California Games Review

Developer: Epyx Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 1989 Also On: None

Aw man, a sports title? Stop right there. Sports titles back in the day
tended to have a bad reputation; it’s not like today with the variety of
releases on the modern systems. I’m not sure why really, I suppose they just
sucked generally back then. I’ll get to that in more detail when I reach the
“great” series of games for the Master System, but that’s in the future.
However, now and then a game came along that really did the whole sports
genre a favor. A few were lost amongst all the Zelda and Alex Kidd hype, but
others became some of the most popular releases in history. California Games
is definitely one of these, and it was released for numerous systems and
computers back in the day. Made by Epyx, who were known for titles of this
nature, it was certainly their crowning achievement and most people I know
remember this title or have at least heard of it if they were old enough in
the late 1980s. I never really got into it for the NES, and I never really
gave the SMS version a thorough look until a few days ago. I’m quite happy I
did, this plays and looks better than the NES version and is one of the most
spectacular sports titles I’ve ever come across. Keep in mind though, that
this game consists of six separate events to compete in, thus I may be
referring to each specific event as I see fit and use this to effect the
overall score for each category.

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Graphically, California Games is superb. Nice job with the intro screen,
tons of colors in the stages, lots of detail on all the characters and
backgrounds and excellent animations for anything moving. Incredible job
overall. A suggestion of a crowd in the Half Pipe segment would have been
nice, but this entire game was simply ported directly to the Master System,
so I’m not even going to bother adjusting the score. It’s a minor point
anyway. The Foot Bag segment is quaint, but well done with great color and
detail. The Surfing segment has captured the movement of the waves
perfectly, adding a few extra characters such as the shark and dolphin to
taunt you if you make a mistake and ending with a score screen featuring a
group of judges. The Roller Skating segment is splendid, lots of obstacles,
variety and a sectioned background that moves to suggest depth. Your
character here is particularly well animated. The BMX segment has the
sectioned background concept found in the previous event with tons of
different obstacles to move around or jump over. The various tricks
executed by your biker are incredibly smooth and detailed. Finally, the
Flying Disk segment is the most drab of them all mainly because there isn’t
much to do in the gameplay department, but even here the programmers took
the time to add colorful scenery and accurate character motions. Great job
overall for the graphics.

To add to the above, California Games throws some great sound effects and
musical themes at you. Excellent opening track makes you feel like it’s
summer even though it may be negative fifty Celsius outside. The Half Pipe
segment has a great tune, reminds me of all those old 8-Bit skating games
back in the day with that “rad” feel to them like 720. It’s short, but
sweet. The Foot Bag segment is strange, it kind of has this jumpy, goofy
feel to it that fits the activity. The Surfing segment has this “beach” feel
to it that reminds me of old vacations when I was younger. The Roller
Skating theme is intense but cute, fitting both the character and the event.
The BMX segment drives along with a theme reminding one of a car chase scene
in a movie or perhaps a typical song in the style of old “surf rock.” The
Flying Disk theme is quite awkward. It’s not bad, it does fit the seemingly
pointlessness of the event and it sticks in your head, I’m just not sure
what to say about it exactly. It fits, and I like it, but I can’t explain
why due to the fairly bland gameplay. The sound effects overall are very
fitting. A few that stuck out in my mind are when you crash too hard on the
half pipe and the skating sounds from the girl’s skates on that level. All
well done and placed nicely, high marks.

The gameplay is where all of the above is drawn together to really make this
game shine. It’s a bit difficult to just take it all together without
details, so I’m going to make some comment on the game as a whole and then
separate sections for each individual event. Basically, you have six events.
At the selection screen you can either compete in all the events, compete in
some events, compete in one event, practice an event, view high scores, or
view the title screen. No clue why they threw the last one in there because
you can just hit “Reset” on the console, but whatever. For the first two
options, you can have up to eight players join in the fun and you get to
name your character and select your team. Nice options to mess around with
as far as basic structure is concerned. Now then, to the events themselves.

