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Thursday, 15 June 2017

California Games (Epyx/US Gold, 1987) - Part 1

Designed, developed and published for the Commodore 64 by Epyx, Inc. in 1987: Game Design by Kevin "Fuzzy" Furry, Chuck Sommerville, Jon Leupp, Ken Nicholson and Kevin Norman. Graphics by Jenny Martin, Susan Greene, Sheryl Knowles and Paul Vernon. Music by Christopher Grigg and Gil Freeman.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC, MSX and Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers by Choice Software in 1987.

Converted for the Apple ][ computers by Carl Mey, Edwin Reich, Ed Chu, Brian Fleming and Kevin Norman in 1987.

Conversion for the IBM-PC compatibles by Epyx, Inc in 1988: Programming by Gil Colgate, Dan Duncalf, Dave Farquharson, David Miller, Ken Nicholson, Lee Powell and Ken Rogoway. Graphics by Sheryl Knowles, Muffy McCosh, Gail Rathbun and Steve Snyder. Directed by Matthew Householder.

Converted for the Commodore Amiga by Westwood Associates, and published by Epyx, Inc. in 1988: Programming by Michael Legg, Barry Green and Louis J. Castle. Graphics by Maurine Y. Starkey, Louis J. Castle, Jenny Martin and Sheryl Knowles. Sounds and music by Christopher Grigg, Karl Lehenbeuer, David Hayes, Steve Hales and Chris Ebert. Project management by Brett W. Sperry, Matthew Householder and Ronald J. Fortier.

Converted for the Atari ST by Choice Software, and published by Epyx, Inc. in 1988: Programming by Colin Gordon. Graphics by Sharon Connor. Music by Ben Daglish.

Apple //GS version developed by Designer Software, and published by Epyx, Inc. in 1988: Programming by Jimmy Huey and Dan Chang. Graphics by Jenny Martin and Sheryl Knowles. Music by Bill Bogenreif. Project management by Matt Householder and Ron Fortier.

Atari 2600 version written by Peter Engelbrite and Steve A. Baker, and published by Epyx, Inc. in 1988.

Sega Master System conversion programmed by Mark Cerny, and published by SEGA of America, Inc. in 1989.

Converted for the Atari Lynx by Epyx, Inc. in 1989: Programming by Pete Wierzbicki, Stephen Jungels, James Donald and Larry Abel. Graphics by Matthew Crysdale, Susan Greene, Jenny Martin, Arthur Koch, Paul Vernon and Sheryl Knowles. Music by Robert Vieira and Alex Rudis. Additional help by Robert J. Mical and Dave Needle.

Converted for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Rare and published by Milton Bradley Co. in 1989: Graphics by Tim Stamper (uncredited). Music by David Wise (uncredited). Other involvement (shown in high scores, otherwise uncredited): Poppi, Kevin Bayliss, Paul Proctor, Tess, Sweep and Rachel Edwards.

Converted for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive in 1991 by Mihály Brudnyák, József Molnár and László Szenttornyai, with graphics and animation by Talent, sounds by András Magyari and film linking by Gyuri Szollosi. Published by SEGA of America, Inc. in 1991.

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INTRODUCTION AND GAME STATUS


Since the first seasonal Epyx two-parter, I have attempted to have one of these at least once a year. A year ago, the obligatory Epyx sports game comparison of the year was Summer Games II, and since then, I have had requests to write yet another one, more particularly of California Games. I'm not sure, whether this will be the last one I make, or not, because there's still World Games to consider as being part of the original series; it all depends on how long I have the energy to write this blog. But a comparison of California Games is what people have asked for, so it's what you shall be given this summer.

California Games was the first one from the series I had in my collection, and boy, did it get played. It became such a quick success, because it had everything to do with the youth culture of the time, and even though some events were obviously considered less interesting to play than do in real life, the effort was appreciated. With the help from amazing reviews all over the world, coupled with the already established reputation of Epyx always producing high-quality sports games, it is no wonder, that California Games became the most successful Epyx game, outselling all the other games in the series, with more than 300,000 copies sold in the first nine months of its shelf life.

