Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer Was All About Spaced-Out Summer Vibes—Not the High Score Meter

Welcome to Memory Card. Here, we embark on one final—maybe even fatal—playthrough of the forgotten games of our past. Just like the old days, we might pull some all nighters, we might lose a friend or two, we might resort to eating too many Hot Pockets. Let’s see how far we’ve come. Or regressed.


I can’t think about Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer without first remembering the taste of Lays Mesquite BBQ Chips dusted with a little beach sand. I spent many of the best summer nights of my teenage years eating these chips, playing round after round of Kelly Slater on the cool, hardwood floor of my friend’s beach house. The game, and the chips, were just part of the shore experience—we’d drive to the Jetty in the early morning, tear open a bag of chips, paddle out to the sand bar, surf all afternoon, then drive the truck back home at sunset, dehydrated and sunburnt, booting up the PS2 after our showers to play until bed.

Sometimes we’d fall asleep with the game still running, the sounds of pre-recorded waves and ambient soft rock waking us the next morning. Other nights we’d pull our mattresses out onto the roof and stare up at the stars as we finished off the bag of sandy chips, sometimes raiding my friend’s grandparents’ liquor cabinet for anything we could mix with the dusty cans of Fresca in their garage. Decades-old vodka, dry sherry, warm vermouth. Man, it was a lifestyle.

kelly slater's pro surfer screenshot

Tubular.

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Kelly Slater came out in 2002 just a month shy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Both games promoted each other by featuring the title athlete as unlockable content—for many, the shirtless, barefoot Kelly Slater character model in THPS4, complete with board shorts and surfboard, is probably the only point of reference for the surfer. Despite the sport’s long and fabled history, surfing has never really been anywhere as popular as skating. And like all of Activision’s attempts to replicate the popularity of its Pro Skater series with other extreme sports (wakeboarding, BMX, snowboarding, you name it), Pro Surfer was released to very little fanfare. In fact, aside from the two friends from my childhood beach trips, I’ve never really heard anyone else talk about Kelly Slater.

“We spend our whole lives just wanting to be at the beach,” you hear Slater whisper in the game’s hazy, sunbleached opening montage. Diving into a bed of coral reef as slow-motion waves roll across the screen, Slater narrates, “Travel. Surf different waves. Dream of going to different places and discovering the wave. It’s just like, that unknown…” Revisiting the game this summer, along with many of the Tony Hawk titles ahead of the big THPS Remaster project coming in October, I was surprised by the quiet and subdued vibe of Pro Surfer. There’s no AC/DC in Kelly Slater; you won’t be grinding the blades of downed helicopters or flipping off of hotel buildings. It makes sense though. If Pro Skater captures the fuck-everything, Beavis and Butthead chaos of the skateboarding scene, Kelly Slater is all about the spaced-out world of professional surfing. So that means Jack Johnson music, shiny blue water, and endless summer vibes, baby.

Pro Surfer takes a holistic approach to simulating the art of surfing—it’s a lifestyle, as Slater explains in the opening. Every level starts with Slater narrating the surfer lore behind the real-world spot you’re about to hit, including the main menu screen, which is a worn-down ship that carries the surfers from beach to beach. “The water in the summertime, it’s not too bad, if you don’t mind cold water, you can get away with a pair of trunks,” Slater says about Trestles, a popular set of surfing beaches in San Diego. When you get to Mavericks, a famous big wave spot in northern California, he narrates, “If the wind’s blowing, you definitely need a hood ‘cause you get ice cream headaches like you’ve never had…I think it’s probably the scariest wave in the world.”

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Like all the games in Activision’s extreme sports library, Kelly Slater plays a lot like Tony Hawk. You’d think this would be awkward, since so much of THPS is based around performing tricks in mid-air and timing your ollies around ramps and other obstacles, not to mention grinding rails. Can surfers do any of that? Not really. But the developers found a way to translate every Tony Hawk mechanic to a free-flowing wave, and it actually doesn’t feel too far-off. Instead of having whole skateparks, each level, really, has one ramp. But the surface of the ramp is kind of like a smooth, free-form treadmill. You drag your character up and down the face of the wave, performing carve turns, cutbacks, and powerslides—similar to the flatground tricks of the later Pro Skater games—eventually gathering enough speed to blast off the tip of the wave and do aerial tricks. You can do a flashy “exit move” (cannonball!!), or you can land back on the face and keep the combo going. The game even has a tube mechanic, where players can surf backward into the barrel of the wave and balance inside the thrashing pipe of water for as long as they want, or until the wave finally crashes in on itself. Tubular.

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So, you’re not going to be wallriding school buses or grinding telephone wires. But there’s a rhythm to Kelly Slater; it’s naturalistic, even a little meditative. It’s not unlike a lot of the experimental titles we’re seeing from indie developers today, where the game’s atmosphere—the vibe—is the main attraction, not the high score meter. But Pro Surfer, of course, still has special moves. I remember loving the “coffin” trick in the barrel, imagining myself laying back on my surfboard and watching the wave tumble down over me the next day at the beach. It was just a fantasy though; anytime I’d try anything other than standing up on a surfboard, I’d end up with a mouthful of saltwater.

Whenever the steaming, 100-degree heat of summer arrives, I think about Kelly Slater. I remember the taste of Mesquite BBQ chips, and those weekends I spent pretending I knew anything about surfing. Since we don’t ever really hear about Pro Surfer, the game just lives in my memory, like the smell of aloe on a red patch of sunburn, or the feel of a rusty old beach cruiser on a sandy patch of concrete. I don’t really care if nobody else enjoyed it or if it received a bad Metacritic score; in my mind, it’s perfect. Sometimes it’s alright to leave it that way.

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