The first event is the Half Pipe. In this event you control a little
skateboarder and can do one of three tricks; the kick turn, aerial turn or
hand plant. To increase speed you press down on the Directional Pad while
moving down on either side and up while moving up. You have to press either
at the correct times, otherwise you’ll slow and lose a turn. You have three
turns to get as many points as possible and they’re awarded for the moves
depending on how you perform them. If you fall three times, you’re game is
over. I forget how I did it, but if you fall hard enough the “Hollywood”
sign in the background collapses. The only real problem I had with this
event is that it takes a bit of time to get used to the controls, as they’re
not entirely intuitive at first. Once you get the hang of it, though, you’ll
fly right along exploiting the right moments to get the most points. Other
than this, I wish there were a few more maneuvers to use other than the
three programmed. Perhaps a boneless or a slide along the top of the half
pipe? I don’t know, but three skills didn’t seem like enough to me. However,
with only about a minute or three falls to use up, you don’t have much time
to master many more anyway. Still, it effected it a bit for me because they
are plenty in other events.

The second event is the Foot Bag. In more modern terms this would be the
“hacky sack.” I really enjoyed this event and would say it’s my second
favorite part of the game. Basically, you move your guy around, kicking the
bag and racking up points. The entire controller is almost used and there
are a total of eleven different skills aside from the basic tricks! You can
spin your character around and kick for a “full axle,” or juggle the bag
from one foot to your head and then to the other foot for a “doda.” Really a
lot of fun. It’s difficult to get used to it at first, but once you do
you’ll really rack up some serious points. Depending on how many you get,
you can get various bonuses when all of your points are totaled. The more
skills you use and the more variety, the more points. I really had no
problems with this event, it’s a lot of fun.

The third event is Surfing. Real basic, you move your character on his board
to perform one of three moves to gain points. You constantly move to the
right, so nothing to press there, and neither Button 1 nor 2 has any
function. The closer your are to the curl of the wave, the higher the
points. However, you can only do a few things like jumps and turns, so that
kind of makes it a fairly bland event. It’s not easy and gets pretty intense
when the wave draws closer, though you can move away from it, but I would
have liked a few more maneuvers to learn. Perhaps a handstand on the board
or something ridiculous. Not sure, I don’t know much about surfing at all so
perhaps this isn’t much to do in the first place, but being a video game I’d
like a tad more variety and oddity. Not bad overall though, it’s a fun
event. The only problem I had was that jumps are kind of hard to adjust to.
Sometimes you land them and other times when you do the same motions they
don’t seem to work. I did get the hang of it eventually, but I still feel
shaky about my skills in this event.

The fourth event is Roller Skating. This event goes away from the points
system somewhat though you do gain them for a few things. It tends to be
more of an obstacle course you have to run through, gaining some points here
and there for jumps and spins. The controls take a bit of getting used to
and are the first major factor. You have to continuously press Up and Down
on the Directional Pad to make your girl move, and if you hold in Up too
long she’ll just spin, so you have to be quick. However, it tends to be very
intuitive after that and you’ll fly right along. The only problem then is
getting used to the course and her movements. Once you do, you’ll fly right
through and land a number of jumps with additional spins. A few more skills
would have been good, yet again, but due to the way this event is set up it
didn’t effect the score much for me. I had more fun trying to get to the end
of the round more than I paid attention to what moves I could do. The main
points you gain anyway come from how you avoid obstacles. Hard course as
well, I still haven’t beaten it.

The fifth event is BMX Bike Racing. This event is superb, definitely my
favorite right after the Foot Bag. In this event, you peddle your bike
along, avoiding obstacles and performing some seriously wicked moves. Of
course, the better you do the moves and the more intense, the better the
points. This particular part of California Games combines all the elements
of the scoring events with the obstacle course feel of the Roller Skating
segment. You have to continuously press Button 2 to move the pedals,
otherwise you’ll stop, and Button 1 enables you to jump. Along with this you
can perform wheelies, table tops, 360-degree turns, backwards flips and
forwards flips. This is an excellent part of the cartridge, really a lot of
fun. I’ve made it to the end of this one, and the controls are part of the
reason, they’re very intuitive and you’ll jump right into it. It takes time
to get the skills perfect to where you’re getting tons of points, but it’s a
lot of fun in the process.