At the time of writing this, the original C64 version has a score of 8.5 from a total of 299 votes, earning the spot #45 from the Lemon64 Top 100 list based on at least 50 votes. Its immediate 8-bit competitors have meagre scores in comparison: the 23 votes from the World of Spectrum users have settled it at a score of 5.43; 3 votes at Generation-MSX have given the MSX version a 3 star rating; and out of the two regular Amstrad scores, the CPC-Power one is 13.80, and the CPC Game Reviews score is 5 out of 10. At Abandonia, the DOS version has been voted a 3.2 out of 5.0 by 3033 people, and the editor rating is 4.0. Next, the main 16-bit rivals: the Atari ST version has a score of 7.2 from 19 votes at Atarimania, and at LemonAmiga, it has a score of 7.49 from 97 votes. A new finding for me, the Sega Retro Games Database (not to be confused with SegaRetro.org) features medians of scores calculated from various sources, and the three press' marks for the MegaDrive/Genesis version (from 1992) have counted to 72%, while the three members' evaluations have counted to 43%. Ouch. The Master System version fares a bit better: the two press' marks have rounded up to 84%, while the two members' evaluations have a nice, round 60%. The rest of the scores needed to be taken from MobyGames again, but at least this time, there are more than 2 votes for each version. At  MobyGames, the Apple ][ version has been rated 3.8 from 5 votes, the A2600 version has a score of 3.6 from 7 votes, the Atari Lynx version has a score of 3.8 from 13 votes, and the NES version also has a 3.8 from 14 votes. The only missing rating is for the Apple //GS version, which will come as a surprise to perhaps no-one.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


I can't imagine the team at Epyx even imagined, what sort of a phenomenon they had created with their Games franchise, when they decided to expand the idea from Summer Games to Winter Games, and further on. But by the time World Games, the fourth game in the series, was finished, there must have been some sort of a "hmm, what more can we do" moment. Happily, during the 1980's, particularly during the middle years of the decade, a new wave of teenagers had began to bring new life to street-based sports and hobbies, which had already then started their lives a decade or more ago, and which now would be burnt into our pop-consciousness forevermore in neon colours.


From a plethora of what would later develop into extreme sports, Epyx focused their fifth outing in the series into events that were particularly popular in California at the time - hence, California Games. Compared to the earlier games in the series, this game was made more compact, as the number of events was decreased from the usual 7 to 6 by default, and with the game so clearly based on a smaller locale, the contestants' countries were switched to sponsors. On the whole, this made Cal.Games (this being its official shortening) not only more compact and quicker to play than its predecessors, but also a lot less cumbersome with all the different national anthems missing. The graphical style is also a bit different from the previous installments, and similarly to World Games, there is more humour - and even easter eggs - in the events than in the earlier games. However, similarly to all the other games in the series, there is always an event or two, which will feel relatively boring, or at least not quite up to scratch with the best of the lot.


If only for the sake of its initial success and status of a firm classic, California Games should be among the first games to show anyone even remotely interested in retro gaming, and C64 in particular. As you have come to notice from previous comparisons, Epyx sports games never really translated well to the consoles that became more popular in North America after 1985. But sports games are always difficult, and are a bit hit-or-miss on any platform they're published on. So is California Games, like it or not, and as usual, we need to take a more thorough look at all the versions to get a clearer view of what's what.

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LOADING


Because Part 1 of this comparison doesn't really have much of graphics, I decided to show you at least the loading/title screens here. After all, it's the least interesting and re-visited part of the game. Although I'm showing these already here, I will make an exception and use them in scoring the Graphics section in Part 2, but more about that later on.

Loading/title screens. Top row, left to right: C64, Apple ][, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Atari 2600.
Middle row: Atari ST loader + title, Amiga, MSX, NES. Bottom row: Atari Lynx x2, Apple //GS, Sega MS, Sega MD.

Most of these screens are shown as a stop-by sequence before you get to the main menu. The AMSTRAD, SPECTRUM and MSX loading screens, as well as the additional U.S. Gold loading screen in the European ATARI ST version are just loading screens, and offer no animations of any kind. The ATARI LYNX version has two title screens: a regular-looking one, and a flippy-animated licence plate with clouds behind it, which features all the credits at the back of the plate. As usual, the A2600 title screen looks completely different, but so does the 16-bit SEGA version.

DOS graphic modes. Top row, left to right: Hercules, CGA regular, CGA composite.
Bottom row, left to right: EGA, Tandy, MCGA/VGA.
I had to separate the DOS modes from the other screens, because there were so many of them, and this shall be the only time I will be using all the available (or working) modes. Getting the DOS version to work is a bit messy, since you need to use a feature called Loadfix for some graphic modes in DOSbox - too much memory might register as too little on incompatible setups. The easiest one to get working seemed to be, rather curiously, the CGA and Tandy versions, and the VGA version was the most difficult, but as I said: try Loadfix, if the game doesn't work at first.

