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California Games
   

Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

   
1989 - Epyx - Released on Atari Lynx
       
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Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!

 
   

August 25, 2006

A short look at Epyx's California Games on the Lynx. This was the original pack-in game, which may have seemed puzzling at the time. Epyx Games series were well-known on the home computers, but less so on the consoles. It didn't help that the NES versions of Epyx titles were so mediocre.

So while it clearly isn't in the same league as, say, Tetris or Super Mario Bros, California Games was an excellent little game that always kept you coming back for one more turn. I suppose the only real weakness was the lack of a battery save - Epyx and Atari really dropped tha ball on that one. Then again, the Lynx was expensive enough as it was, selling for $189 against the Gameboy's $89.

Sure, I suppose I could point out that the Lynx was comparible to the new 16-bit consoles rolling out that year, the Turbografx and the Genesis. I probably did more than once. Looking back, I'm amazed that little color handheld ever sold at all.

Which brings us back to California Games, which became something of a surprise hit. It did a superb job of showing off the power of Lynx, with its vivid colors and impressively detailed graphics. Two things stick out at me, and they've always been among the Lynx's best strengths. One is the scaling effects; on this game, they were limited mostly to the skateboarding comptetition (remember, kids, this was years before Tony Hawk Pro Skater).

The other is the endlessly fluid animation, particularly the cascading water in the surfing mode. Lynx was capable of animating an unlimited number of sprites, a feat which was absolutely unheard of in 1989, and these early games really ran with it. M. Peter Engelbrite probably used this more skillfully than anyone else, with the wonderfully pulsating, burgling Slime World and the visually impressive Gates of Zendocon.

Of all the various ports of California Games, this version is clearly the best. None of the other versions (I'm thinking of the Genesis and SNES) tried to update the graphics, or style the game to take advantage of the systems' strengths. They're merely mediocre ports, barely better than something you'd see on NES.

Lynx California Games is radically retooled to best fit on the portable screen. The BMX game is reimagined as one enormous downhill obstacle course, with hills and dips and shocking drops. I managed to break 1,000 points on BMX twice, but to be perfectly honest, I don't remember how I pulled it off, and I have no clue how to do it again. It was a pretty hard feat to pull off.

Surfing is my other favorite competition, and it's probably the best show-off game in the pack. At least is was back in 1989. Essentially, your stunts are limited to snaps inside the barrrel, and fast rotations in the air. The best I've ever done was a quadruple 360, although I've read of brave souls who could complete a full five 360's. I did come dangerously close, but always wiped out.

One of Atari's worst blunders with the Lynx - and the Tramiels are guilty of a whole catalogue of screw-ups - was that they never built upon their best games. There absolutely should have been another California Games. Oh, if someone at Epyx could have added more stunts to the surfing mode, or multiple beaches. If there were more BMX courses to run, or a couple new moves added in.

At least I could play Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer if I need a surfing fix. I can't find a modern version of the BMX course, even there have been a hundred stunt games in the wake of Tony Hawk. It still would work today; something of a side-scrolling version of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. I think developers have been too obsessed with cramming so many moves into their games, that the core gameplay got squeezed out. Why did we completely abandon 2D sprite games in favor of polygons?

Of California Games' two remaining modes, I'm less enamored of them, but they can be nice. Skateboarding has the benefit of the killer scaling effects, and arguably the best music Bob Viera ever wrote for the Lynx (the audio on most Lynx games was terrible). There just aren't enough moves to do. It really just comes down to the air grabs.

The hacky-sack game is pretty simple, and looks a little bland (despite the physical detail on the screen, the colors are all washed out), but that simplicity can keep you coming back for another try. It's fun for a quick run every now and then. I think it just needed some tweaking of the scoring system, and the addition of some sort of combo system. Have I mentioned that this game really needed a great sequel?

No, no, let's not do that. Instead of actually paying Epyx the royalties rightfully due them, let's screw them over and farm game development over to rank amateurs who will work for minimum wage. That's how Lynx "classics" like Switchblade and Gordo and Viking Child get made.

California Games had one more major advantage: multiplayer. Nintendo won a lot of praise for the Gameboy's link cable, which really was a cool concept at the time. But Epyx built the Lynx with multiplayer - up to 8 or 16, depending on how reliable EGM's Lynx article from issue #3 stands. California Games allows for up to four players, even though the box says two. The tragedy for every Lynx owner is, of course, you never knew anyone else who had one, so you could never try the multiplayer games for yourself. That's too bad, because this is a game that just screams "party game!"

Heck, you can knock other surfers down, and trip up other players on hacky-sack. Tell me this wasn't a great party game before its time.

This is why I'm amazed that no one has ever tried to make a better Atari Lynx emulator than old Handy. The ideal emulator would come with a large split-screen, four lynx screens tied together. You would select number of players, choose the game, and play away. The trouble is that Lynx has always been an obscure footnote in the history of gaming. It's always deserved a better fate. Maybe you should just starting harassing anyone you know who's in the emulation scene. Get someone on the ball, people. I want to run someone over with my board.