Think of California, and what do you think of? Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger running the state flexing his ridiculously large biceps, perhaps the sun-kissed beaches and ridiculously attractive tanned women roller blading around. Maybe it’s the word-of-the-day toilet roll made in California in which today’s word is “ridiculously” that filters through subconsciously into day-to-day speaking… But whatever your perceptions, to a middle-class British boy who had to stay indoors due to rain and not getting dirty in the mud, thoughts of sunnier climbs of California never strayed far from the minds of the gaming youth. Those perceptions must have played on the mind of Epyx, the gaming company that brought multi-sports event games Summer and Winter Games for Atari 2600 and other home consoles, as in 1987 they brought out California Games for the NES as well as other consoles. So how does the game stack up, is it ridiculously good or ridiculously bad?
California Games like other titles released by Epyx at the time is a sports game which rather than have one sport to focus upon such as soccer or golf, is split into 6 events that was deemed to be popular in California at the time – Half Pipe, Foot Bag, Surfing, Skating, BMX and Flying Disk (or Frisbee in laymans terms). The idea of the game is to score more points than your competitors by doing tricks and stunts depending on the vent your competing in, and taking the crown and a rather spiffing trophy. You can choose to play with up to 8 people, so if there was a group of you, then you can all play albeit one at a time on one controller but it’s better than having to pay for two NES Four Score and plugging in 8 controllers. You can choose to compete in all 6 events sequentially, to compete in certain events of your choosing or to practice the events, and boy will you need to practice the events in order to get anywhere with the games. If you choose to compete in events, you can enter your name on a screen that looks exactly the same as the name entry screen on Marble Madness (seeing as both are licenced by Milton Bradley that would make sense) and also be sponsored by 9 different companies such as Casio and Milton Bradley themselves.
Starting with the Half Pipe, your character goes up and down on a half pipe in order to perform tricks for points however try as you may and no matter what button you press it always ends up the same way – your character falling flat on his derriere and the skateboard hitting you on the way back down. In Foot Bag your character is kicking a hackey sack up and down and you have to perform tricks whilst the bag is in the air, this is one of the better events although your character turns and moves like he’s in warm treacle. Surfing is pretty explanatory although how you score points is anything but simple, even though your running away from the big wave and occasionally meeting Jaws at the bottom of the screen, it’s just a question of how long you can survive from the wave and nothing else. Skating takes the form of roller blading on a pavement alongside the beach which does look pretty but the gameplay is not. You tap the A button to move and B makes your character jump whilst your dodging flying beach balls and rubbish strewn on the ground. You can spin round whilst your skating which is as useful as a glass hammer and you will be falling down a lot here so get used to having stumpy fingers repeatedly tapping A. BMX is your character on a BMX bike repeatedly tapping the A button to move, and B makes you jump which is similar to the skating event however when you jump if you press the d-pad it makes you do tricks which gets you extra points. Again, similar to skating event, there is rocks and debris on the course in the hope of knocking you off your bike so here you’ll need the reflexes of a ant scurrying away from jam splodges and caramel. Finally, the flying disk event (i.e. Frisbee) is where using the left and right d-pad you throw the frisbee to your friend halfway down a park, where you then control the character and pressing the A button to catch the Frisbee, however catching the frisbee is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s easier to find a needle in a rather large haystack whilst your blindfolded and spun around a hundred times so although you can perfect the first part of the event, the second more important part of the event lets you down.
So where the gameplay lets the game down, the graphics do not. In each event, the colours and surroundings are well defined and feels like you are completing in California, be this under the famous Hollywood sign in half pipe or skating along the beach through to throwing frisbees in the park under the mountains, it all looks really good and diverse with bold colours and detailed backgrounds. Each event has it’s own music as well that is upbeat and gets you in the mood well, and although there are no sound effects, the music makes up for this and surely it’s better to have no sound effects than ruin the ambiance of the song with effects that come direct from an Atari or worse?
In the life of video games, there will be times where the gameplay is absolutely fantastic and the controls are responsive whilst it may not be as aesthetically pleasing to the eye and damaging your hearing with it’s atrocious music. Sometimes you get the complete opposite, and this is the category that California Games falls into. The graphics and the music are on par with the triple A titles on the console which is a pleasure to behold when looking at the backgrounds and listening to the music, however what lets the gameplay down spectacularly is the controls and gameplay. Although which events you prefer is entirely subjective, personally the BMX and the Foot Bag events shine above the other events due to being able to perform tricks and stunts without rocking the d-pad all over making your thumbs hurt by pressing any buttons in a random order. It’s good that you can have upto 8 players playing on the one game however do yourself a favour and go out get some BMX bikes or a frisbee, put on some headphones with the music from this game and get some fresh air and compete in the events in real life, your body will thank me for it but please, don’t send me proof of this…
Rating – 2 out of 5