If something needs to be said of the actual loading, then you might be interested to know, that none of the 16-bit computer versions utilize an external disk drive, and they are a bit slow to load. Particularly the AMIGA version felt like a snail on hot tarmac. Of course, cassette-based versions are never really recommendable for these sorts of games, but if you have to use tapes, do yourselves the favour of at least avoiding the MSX version, which seemed to crash at the end of the last event.

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PLAYABILITY


Getting started with California Games is very similar to the earlier games in the series. It all starts with an opening sequence of sorts, and after you have decided to proceed from there, the game then takes you to the main menu. As usual, you get to choose from competing in all the events, some or one of the events, or practicing an event; and there's also an option to view the current world records. The rest of the menu items are more dependent on which version you're playing. In the original C64 version, the other two options are to view the high scores and view the title screen, and this exact menu line-up is what the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM, AMIGA and ATARI ST versions have. Most of the other versions go with a very similar menu, with only perhaps one or two different items compared to the original. In the APPLE ][ version, you have the additional option to set up a joystick. Similarly, the SPECTRUM, MSX and AMSTRAD versions, which shall from now on be called the 8-bit Choice conversions, let you define controls from various possibilities, and they also have a separate load/save records option in addition to just viewing the high scores. The DOS and SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS versions have unique configuration screens accessible from the main menu, and the DOS and APPLE //GS versions are the only ones to feature a "Quit Game" item in the main menu. The NES version has no extra options, and the ATARI 2600 and LYNX versions have no options at all.

Since the DOS and 16-bit SEGA versions have their unique configuration screens, they call for closer inspection. The parameters screen in the GENESIS/MD version features a sound test, in which you can browse and listen through all 66 sound effects and 7 tunes; a colour test screen, options for the Half Pipe and Foot Bag events to be played in single-player or two-player mode, two gravity settings for the Foot Bag event, and three speed variations for the Surfing event. Already, we can see that the 16-bit SEGA version is a fairly different monster, and this is only just the beginning of a list of differences. The configuration menu in the DOS version has three actual config items: sound toggle, reset high scores and change graphics mode, the last of which is given to you each time you boot the game, so in the unlikely case you want to downgrade to CGA mode from your EGA or TANDY or MCGA/VGA mode, this might be handy.

There are a few exceptions to the rules of either playing the game on joysticks or defining your preferred keyboard control setup. The obvious ones are the few odd versions that use a control pad, but then you get the APPLE ][ and DOS versions, which offer you no other option than to play with either a joystick or the pre-defined keyboard controls, which you might not have any idea about. A joystick is highly recommended for both said versions, and particularly for the APPLE version, in which the keys are: U, I and O for up and diagonals; J and K for left and right; N, M and comma (,) for down and diagonals, and the open Apple key (left Alt in emulation) is the designated fire button. At least the DOS version works with the cursor keys and space bar, so it's not nearly as bad, but a joystick is still recommended. As for the uses of all the buttons in control pads, you shall have to look them up for each event separately a bit further down.

Now, let's rewind and move on. Starting the game happens essentially in the same manner as in the previous Epyx Games series' titles. If you want to practice, you only need to choose the preferred event, and the event will be loaded from your chosen or available game media. If you want to compete, the game will take you to an entry screen, in which you will need to type in your name and choose your sponsor our of nine possible ones - instead of a country. This will make the proceedings of the entire game quicker, since you don't have to wait through each national anthem at each turn, but rather just a very brief fanfare.

Of course, there are some inevitable differences even here. The SEGA MEGA DRIVE version will first ask you, how many players will participate, and it offers no sponsors. Contrarily, the ATARI 2600 version will not make you type in your name, but instead, you will only choose a sponsor. Some versions have different sponsors, which seems to depend on the region of release, but this has no real effect on gameplay. Different versions also have different amount of letters you can use for your name, but 9 letters seems to be the default.

Now we can finally get to the events, which will be dealt with mostly in the order in which they appear in the original C64 game. The exceptions are the MEGADRIVE variants, which shall be mentioned in the context of each related event. I have also come to the conclusion, that the 8-bit Choice conversions play basically the same, but they run at different speeds, so they shall be given scores accordingly - the SPECTRUM version being the most constantly smooth and quick, and the MSX version being the opposite. And yet also, I haven't been able to properly play the APPLE //GS version due to faulty emulation and a lack of a real GS, so I'm just going to have to guess how it plays and place them with the other similar 16-bits. None of the disk versions utilize extra disk drives, so they're all on the same footing. Take it or leave it.


