Stab Magazine | Re-Introducing The World's First Surf Video Game
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Re-Introducing The World’s First Surf Video Game

Forget Kelly Slater Pro Surfer and Transworld Surf, 1985’s Surf Champ is the true original. 

news // Jun 14, 2020
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

You can almost guarantee anyone involved in surf media has a few Google alerts on their phone for the keywords ‘surf’, ‘surfing’, etc. Most of the time these alerts are full of surf forecasts, lifeguard stories, and a. bunch of entirely irrelevant reports on ‘surface oncology’. 

This week, we ran across the BBC’s story on the rediscovery of the first surfing video game: Surf Champ, which came out in 1985. 

That’s right, 1985. Playstation and Xbox were over a decade away, but the rubber-keyed 48K ‘Speccy’ was capable of what BBC argues to still be the most realistic surfing game to date.

Dr Norman McMillan was the inventor of Surf Champ, and wanted to use his mathematics, specifically computer algorithms, to develop a realistic sporting game. In 1985, as the BBC reports, Dr Norman McMillan, the inventor behind Surf Champ was a physics and computer science lecturer at Carlow Regional Technical College in Ireland. Dr McMillan wanted to use his mathematics, specifically computer algorithms, to develop a realistic sporting game.

We’re assuming the nodule on the nose is incase you feel like putting the nose under on the take-off. You know, to mimic your real life surfing experience. Photo: BBC

“I was a surfer,” Dr McMillan told the BBC. “So, I knew about surfing and as a physicist I said I could do a computer game with a proper mathematical algorithm so it would be accurate, which of course it was. “That was how Surf Champ started out, then John came up with the idea of the surfboard overlay for the keyboard. Susan’s speciality was ultra-fast programming for the latest space technology of the time, which would help make it all work.”

In essence, Surf Champ was like a computerised tech deck, but for surfing. By placing pressure on different parts of the board, different underlying keys would be pressed and in turn the on-screen surfer would react. McMillan was a surfer himself, so had a good idea as to what different hand placements should do, but he and his team also got other surfers to test out the prototype program. 

The 1985 version of scrolling Instagram in the beach carpark. Photo: BBC

After developing the program, they lugged a big ol’ TV and the game console to the beach for surfers to test out. “They played the game non-stop instead, and all of them said it was absolutely accurate.” McMillan said. 

One of these surfers was Jed Stone – an English surf champ – who turned out to also win the first ever console-based surfing comp. “They set up some computers and showed us how to play,” Stone told the BBC. “Then each country was asked to select four surfers for a surf-off – which I ended up winning.

“Your mind is thinking the same way as if you were standing up.” Stone continued. “Because you used the board, you did not have keys in your mind.

“You knew that if you leant forward on it, it trimmed in the wave on the simulation. If you moved back, say to the back left of the board, you would do a bottom turn. “Your fingers are on the board so you are actually riding the wave in that way. I know it is not your feet, but your mind is thinking the same way it would be if you were standing up – so, in that respect, it was accurate, yes.”

A screengrab from Surf Champ. In case you find a copy lying around your parents attic, 23,700 points was the highscore that Jed Stone nabbed to win the World Title.

Looking back, the graphics and visuals are obviously shithouse. But if it was physical realism you were after Surf Champ was arguably closer to the real thing than hitting a few buttons on your Playstation remote, or more recently, sliding your fingers around your iPhone screen playing True Surf (not that I wasn’t addicted to True Surf for a while).

Another downside was Surf Champ’s lack of location versatility. While the WSL’s True Surf boasts a bevy of spots, all of which have real-time conditions, Surf Champ confined you to the world renowned Fistral in Cornwall. 

Unfortunately the creators of Surf Champ ran into financial woes during the larger scale production of the game, only managing to make 3000-copies (all of which sold nearly immediately). To this day however, McMillan and the team can still claim to have made the only surfing game based on your actual movements on a board.

Plus, Jed Stone, the winner of the inaugural esports surfing comp is still the undefeated World Champ. Since that beachside 1985 competition – consisting of four people – no computer based surfing competition has ever been run again. 

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