It’s the mid-1990s and something unusual is being passed around at the UK’s biggest nightclubs. It makes you feel like you’re moving at hundreds of miles per hour – but you’re standing perfectly still. In fact, your feet are glued to the nightclub’s sticky floor. There’s a tap on your shoulder: “What are you on, mate?” You look down at your hands and apologise as you pass them the sweaty PlayStation One controller. “Wipeout,” you reply.
While Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is credited for introducing a generation to their favourite punk-rock and metal bands, Wipeout – a game where you raced anti-gravity vehicles to a soundtrack fit for Ibiza’s opening parties – perfectly captured the energy of electronic music and club culture at the time. It brought the nightclub experience into bedrooms and living rooms across the globe, with pummelling techno tunes from CoLd StOrAgE (AKA Welsh composer Tim Wright), alongside licensed music from the biggest electronic acts of the era – Orbital, Leftfield, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and The Future Sound of London, to name just a few.
The original Wipeout may not be one of the PlayStation’s best-sellers, but it’s one of its most iconic games. Its techno soundtrack, fast-as-fuck gameplay, edgy aesthetic and avant-garde artwork from Designers Republic was just the thing that Geoff Glendenning – PlayStation’s UK marketing manager at the time – needed as part of his launch plans for the console.
Glendenning lived and breathed club culture, and wanted to capture the attention of a demographic that had largely been ignored by Sega and Nintendo. As part of his launch strategy for the console, he tasked an agency with building a database of over 500 nightclubs in the UK, 52 of which Glendenning worked with to build PlayStation “chillout” rooms. Here, you could try out the latest games for yourself, whether you were at London’s Ministry of Sound, Birmingham Sanctuary, Glasgow Tunnel or Eclipse in Hull.
“Wipeout was the perfect game launch for PlayStation, because marketing and development had been working collaboratively right from the beginning,” says Glendenning. “It was just so beautifully integrated and synergistic, and clearly [the developers] were all going out and getting wankered on the weekend at [Liverpool nightclub] Cream. In fact, Cream wasn’t on our clubbing list of installations because [the video game developer] Psygnosis had such a close relationship with them they just worked directly.”
In many ways, Wipeout was a game developed for clubbers by clubbers. An early concept movie for the game was transformed into what we know today after co-creator Nick Burcombe reached a “zen moment” on Mario Kart while listening to “The Age of Love”. He wanted everyone to have what he was having, and when Wipeout launched in 1995, you finally could. All you had to do was jump into the cockpit of Wipeout’s anti-gravity space crafts and soak in the delicious sounds of techno, all while dodging enemy shockwaves, hurtling around corners at Mach speed.
All of this made it feel instantly familiar to a generation of clubbers, even if they’d never held a PlayStation controller in their hands before. To build on the club culture link, Glendenning got PlayStation to sponsor various music events and festivals across the UK, including Northern Exposure sessions, Tribal Gathering, Big Love and launch parties for Reinforced Records’ artists.
Supplementing all of this was some pretty risqué advertising and marketing, which saw everything from PlayStation hand out roach cards at Glastonbury, to a controversial and eventually banned print ad featuring a bloody-nosed Sara Cox, who has presumably played far too much Wipeout.
Ultimately, however, Wipeout will always be remembered for its music. It’s weird listening back to the game’s original tracks, like “Messij”, “Afro-Ride” and “Transvaal” now. Not only were they ahead of their time, but the composer had never stepped foot inside a nightclub before.
“I've made no secret of the fact that trance, techno and rave music was alien to me,” says CoLd StOrAgE, who composed the game’s original tracks. “The very first Wipeout demo track I created was more Nine Inch Nails than Leftfield, really.”
Despite this, Wright got a feel for things after hitting the clubs with his Psygnosis colleagues. Now, his music is indistinguishable from the Wipeout experience. “I didn't realise how much people would latch onto those tunes. But in the past few years, the level of kindness and fan praise I've received has been way beyond what I ever imagined.”
The success of the first Wipeout and the overwhelmingly positive reception to its soundtrack opened up the doors for more collaborations with major artists in its sequel, Wipeout 2097, which many consider the holy grail of video game soundtracks. An instrumental version of Prodigy’s “Fire Starter”, along with tunes from Photek, The Future Sound of London and Underworld, helped the series’ roots grow even deeper into club culture.
“The red tape around licensing and royalties and stuff just meant [the original] was a little bit restricted in terms of the quantity [of licensed tracks], but that soon went away,” says Glen O’Connell, Pgysnosis’s PR director at the time. He still remembers the reaction to Wipeout 2097 at trade events: “All you could hear from one end of the hall to the other was The Prodigy booming out ‘Fire Starter’. You always heard [Wipeout] before you saw it, and that’s why the cultural acceptance is credible today.”
Mark Rodol, Managing Director of Ministry of Sound at the time, says “When Wipeout 2097 was previewed at Ministry of Sound six weeks before its retail launch, I think as many people came to try it out, as came to see David Morales. Weird, really – a PlayStation game more popular than one of the most popular club DJs in the world... and cheaper!”
If the PlayStation UK team’s marketing efforts were starting a fire under the arses of Sega and Nintendo, the support from new artists and record labels helped turn that fire into an almighty inferno. The Wipeout revolution was in full swing. “Being part of the Wipeout 2097 soundtrack brought us so many new fans who are still with us today. So many people have told us their first experience of Future Sound of London was while playing the game,” says Brian Dougans, from Future Sound of London.
Alongside the growing festival sponsorship and Wipeout 2097 preview events at UK nightclubs, Psygnosis partnered with Red Bull in 1996 to host a 2097 club tour across seven UK cities, featuring DJ sets from The Chemical Brothers, Judge Jules, Justin Robertson and Allister Whitehead. Released on cassette, CD and vinyl, Wipeout 2097’s soundtrack also became the angle for a cover from one of the UK’s biggest gaming magazines at the time, Edge. (O’Connell says the late editor, Jason Brookes, attended nearly all of these club nights).
All of this work could have quite easily fallen flat if it was dreamed up by a bunch of suits pushing a game to an audience they knew nothing about. But Wipeout’s marketing efforts were anything but.
“[The music] wasn’t a bolt-on by the marketing and PR team. It very much came from the heart of the studio. It came from the development team,” says O’Connell. “That’s what they were listening to. That's what they were clubbing to. That was their passion and that was the passion of youth culture in the country at the time.”