HALF PIPE SKATEBOARDING

Taking into account, that California Games was one of the first games to feature something that would become later known as extreme sports, you have to admit, it was a brave move from Epyx to try and capture the essence of these "rad" and "awesome" sports. By today's standards, most of the events in California Games have become rather dated, but that doesn't necessarily take away from the fun factor. Let's take the first event - Half Pipe - as an example. You only have three possible moves to perform, instead of 50 (or more) different tricks you need to master in the Tony Hawk series onwards. At least you have tricks here, which is more than what you could actually do in Atari's 720 Degrees from 1986.

As if you didn't already know, the object of the event is to ride the board back and forth the half-pipe, performing stunts with proper timing and execution and gain as much score as you possibly can within a minute and 15 seconds. To gain speed, move the controller up and down, when the skater is going up or down the side of the ramp, respectively. To perform a stunt, you need to either tap your controller right to start an Aerial Turn or a Kick Turn, depending on your location; or press the fire button to perform a Hand Plant on either edge of the ramp. Kick Turns will give you 300 points at maximum, Hand Plants 700 max, and Aerial Turns 999 max. The more speed you gather, the more dangerous the tricks become to perform, and so the more points you will get for each trick. Three faults and the event is over. Some versions, the original included, had an easter egg, which would cause an earthquake, resulting in the second 'L' in the Hollywood sign fall down, if you scored high enough. Although it does add a certain depth to the game, making you want to become better at it to see the easter egg, we're not going to focus on it, because it doesn't really add to the playability as such.

If you have been reading my previous Epyx Games comparisons, you will know that the APPLE ][ and DOS versions are the closest to the original, and at least the first event continues this tradition. The only differences are, that the APPLE ][ version plays a bit slower than the original, and the DOS version can be either slower or faster than the original, depending on what sort of a PC setup you have. The 8-bit Choice conversions aren't too far off from the norm, but they all play more or less slower than the original, as pointed out earlier. The only problem is, that you don't get to start the event in your own time with the fire button - the skater takes off immediately after the event has loaded.

Both the AMIGA and ST versions feel a bit off in the controls, and the game doesn't tell you if you've failed the stunt because you were too early or too late - just that you weren't doing it in time. That's a bit unhelpful and counter-productive, and makes practicing more of a chore than a quick and necessary session. That puts them on the same line with the ATARI 2600 version, which is just as playable yet unhelpful, but at least it has the excuse of not having the graphical capabilities to tell you so.

The NES and SEGA MASTER SYSTEM versions have a different sort of a problem: the aerial peaking moment is comparatively too quick to react to, but unlike the versions in the previous paragraph, both versions will at least tell you what went wrong, so you will have a better chance at correcting your mistakes. The 16-bit SEGA version is the best one from the console versions, and plays otherwise just as nicely as the original, but the skater's take-off speed is quicker and the empty moments between each fall are uncomfortably long, particularly considering you're playing from a cartridge. The GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version can also be played with two players simultaneously, by first going to the "Set Game Parameters" menu and setting the event to be played with two players. It differs from the single player mode by having two skaters in the ramp simultaneously, and both skaters' tricks count into the total score, so it's basically a team effort.

For some reason, the team behind the ATARI LYNX version decided to remake only the same events as featured in the ATARI 2600 version, but I'm guessing they got a bit carried away with the complete graphical overhaul, so they didn't have room for more than four events. In the case of the Half-Pipe event, the ramp is shown from two different places: a screen-filler point, and a zoomed-in spot, from where you can see the skater more closer up, but then the camera is constantly following the skater, which can become rather tiresome. The reason why the static screen works so much better is, because you can get into a "zone" with it, and just keep following a rhythm once you get down to it - which is something you can't do with the constantly following camera. Similarly to the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version, your skater can move back and forth the ramp's width, but in this case, it has more of a purpose. The tricks are also timed a bit differently from the original, but at this point, that's probably a given already.

Due to the variety addition in the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version, and because it plays so well in the first place, I'm going to give it the top spot for this event. The C64 original and its closest conversions are the best at being what they are in their original forms, but more content is more content, even if it's a bit unnecessary. The NES and SMS versions feel a bit awkward, but unlike the A2600, AMIGA and ST versions, they are at least helpful. The LYNX version is good enough initially, but it's not comfortable enough for repeated play. I guess the 8-bit Choice conversions settle between the LYNX version and the A2600, AMIGA and ST versions, then.

