720°: You Either Skate Or You Die

Sports games have come a mighty long way since the 90s. Editor-in-Chief Roger Burton can tell you that much—he knows way more about the major sports game franchises than I could ever dream to learn (or want to learn, but that’s another story).  So I was pretty surprised when we were talking about NES games and he’d never heard of 720°. I mean, really? How do you know so much about sports and games and everything in between but not this? Come on, Burton, step it up. So anyway, now that I’ve proven that I actually know a sports game thing that Roger doesn’t know, I want to share with you all a little bit about this game.

And, of course, why it terrified me as a kid.

The Ultimate Aerial Experience!

So, what horrors lurk beyond this gnarly facade? Well…admittedly, not that many, but I still feel weird whenever I think about this game.

I was first introduced to 720° through my older sister and cousins—it was the early 90s and, although most of the NES games we owned were pretty out of date for the time, they were still enough to keep us occupied while our parents took some well-deserved breaks. This being around 1995 or so, I was around three or four years old when I would follow them all into the bedroom despite their protests and watch them play games. Some of these games, like Super Mario Bros. 3, sparked my interest in games and led me to where I am today, while others, like Metroid, terrified the shit out of me for reasons I still can’t articulate. 720°, also known as 720 Degrees, happens to fall into the latter camp, but (un?)fortunately, I’m still able to pinpoint just why this little skateboarding game fucked me up so bad.

But first, a little history on 720°. Released in 1986 by Atari Games, 720° was originally an arcade game with a—dare I say it?—wicked cool cabinet.

Check it out!
Check it out!

I mean, look at this thing! This is the epitome of raditude. Those colors! That boom box! You know, the speakers in the boom box actually house the cabinet speakers. Just looking at this thing makes me want to get up and do some “sick flips” with my “bros”, or whatever the youngins call it nowadays. Anyway, the most important aspect of this cabinet is the joystick. Instead of only moving in the typical up-down-left-right style, this joystick moved in a circular way so that the players’ twists and turns would be as natural and as close to the real thing as possible. Although playing the game now only showcases just how clunky the joystick controls are, I can appreciate them for what they were at the time. For a game that was one of the first extreme sports games on the market, it’s pretty ambitious.

Also contributing to the whole feeling of ambition is the title itself. The 720° was, at the time, the most extreme skateboarding trick known to man, consisting of two full aerial rotations. Sure, it’s hideously outdated now—after inventing it in 1985, Tony Hawk moved on to bigger and better things like the 900°, and even that’s been topped by the 1080° (three full aerial turns!)—but it was all they had at the time. To name your game after one of the rarest tricks in the book sets a pretty high standard. Of course, me being a toddler in my cousin’s bedroom, I didn’t know shit about skateboarding so I just thought it was weird that the title was numbers and not letters.

I wasn’t lucky enough to have an arcade cabinet sitting around my cousins’ house, so the 720° I played was the Mindscape/Tengen NES port released in 1989. I’ll admit I’m not enough of a connoisseur to know enough about the differences between the arcade and NES versions, and what I do know is largely based off the latter. But what I can tell you is that this game has a terrible, but ridiculously catchy, soundtrack.

Despite hearing the arcade version’s soundtrack years later and realizing that it’s a lot better for various reasons, this version’s still just so much fun to listen to! Even as a tiny little kid I felt super cool while listening to this. And I heard it a lot, because my family was collectively terrible at this game. Maybe that’s also what scared me about 720°—the fact that my cousins just weren’t good at it. They were good at Mario, even Ms. Pac-Man, why weren’t they good at this one too? It probably has something to do with the port having to map joystick controls to a directional pad, but how was I supposed to know that? For all I knew, my heroes were failing me. What the hell, man.

So, how did 720° even work? Pretty simply. The main hub of the game (“Skate City”) is a suburban area full of ramps, cars, and people wandering around. Bumping into the cars or other pedestrians immediately wipes you out, so you have to take care to avoid them.

