PLAYERS: 1-8 alternating
DEVELOPER: Epyx (port by Sega)
RELEASE DATE: 05/1989 – (US), 1989 – (EU)
California Games is one of the many terrible pseudo-sporting event minigame collections released by Epyx in the late 80s and early 90s (never forget World Games and Winter Games). Not only do the games lack the depth and replayability of traditional sports, but the controls are so unintuitive and complex, the mechanics so hit-or-miss, that a task as simple as rollerblading down a sidewalk is a challenge worthy of the Hollywood gods.
There are six games that California calls their own. I will rate them in order of unplayable to semi-competent:
Half Pipe – A jaunty trip down a half-pipe on a skateboard. Up and Down on the D-pad give you momentum, while Right and Left spin you right round, baby. Doing tricks is the name of the game here, but you’ll be lucky to keep yourself in the air. Why is it impossible to pull off a trick and not crash? Why can’t you turn in mid-air, like a normal skater? No amount of knee pads and head gear will prevent your dreams of skateboard stardom from shattering on the Half Pipe.
Foot Bag – Foot Bag sounds like a particularly painful bloating. This is why, in America, we call Foot Bag, “hackysack.” Here, you’re supposed to keep the hackysack in the air for as long as possible. Button 2 either kicks, head butts or knees the sack, depending on where it is in the air. The problem is, the game determines whether the hackysack is in the right position to be hit. So even if the sack falls towards your knee, you could hit Button 2 and nothing would happen unless the game decided you could hit it. The convoluted, finicky mechanics ruin the perfectly good game of Foot Bag. Our hippie ancestors would be ashamed.
Skating – As in a girl rollerskating down a sidewalk that hasn’t been maintained since 1952. There are cracks, banana peels, whole chunks of the sidewalk missing. Maintain a good speed, jump over everything in your way, and pull off tricks to get points. That’s a lot for one person, and indeed, too much for this poor girl. There’s a slight lag every time you hit Button 1 to jump, and until you adjust for it, you’ll run into grates and grass and every other piece of crap that’s on the ground. Forget doing tricks. Just skate on a better sidewalk.
Surfing – In Surfing, your goal is to ride out the wave and perform tricks for a group of mirthless judges. Getting your board atop the wave doesn’t take much, but tricks? Oy. Hit Left on the D-pad to go off the wave, then quickly hit Right to land back on the wave. If you do this right, it barely looks like you did anything at all. But hey, the judges will like you and popularity is all that really matters.
BMX – Much like skating, BMX is all about not crashing your bike into random crap while performing tricks. Surprisingly, the controls are responsive and intuitive. Button 1 jumps the bike while mashing Button 2 pedals faster. Twist the D-pad to do tricks as you drive or keep the bike on the course, safe and sound. Either way, BMX is the most straightforward event in California Games. This makes it both a relief and a little boring. At least the chances of you completing it are far greater than the other events.
Flying Disk – Frisbee throwing made significantly more challenging. Calculate the speed and angle you’ll throw the frisbee via the bar at the bottom of the screen, then let ‘er fly. If you hit the speed and angle in the green section of the bar, the frisbee will soar to the receiving person. Once the frisbee has launched, you control the other person and guide them to it. If you catch it, great! If not, wash off the sickening stench of failure and try again. California plays for keeps.
If California Games has any appeal whatsoever, it’s in the 8-player mode. Playing with a gaggle of bros greatly increases one’s enjoyment of the events within, if only because you can all make fun of each others’ skills (or lack thereof). It’s when you’re alone that the game’s numerous faults choke your very being, like the smog-filled Los Angeles skies. California dream this game away from my life.