1. SEGA GENESIS/MEGADRIVE
2. COMMODORE 64 / IBM-PC COMPATIBLES / APPLE ][
3. NINTENDO / SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
4. ATARI LYNX
5. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / MSX
6. ATARI 2600 / COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST


FOOT BAG

One of the most laid-back events in the history of Epyx Games series, Foot Bag takes us to a beach near the Golden Gate, with your chosen instrument of trickstery being the titular item, also known as a hackey sack. The idea is to perform as many different kinds of tricks within the given time limit, which usually is the same 1 minute and 15 seconds as in the previous event, and you can use your feet and your head to perform all kinds of different tricks. Most of them have to do with turning around multiple times while the sack is in the air, or kicking the sack repeatedly on alternating feet. Experiment or consult your manuals if you need further information on the tricks.

Although it wouldn't necessarily seem like it, this event has probably the most variety in playability between all the versions. This is because the smoothness of gameplay is so much related to how the dude kicking and head-butting the foot bag is controlled, as well as the angles and distances, which the footbag itself is programmed to fly. Added to that, you would normally see a seagull named George flying across the screen every 15 seconds or so, who can be hit by your foot bag to earn extra points; the SPECTRUM, MSX, AMSTRAD and ATARI 2600 versions don't feature George at all, and in the LYNX version, George is featured only as a decoration. Another characteristic thing about this event is the restricted area on a single screen: if the foot bag flies off the screen, someone will throw it back to you in a couple of seconds, and you can gain extra points for a good catch. The ATARI 2600 and LYNX version have endlessly scrolling areas instead, so this feature is left out. These omissions already put the said versions on a different level from the versions that do have these features.

Speaking of the ATARI 2600 and LYNX versions, there are more odd differences in these two. The A2600 version doesn't have the "Jester" trick at all, but to make up for it, you can actually catch the foot bag with the back of your leg and kick it off again without losing the momentum. Similarly to the LYNX version, though, there is no separate scoring screen after the event is over, and you don't get variety bonus in either version. It's starting to feel as if the LYNX version was just made as an upgrade of the A2600 version. Of course, because the LYNX is a handheld console, it has more action buttons than the A2600, but you only have use for one button for kicking. Strangely enough, the NES version is handled in the same way, at least in this sense.

The two SEGA versions have the multiple action button thing handled more efficiently. In the MASTER SYSTEM version, one of the buttons is assigned for kicks and the other for jumping. In the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version, two of the three regular action buttons are assigned for kicks and head-butts, and the third one makes you jump. As you can probably imagine, having two or even three different action buttons can become frustratingly difficult to remember in the heat of the moment for a bloke who has been playing this game on a single button for the last 30 years. The G/MD version also has some interesting changes in balance: the "Dizzy Dean" and "Head Banger" tricks must be performed specifically with head-butts (jumps only make you do half-axles and full axles), but then you can move towards a fallen foot bag on the ground by tapping a kick button repeatedly, so you can also kick it when you reach it. The MASTER SYSTEM version isn't nearly as progressed, and it actually feels a bit clumsy and slow compared to the original, but it's not too bad - with a little practice, it's handleable. The NES version is similarly clumsy and slow, as there's a slight delay in most of your actions, and the controls are occasionally even unresponsive, but I guess you can get used to anything.

At this point, I should probably mention the G/MD version's team foot bag variant, which can also be accessed through the "Set Game Parameters" sub-menu, similarly to the double half-pipe event. Having two foot baggers at once on the screen adds its own bit of fun, since you can pass the foot bag to the other player, and this has even been listed as a new trick. The parameters menu also features another option for the Foot bag event, which can change the gravity between Earth and Moon. Not very necessary, but a fun option, nonetheless.

Also at this point, I should probably get to the finer details in the event, meaning the foot bagger's movements and the foot bag's flight paths. In the original, both the foot bag's area of flight and the foot bagger's steppings are rather conservative and low-range, probably just to keep the times when the foot bag goes out of the screen as low as possible. The widest angles you can get the foot bag to fly in come from the side-kicks meant for performing the Doda and Arch tricks, and the Jester kick, but even there, the foot bag doesn't really fly too far from yourself. A quick strategic hint, if you're good enough in the event already: you shouldn't do the Jester kick unless you are close enough to get the foot bag out of the screen, so you can try to catch it and get more variety bonus.

