Looking around my bedroom, one can see a large California photo collage hanging in my wall and next to it a “Welcome to California” clock, depicting of course, palm trees, beaches and surf boards. I might have romanticized all this surf and beach lifestyle and linked it to the US state of California.
And whose fault is it? California Games, of course. It was one of my favorite games growing up. Well, that and all the movies and TV series.
California Games (also known as Calgames) was made by Epyx as part of their Games series and originally released in 1987 for the Commodore 64, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, MSX and ZX Spectrum. It was re-released the following year for the Amiga, Atari 2600, Apple IIgs and DOS. It was again re-released in 1989 for the Atari ST, Atari Lynx, NES and the Sega Master System. In 1991, it was ported to the Sega Genesis/Megadrive and in 2005, it was ported to J2ME and in 2008, for the Wii Virtual Console.
And we’re going to take a look at the DOS version. But first let’s look at the box art.
As you can see, the cover is quite simple, showing four people from the neck down, including a blonde, bikini-wearing girl (another thing we’ve also always associated with California) all wearing different sports gear, foreshadowing the events included in the game, all the while standing in a wooden pier with a beach on the background. Simple and effective in conveying what the game is all about.
OK, let’s boot this radical sucker!
The title screen is great! A license plate with minimal animation and an 8-bit tune cover of Louie, Louie by the Kingsmen (original version by Richard Berry). Great theme and gets you in the right mood for the game. In fact, the entire soundtrack is equally good and fits the entire Californian theme well. The only music missing is by the Beach Boys!
In the main menu, you’re given the option to compete in all the 6 events; in some of them; in just one event, training, return to the title screen, config and high scores.
For first time players, I recommend training, just to get the feeling of the events and the gameplay, since they all play differently from each other.
When you get used to the controls, invite some friends over and do a full competition, because playing against oneself isn’t any fun (unfortunately, you can’t play against the AI).
The game allows up for 8 players (not simultaneously, though), which can be divided in 9 teams:
The teams are named after known brands. Some I recognize like Casio, Kawasaki and Ocean Pacific, but the others I don’t. Sponsors perhaps?
But let’s talk about the important stuff, namely the events, which are:
Half-pipe: basically freestyle skateboarding in a half-pipe ramp in front of the Hollywood sign. It requires perfect timing to do the kick turns and the hand plants. Not as easy as it looks.
Footbag: just kicking a small ball (also known as Hacky Sack) for a determined amount of time without letting it fall. You can do all types of tricks and movements using your legs and head. The more type of tricks and moves you make, the more points you get. Heck, you can also get points just by hitting a seagull that flies by with your ball! (PETA is going to kill me)!
Surfing: perhaps my favourite event. You just have to ride your surfboard in top of a wave and do all types of tricks without wiping out until the timer turns out and the wave breaks. And then you have 5 judges to evaluate your performance. Again it’s easier than it looks because you can’t just stand in top of the board, you have to move it around the wave and go inside and outside the curl. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes quite relaxing.
Roller Skating: in this event, you have to get in your roller skates and go down a boardwalk by the beach. You have to avoid all types of obstacles (any little thing can make you fall) either by avoiding them, squatting or jumping over them. It’s probably the most difficult event to master but if you finish the course with style, you can get an ice-cream! Fuck achievements! Give me ice-cream every time I finish a hard level!
Flying Disk: it’s perhaps the most boring event. Basically, you have to throw a frisbee disk and then catch it. That’s it. You control the speed and strength of the throw and then control another person to catch the frisbee. You can raise your arm or jump (only once, though) to catch it. I wish there was more to it, but there really isn’t.
BMX: another event I like. Just drive a BMX bike down a course full of obstacles and bumps, in which you can do jumps and tricks. It’s kind of a race against time but with freestyle tricks. Again, isn’t easy to master because it’s easy to fall down, but it’s a blast doing high jumps with back and front-flips.
And there you have it. A simple game with 6 extreme sport minigames that had an immense success, both in computers and consoles alike. Why was it so successful, even compared with other games in the same series? I think it was because of its simplicity, good gameplay and especially the theme. If it wasn’t for California Games, perhaps there wouldn’t be a Tony Hawk or BMX videogame series. I wish the sequel was as good as this one but that’s for another review.
For those looking for Easter Eggs, I found two: sometimes at the end of the Skating event, something a bit weird happens and in the Flying Disk event, if you take your sweet time to throw the frisbee, something even weirder happens. Go check it out!
As other versions go, the Atari Lynx version (which was bundled with it) and the NES (ported by Rare) version are the most famous ones, but I haven’t play them, so I can’t really say anything.
However, I did play the Sega Master System version and I have to say that it’s better than the DOS version. It has better graphics, sounds and the gamepad has better control. It’s one of those games that although it had its origins in the computer realm, it was really made for consoles.
Now, does it hold up to today standards? Apart from some ugly sprites here and there, the gameplay and the animation are still pretty solid. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake with updated graphics (but still in 2D) and with online multiplayer and leaderboards.
And speaking of remakes, a German indie developer is trying to bring it to Steam Greenlight here. But it looks ugly as hell. I don’t recommend it.
So there you have it, another great review by yours truly. Next review will probably be posted before Christmas, if I can finish it in time. If not, I apologise in advance. Anyway, Cowabunga and keep on playing, dudes and dudettes!