Friday 14 October 2016

Mega Drive Review - California Games (Game 118)

Niche games in a glamorous summer setting. Though it's little more than a collection of mini games why do so many people still adore 'California Games'?

Developed by Epyx

Published by Epyx

Released in 1991

The phrase "mini game collection" strikes fear into the heart of many a gamer. It reminds us of literally hundreds of games that suddenly flooded game stores. They were designed seemingly to be lapped up by Wii and DS owners who had just bought the system but were fearful of getting any number of better games. The problem is that while the Wii and DS aren't sold in shops anymore the mini game compilation seems omnipresent. They usually consist of a dozen small simple games and for the most part these games are designed to be competitive. They typically involve performing an activity faster or collecting more of a specified item than other players to win. Should you be playing the compilation on your own the focus shifts to beating a high score or achieving a personal best.

Sometimes you get the lingering feeling that the compilation developer has lumped together a number of terrible games that would never attract an audience if judged individually. 'The Game Party' is one such game. As Euro Gamer's Ellie Gibson once wrote "according to the back of the box, 'The Game Party' is 'The Ultimate Party Experience.' No it isn't. The Ultimate Party Experience would involve fun and laughter and everyone you've ever wanted to get off with turning up... 'The Game Party' experience is like going to a party where there's nothing to drink but Tesco Value brandy, and there are only four other guests, and they're all racist."

This brutal critique could easily be applied to the vast majority of mini game compilations. Most are not worth your time or money but there are diamonds in the rough. For me, the best mini game compilations all have one thing in common; they have Wario on the box. The 'WarioWare' games show that good mini games should never take longer than a second (or indeed a single word) to explain. They should be simple, accessible and fun. It's for this very reason that the mini games included in 'California Games' have to be among the worst mini games ever made.

'California Games' was called "the original Party game" by Retro Gamer Magazine and to this day it continues to have a loyal fan base. Programmer Chuck Sommerville has no delusions of what he was making. "They were just mini games tied together with a central Menu System” he told Retro Gamer. “Individual games isolated from each other". First released in 1987 in the C64 (then ported to fourteen machines in four years) it's a follow up of sorts to Epyx's other famous sports compilations; 'Summer Games', 'Winter Games' and 'World Games'. 'California Games' found almost instant popularity with players captivated by sunshine, daft humour and a number fresh pursuits which had never been played in video game form. Most sports compilations at the time (including Epyx's previous releases) revolved around the same old track and field events; 'California Games' showcases more niche activities. As Sommerville recalls "the 'Games' series felt like a production line. The great part for us was being released from doing traditional sports - it gave us a lot of latitude." Fellow programmer Kevin "Fuzzy" Fury adds "we looked at what could be interesting. What could be fun. Some games are chosen to tie into competitions and some for girls".

Calling the included games "sports" maybe misleading, these are more like sunny day pastimes. In most versions of the game you have six mini games to choose from: There's Halfpipe where you need to skate up and down a semi-circular ramp, performing various tricks to get as many points as possible.
Footbag, which Americans seem to call "Hacky Sack" but most British players know it as "keepy upey". The sole aim is to bounce a ball using parts of your body, with different limb combinations being considered tricks. Flying Disk sounds exciting simply because it reminds me of 'Tron' but in actual fact this is really Frisby. You throw the disk to your partner, who needs to catch it. Amazingly though you play both the thrower and the catcher, as once the disk is in the air control shifts. Surfing is limited to trying to stay on a single wave. While you can launch into the air on your board to do tricks, you seem to get just as many points just staying on the water. Skating is perhaps better described as "Horizontal 'Frogger'". Through poor judgement someone has decided that they will skate along the most treacherous pavement in California. You skate from left to right avoiding rubbish, pavement cracks and piles of sand. Finally, BMX sees you playing a slightly more limited version of 'Excite Bike'. You progress along a hilly track attempting to stay upright while performing a handful of tricks. "Yup this is a simulation of the some of the daftest sports ever" Computer & Video Games Magazine once wrote. "The list of games reads like a list of overnight fads."

Each mini game was evidently conceived by a different person, explaining the lack of conformity across them. "Each event was designed primarily by the programmer responsible for it" remembers Chuck Sommerville designer of the half-pipe game. Ken Nicholson devised FootBag game and Kevin Norman, was responsible for the BMX event. Sadly, while the variety of offered games is unusual, the execution is universally weak. Every event is marred by unresponsive controls and erratic collision detection. However, the largest fault of the game is its presumption that the player has the slightest clue what to do. Ironically, programmer Sommerville believes "the key with any good game is to keep things simple. If you can't pick up a joystick and have fun it's not a good game". It's a shame he didn't apply this belief to his own games.