I just wanna live my life
I just wanna live my life

There’s four different skate park events you can tackle in any order: slalom, jump, ramp, and downhill. Depending on how well you do, you can earn medals and extra cash which can be used towards the upgrades. Although I don’t see the point, really, because there are only four upgrades in the game and they don’t really cost that much to begin with. The events are pretty difficult, too, due to the weird controls. The ramp event in particular is notoriously difficult, and I’ve never earned a medal on it to this date. What am I supposed to do here, anyway? Sometimes I can handstand on the skateboard but then I just fall over. This is just kind of sad.

It's okay. It's not your fault.
It’s okay. It’s not your fault.

The game also suggests that there are multiple classes of difficulty that progress as you do, but I’ve never gotten that far in the game because it’s just that unplayable. The map’s hard to decipher, the controls are wonky, and the graphics are just unfortunate. I think the asphalt texture is burned into my skull, as is the sprite for when you fall on your ass.

Get ready to hear the weird wipeout noise a lot, because this is gonna happen to you.
Get ready to hear the weird crashy wipeout noise a lot, because this is gonna happen to you.

So, this game’s pretty uninteresting on a very basic level, except for the fact that you’re timed as you skate around the city. Why are you timed? I don’t know, it probably has to do with giving kids a reason to keep shoving quarters into the cabinet. But anyway, if you don’t enter an event before the timer runs out, an ominous message flashes at the top of the screen.

720 (USA)-1

I was a pretty advanced reader for my age, so even I was able to tell what this said. And, naturally, it alarmed the hell out of me. What? Skate or die? But I just want to have a nice time trying to learn how this game even works! However, the game kicks things up 500 notches when they introduce this into the equation.

It's hard to see, but I'm talking about the red cluster following me.
It’s hard to see, but I’m talking about the red cluster following me.

As a kid, I thought the cluster was supposed to represent a disease. I don’t know why I even leapt to such a conclusion, but all I knew was, well, if I didn’t make it to a skate park in time, I was going to be swallowed up by this weird maybe-disease. When I was older, I found out what the cluster actually is, and get this: it’s bees. In this peaceful suburban town, there are groups of killer bees that specifically like to prey on skateboarders who have rolled around town for too long. They even turn into a skull and crossbones when they finally reach you. What?

No, really. What?

Tell my bros I loved them.
Tell my bros I loved them.

Now that I think about it, this is a lot more terrifying than my childish idea about the disease. What are killer bees doing in a suburb, and why is no one doing anything about this? It’s pretty hard to escape the bees unless you’re close enough to a skate park, so your fate is near-inevitable. I don’t like to think too hard about the plotlines of older games, but I keep flipping out about the bee situation in Skate City. Aren’t the parents worried? I can’t help but imagine a stern 80s mom snapping her kid’s skateboard in half. “Now the bees won’t get you, Trevor,” she says. “You’re safe now.”

Also important to note is the kinds of residents hanging out in Skate City. There’s muscular dudes throwing frisbees, breakdancers, and also rollerbladers. That last one wouldn’t be so big a deal if they weren’t literal skeletons.

I'm pretty damn sure that's a skeleton.
I’m pretty damn sure that’s either a skeleton or a dude turned inside-out.

If you crash into one of these skeletons, they turn into what looks like a pile of ash before regenerating. What the hell is up with Skate City? Bees and skeletons? This isn’t a suburb, it’s a straight-up nightmare zone. I don’t even have decent commentary on this, because I only found this out last night. What am I supposed to feel right now? Because I’m sure not feeling comfortable.

All that aside, 720° is likely only a memorable game for me because of how fucked up it is, but in the grand scheme of things, despite all its shortcomings as an arcade port, it is a pretty important milestone in the timeline of extreme sports games. Hell, it’s where the term “skate or die” originates, which later became the title of a later skateboarding game. Nike even released a colorway for their SB Dunks inspired by the original 720° arcade cabinet. How rad is that? Usually you see game-inspired shoes for more iconic series. Maybe I’m underestimating the importance of 720° to the extreme sports genre. After all, it paved the way for better, higher-quality skateboarding games to come along, like, uh…Skate 3?

…Anyway, as terrible and unplayable as it is, 720° is always going to have some sort of special place in my heart. As long as I don’t have to play it in any sort of serious context, I’ll always remember it as that weird game that scared me, but now that I’ve learned a lot more about it, it’s also earned the title of “that really unfortunate arcade port”.

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