The sixth and final event is my least favorite, though I have played it a
number of times. This was mainly to try to figure it out because it’s quite
difficult. This one is the Flying Disk. Essentially, all you do is have one
character all the way on the left throw the frisbee and then control the
other character all the way on the right, hopefully catching it in one of
five ways. There’s a meter at the bottom of the screen you use to adjust the
speed and angle of the frisbee before you throw it and at the top of the
screen is a smaller map showing the position of the two characters relative
to each other. Without this, you’d have no clue where the other girl was and
would probably never catch the frisbee. However, even so, it doesn’t
represent the playing field very well and there were numerous times the
frisbee looked close on the upper portion but really wasn’t in reality.
Takes a lot of practice to get one catch, let alone more than one and twice
in a row. In fact, there was only one I could really get to work, and that’s
the diving left catch because you can follow the frisbee and then jump for
it. Otherwise, it’s a bit too hard of an event, and this is kind of ironic
because there’s really not much to it. It’s definitely the least fun out of
all of them, but it’s not entirely awful. If they would have programmed the
upper map thing better, it would have been decent.

Overall California Games has wonderful gameplay with only a few minor
details and one event that’s kind of worthless. Other than this, there’s
only one problem I had with the game overall. It’s great with a group of
friends, but alone it’s kind of depressing. It’s a fun game, don’t get me
wrong, but if I had a computer opponent to compete against, at least one, it
would have been a lot more enjoyable to me. A “Play Against Computer” option
would have been great, adding difficulty and giving the player the chance to
watch how you can perform certain moves in certain spots and so forth
because during the demo, when the computer does just this, you really see
some serious gaming. I would fear playing against such a beast. Still, this
doesn’t effect the score much for me because it’s fun to beat your scores.
Plus, there are secrets to discover which can only be unlocked if you get
the high score competing in an event, win the bonus game that follows and
have put in the proper “secret” name during the character creation phase. I
think that evened it out for me in the end. I scored each event separately
by myself and then averaged them to get the score you find below.

For it’s time California Games was incredibly creative. Really broke new
ground for the sports game genre and gave it the attention it deserved. This
game is so unique it simply cannot be overlooked by anyone interested in the
Master System. If you’re only looking for a few titles, this is a highly
recommended suggestion to add to a small library. There’s plenty of variety
to be found here and plenty of fun. There weren’t many
games like this at the time, and the only other ones I can recall were
certainly not as good as this, especially in terms of applying the variety
to playability.

I definitely would play this game in the future and have in fact been
playing it nearly every day for the past week. Not just to write a thorough
review, but simply because it’s that much fun. It’s a great game and with
the addition of team playing and the hidden secrets to unlock, there’s no
doubt I’ll be putting this in the Master System now and then. As far as game
length, it’s just the right amount because you can technically play as much
as you want for as long as you want. There’s only a time limit in terms of
how much you’re given for each event, but that’s it. Other than this, you
could play for hours or minutes, it’s up to you.

In conclusion, there is no doubt in mind that California Games is one of the
greatest sports titles in history. After playing it on the SMS, there’s no
wonder in my mind as to why this title was ported to nearly every system in
existence and even led to a sequel. If only Epyx could have did a better job
with later titles. It’s a shame for them, but not for us because we have
this to play. In addition, for those of you interested in the collecting
aspect of the Master System, there is a rare re-release of California Games
with a different label. Quite hard to locate and an additional bonus for
anyone interested in playing and collecting.

Graphics: 10
Sound: 10
Gameplay: 9.5
Creativity: 10
Replay Value/Game Length: 10
Final: 9.8
Written by Stan Review Guide

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