As soon as you select an event from a menu you're thrust straight into the action. Considering each event has different controls, a tutorial or demonstration is sorely needed but noticeably absent. You are expected to learn by failing, which means the first twenty minutes spent playing any new event is frustrating. To make matters worse, when you inevitably fail, over and over, the game simply mocks you with on screen insults talking the place of on screen instructions. 

Take the half pipe for example. It looks simple enough; a boy on a skate board must perform tricks while moving up and down a slope. I may have been having a slow day, but It took me nearly an hour to realise success depends on precise timing and specific button presses. You see, you build speed by alternating direction inputs in time with the skate boarder’s position on the screen. Then when enough momentum is built you can attempt one of three tricks; a kick turn in the lower section of the half pipe, a hand plant in the middle and an aerial turn at the top. To attempt a trick you must hold a different button. However, holding this button too long or not long enough and you fail the trick - ending the game. Try the wrong trick in the wrong place and you fail, attempt a manoeuvre when moving too fast or too slow and you fail. It's ludicrously over complicated, despite what programmer Sommerville thinks. "I thought it was pretty simple" he once told Retro Gamer Magazine. "In the half pipe event the controls are basically a rhythm control tracking the player’s motion with added button presses and directions for tricks. If you didn't sync to the animation you'd flail."

Some of the fault may come from an awkward transition to consoles. Originally 'California Games' was a title designed for single button computer joysticks, and that doesn't always translate well to a consoles joypad. Indeed Kevin Fury is keen to blame the short comings on the control schemes implemented by others. "Some of the [console conversions] are only using the concept and on consoles that don't have joysticks you lose the interface we created where it actually felt like you are playing the sports". 

Admittedly the Half Pipe is the hardest of the events to get to grips with. Footbag boils down to moving your character to a position below the ball and pressing an input button at the most opportune moment. But the simplicity of the controls is also a reflection on the simplicity of the event itself. After a few goes (certainly when playing alone) the game is beyond dull and even the novelty of hitting a seagull flying overhead with the sackball is only amusing once. 

According to Retro Gamer magazine "the Mega Drive version [of ‘California Games’] is perhaps the best version with great graphics but easier gameplay." However it seems hard to recommend the Mega Drive version too enthusiastically when one of the six events is missing. According to reviewer Julian Rignall "the Frisbee event that appeared in other versions is missing - but since it was by far the weakest event, it's not a major issue." Game critic Frank O'Connor disagreed though saying this "excellent" event was only cut due to "memory restrictions, making room for the excellent graphics". O'Connor sadly isn't being sarcastic but he perhaps should have been. While admittedly the Mega Drive version is significantly more attractive than the C64 original, that hardly makes it that attractive a game. The characters, though sometimes large or screen, are terribly animated. The backgrounds look nice in stills but apart from waves they are static; beaches full of people frozen in time. 

The music in the Mega Drive version is conversely a big step back from many other versions. Each event may have its own background music but they are tinny and as Frank O'Connnor points out in his Review "the tunes are kind of depressing and don't suit the game". The main theme song for 'California Games' is a cover of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie", later made famous by Kingsmen. This is criminally changed in the Mega Drive version, only to be replaced with some electronic noise. Similarly the Beach Boys "Wipe Out" sound-alike music that accompanies the surfing stage has been changed to something far less fitting. We will never know if it was just change for the sake of changing or if copyright had caused concerns. Either way the Mega Drive version of 'California Games' is worse as a result.

Like so many party games, any enjoyment to be had in a group is always noticeably absent in single player mode. It's a fact made all the worse when the BMX and Skating tracks never changing. This makes beating single player scores an exercise in memorisation rather than skill.  While I would love to say that Mini Game compilations have come along a long way since this, the reality is they haven't. Poorly executed extremely limited stages still bulk out the most compilations. I can imagine you would need a big nostalgic attachment to the game to want to play it again. Even if you have that fondness for 'California Games' I would suggest you just leave it a glorious memory.  There's a reason why mini game collections have a bad reputation and the reality is that 'California Games' maybe started the trend. 

Where did I get this game from?

Like most of my Mega Drive collection, I got ‘California Games’ in a bulk buy deal. Seeing it amongst the games hardly filled with me with joy and after playing it I’m even sadder it is in my collection.

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