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California Games (Master System, 1989)

It’s too hot today.

“Ok, miss? Could you just move a bit closer to the camera? And guys, step about five feet back. Perfect!”

PLAYERS: 1-8 alternating


DEVELOPER: Epyx (port by Sega)

GENRE: Minigame

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:

You’ll never skate to the Hollywood sign with that attitude.

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.

Bro, quit hoggin’ the ‘sack.

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.

The not-so-good Samaritan.

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.

Just when you thought it was safe to boogie board across 50 foot tidal waves…

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.

These hills are no match for determination.

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.

There goes the Frisbee, ladies and gentlemen.

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.

California Games is very self-aware.

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.


14 replies on “California Games (Master System, 1989)”

I have to agree with you that the controls are unintuitive, but how could they not be? These sports don’t easily translate to a video game controller. Everything is very timing based and can take some getting used to before you master the controls.
Other than that I completely disagree with everything else in your review. I love this game and it’s one of my favorite games on the SMS. I’ve played many of the ports of this game and it is the best out of all of them.

If the argument is that unintuitive controls are ok for a game to have, then I have to disagree. I understand these sports don’t translate easily, but on top of the controls, you have, as Beau put it, “a lack of response and crazy lag.” Can you get used to this? Sure, but I don’t like that the learning curve has more to do with the developer limiting your ability to control the games properly.

Unintuitive might not have been the word I would’ve used for the controls. The controls are just not what you’d expect for a game. For example the roller skating controls aren’t just mashing the 1 or 2 button to skate. Instead you use the up and down buttons to move your left and right legs. This actually makes it feel more like skating than if you were just pressing a button as fast as you can.
Surfing took some getting used to as well, but once the controls “clicked” in your head then they actually made a lot of sense. I think the developers thought out the controls quite well and made it a strong point of this game.

I remember playing this on my uncle’s computer, and getting pretty good at it! It was actually kind of fun. Then again a) I was eight years old or so, and b) it wasn’t the SMS version. This sounds pretty brutal. Stick to the foot bag IRL brah, and stay mellow!

I’ve only ever enjoyed this game on the computer. The controls are confusing, they are not very intuitive on a gamepad. But once you learn they do sort of click. But still, this game has always been best on PC. I wouldn’t reccomend it on any console.

I remember loving this back in the day.
I do however doubt it has held up very well, so to preserve my good memories I’ve resisted replaying California Games.
One thing I would mention is the game does a good job of creating a ‘Californian’ atmosphere quite unlike similar sports games of the day.

I don’t remember hating the game when i played it. Although its probably because I’m absolutely terrible at most retro sports games and blamed myself when i couldn’t do anything.

We had this for the PC when I was a kid and you pretty much describes our experience with every Epyx game. Unintuitive controls could be tolerable but for the lack of response and crazy lag. Somehow we got good at most of the events (except surfing) but the only one we loved was BMX.

Agree with ET on this, think you’ve been a bit harsh here! I’ll admit to having not played California Games for some years, but I remember it being a lot of fun.

I agree the controls take some getting use to, but once you get used to them you have one of the MS’s best sports games. It even has the Frisbee event, which the Mega Drive version lacks.

At least a B- for me. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me…

I recently got the Mega Drive version in a bundle of cartridges I bought off a friend. Oh dear lord its terrible…And yet there is a certain sadistic appeal. My friend, my brother-in-law and I had such fun trying to just do ONE thing right that the gaming experience was positive albeit for all the wrong reasons. Playing it on my own however and it fell as flat as my guy on the half-pipe. At least we got JonTron’s video out of this game. That’s always good for a laugh.

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