… These were 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 Skitchin’ 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 the game who clarified some very interesting points about the development.
So, let’s address 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 confirms this and tells me that he and Dave Rolston, having read the aforementioned article, pitched the same basic idea during the weekly meetings at EA.
Development quickly took off at EA Canada after that. Using the Road Rash engine just felt natural – he 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, 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, they saw interest in rollerblade 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. According to Stan Chow, they were looking for a crew that would paint the actual art, but this proved to be no easy task at all since the kids were so young that they weren’t even allowed to drive. Their first meeting 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’s a TV broadcasting with the presenter (actually several of them, since they will all 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 I mentioned, 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. Not being on a motorcycle makes the player feel more vulnerable, but also more in control of 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, rinse and repeat for the subsequent races across America and Canada and the game is won. The game also has a split-screen mode for two players co-op or head-to-head racing.
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 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 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 and compose the soundtrack before letting him go free. Well, I don’t know what kinda magic they worked on the guy but it did the job: the “metal” soundtrack is nothing short of amazing. Not only is the limited Megadrive/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 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 you if 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 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 series” even though, he remarks, “it seemed like everyone that was a Genesis gamer had a copy or had played Skitchin!“.
Personally, I thought it would have been a perfect match for the Sega CD. Think about it: a grunge soundtrack on CD, 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 who, then, moved on to the NHL hockey game series.
Skitchin’ might 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 lot of fun even for a quick play or a competitive race, an amazingly well-done soundtrack and so much radness and awesomeness that MTV would be jealous. Recommended for a spin, a thrash and a… skitch.
Many thanks to Dave Warfield for the time and answers!