The news this past week blindsided me. Dave Mirra? Gone? How could that be?
While I’m aware of Mirra’s achievements as an athlete, the truth is that I most likely wouldn’t have known who he was, if it hadn’t been for Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX.
My roundabout road to playing Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX actually began back in 1997, when my interest in extreme sports video games was kindled. An arcade game called Top Skater had me captivated at that time, and it gladly consumed every token that I could afford to pump into it. Since I’m nowhere near coordinated enough in reality to ride a skateboard (without a subsequent trip to the emergency room), Top Skater afforded me the opportunity to skate in a controlled environment. I could pull off some amazing tricks, and I didn’t have to worry about physical injury. The analog skateboard controller gave me all the realism I wanted, and tracks from Pennywise permeated my ears while I made my way to the course’s finish line. It was an amazing experience, and I realized that skateboarding games could be a lot of fun to play… even if I didn’t really know what I was doing.
My love of skateboarding games only grew from there. Street Sk8er, which was developed by Microcabin and published by Electronic Arts for the PlayStation in 1999, is as close to Top Skater as I’ve ever played on a home console. It doesn’t have a cool skateboard controller, but the play controls are simple enough to learn; it took me only a few minutes of play to pull off huge tricks just like I was able to do while playing Top Skater. Jumping is as simple as pressing the X button; then pulling off tricks is as easy as pressing the X button, along with a direction on a D-pad, while on any kind of ramp or grindable surface. Street Sk8er is completely score-driven; in order to “win” and unlock more stages, players must achieve a minimum score before either time runs out or reaching the finish line. Street Skater‘s licensed soundtrack featured a lot of punk acts that I’d never heard before, but it wasn’t long until I was listening to the soundtrack outside of playing the game… thanks to the ability to put the game disc into any CD player and listen to the songs. I still occasionally pop the disc into the CD player in my car to listen to while driving. The game’s graphics were a bit more impressive back in 1999 than they are today, but the same can be said for many games from the fifth generation of consoles. All of the content can be unlocked in just a few hours’ time, but the game’s replay value comes from trying to set new personal high scores. This is a theme that would continue in subsequent games within the genre.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came next, developed by Neversoft and published by Activision in 1999. After spending hours upon hours with just the demo alone over the summer months, I tore into the retail version of the game for weeks after release. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater also has ties to arcade games, just like Street Sk8er has; high scoring is important, it can be played in short bursts, and the play controls are very easy to learn. There is a bit more complexity here, as tricks are pulled off using the Circle and Square buttons for grab and flip tricks, respectively. The X button jumps, and the Triangle button initiates grinds on certain surfaces. Skaters also have special moves, which require a D-Pad and button combination to pull off. These Specials are worth more points, but increase the risk of bails (or falling) if the trick isn’t executed properly or in time while in the air. Each of the stages has a set of objectives to complete, ranging from scoring a certain number of points, to collecting letters, to grinding on certain objects. Players are only given two minutes for each stage run, so speed, strategy, and skill are needed to complete the objectives before time runs out. The game is accompanied by its own awesome licensed soundtrack, and observant players can even spot snippets of music videos playing on some stages. Where Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater differs from Top Skater and Street Sk8er was its cast of skaters. For the first time, we were able to play as Mr. 900 himself… as well as other recognizable athletes from the sport, including Bob Burnquist, Bucky Lasek, and Chad Muska. The inclusion of real skaters added authenticity to the game, enticing both hardcore fans of the sport and casual fans alike. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was so successful that it went on to spawn not only numerous direct sequels, but also similar games in other extreme sports… including Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder, and Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX.
Activision’s success with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater didn’t go unnoticed by other publishers, and that’s how Dave Mirra entered the video game picture. Not long after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was released, Acclaim threw its hat into the ring with Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX. Developed by Z-Axis (who, just a year earlier, had developed Thrasher: Skate and Destroy for Rockstar Games), Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX bears many similarities to Neversoft’s popular skateboarding game. Like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, players have a limited amount of time to cruise through each stage and complete its objectives. Scoring is certainly important, but other statistics matter; length of grinds, height of big air, and skid length are just a few of the other measurements that can factor into stage objectives. The trick modifier button adds a new arsenal of stunts and moves for riders, and ragdoll physics makes bails and crashes much more fun than anything seen in Tony Hawk’s games. Continuing the tradition set by extreme sports games before it, Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX has its own licensed music soundtrack that accompanies the action. The game fared well enough in sales to spawn an expanded version (called Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX: Maximum Remix) less than a year later in 2001, as well a full-fledged sequel for the new sixth-generation consoles in that same year. I’ve never played any of the Freestyle BMX games to completion, as I have with the Tony Hawk games… but I’ve always enjoyed playing them.
Without the success of extreme sports games before it, Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX might not have ever existed. Without Freestyle BMX, I probably wouldn’t have either known that Dave Mirra existed. It’s similar to what Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater did for me back in 1999, when reading about and playing his game connected me to him as an athlete, and then I began to follow what he did at competitions. I had no idea who Dave Mirra was before reading about and eventually playing the game that bore his name. After that, I found myself checking out results for him at the X-Games and elsewhere. I didn’t (and still don’t) know much about the personal lives of either Tony Hawk or Dave Mirra, but that connection to them built on video games remains strong.
That’s why Dave Mirra’s passing hit me pretty hard. It’s just hard to process that he’s gone, even though he will live on through his games and through his legacy as a BMX talent. There can no longer be a present or a future connection; only a past connection, fueled by gaming memories and archived video of his real-life performances… and that’s a very sad thing, indeed.