As in the previous event, the DOS and APPLE ][ versions feel the closest to the original, although the APPLE version already has some slight changes to gravity and speed. Not too bad, but it's different. Also, the DOS version seems to have a bug - you can't bounce the foot bag with your head when you're jumping. Next on the line, the AMIGA and ST versions don't feel too bad on the whole; the AMIGA version plays very quickly and the foot bag flies around in sharper angles than in the original, while the ST version has a speed closer to the original, and the foot bag has more helpful flight paths, but it's troubled with some occasionally unresponsive controls. In the NES version, the guy walks in smaller steps, but at a quicker pace, which is helpful in contrast to the otherwise delayed and clumsy controllability; also, the foot bag has another completely different feel to it - as if it was lighter, so it flies higher and further.

Finally, the three 8-bit Choice conversions (SPE/CPC/MSX, if you need a reminder) are more or less slower to play than the original, and the slowness makes the controls feel often unresponsive. The foot bagger's movement is a bit unbalanced to the foot bag's flight paths, making some of the tricks unnecessarily difficult to perform, so again, these conversions will be low on the list.

This detailing seems to be getting a bit out of hand, so I'll end this quickly. At the heart of the Foot bag event, you have to have your guy's movement and the foot bag's attention to gravity in good balance, otherwise it's practically unplayable. In order to be able to play the event properly, you need to have a chance to perform all the tricks with no problems. Added to that, the presence of George the seagull and the person outside the screen who throws your foot bag back at you make the event more immersive and fun, so if anything is missing, you get points reduced. Of course, the SEGA G/MD version gets bonus points for having an enhanced bonus duel version of the event.

1. SEGA GENESIS/MEGADRIVE
2. COMMODORE 64
3. APPLE ][
4. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
6. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM / NINTENDO
7. ATARI LYNX / ATARI 2600
8. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / MSX


SURFING

For me, Surfing has always been the most mysterious event in the game. No matter what I attempt to do, I always end up with a score between 3.5 and 5.0 or something similarly mediocre. The idea is supposedly to ride the waves near the curl, move back and forth (control left and right), in and out of the tube, and also perform as rad stunts as possible over the waves. Performing the stunts is really the easy part: first, you just need to gain some good speed, then guide your surfer dude off from the wave in a chosen angle, then lead him back into the wave in a mirrored angle. For more points, make the mid-air turn into the opposite direction, which will be more dangerous. Keeping the fire button down while turning - in both mid-air and in the wave - will make your surfer dude turn quicker. However, if you do make a sharp turn in the wave, it will slow you down. You can also ride inside the wave, although this will slow you down, and chances are that you will be swallowed by the wave, so naturally, this will gain you some good extra points. You'll get 1 minute and 30 seconds to do your best, and four wipe-outs will end the game immediately. This event also has some easter eggs in form of different sea-animals making their random appearances.

When comparing the different versions, the first thing you will most likely take note of is the speed of the event. Happily, most versions play at a similar enough pace - only the 8-bit Choice conversions are notably slower than the original (particularly the AMSTRAD and MSX versions), and the A2600 version feels somewhat quicker. However, the first thing you will notice being different in the LYNX version is the event's opposite direction.

The next obvious differences are revealed in the surfer's handling. In the NES version, you get less turning angles than in any of the other version, and the jumps are slower. The A2600 surfer controls too quickly, and the surfer is controlled with up and down instead of left and right. Similarly to the A2600 version, although not quite in the same scale, the APPLE ][ surfer also has a smaller and quicker turning cycle than in the original, which makes aerial turns more difficult to handle. On the APPLE, though, the problem is made worse by having it difficult to get enough air for your jumps, but otherwise it's not too horrible. The 8-bit Choice conversions have the jumps always going to the same height, regardless of your speed, which already makes them unbalanced and incomparable to the other versions.

Now we move on to a more difficult area. The 8-bit Choice conversions, as well as the ATARI LYNX, AMIGA and ST versions, have the wave curl starting further behind you than the original does, which makes it much easier for you to not only gather some good speed in the beginning, but also perform some easy tricks with less stress. In the AMIGA and ST versions, at least, once the wave curl catches onto you, it's next to impossible to outrun it again. The AMIGA version also has the gameplay made particularly difficult in a unique manner: the angles drawn for your surfing board don't look exactly their opposites, which makes it stupidly difficult to perform any aerial tricks, until you figure out, which angle is the opposite of which.

The DOS and SEGA MASTER SYSTEM versions don't have much differences to the original, or at least I think they don't. At least the SMS version feels close enough, but I'm not completely sure about the DOS version, because the wave curl always catches you too quickly, which makes the event practically unplayable, but I have a feeling, it might have something to do with DOSbox emulation. I can't really say for sure, but since DOSbox is really the most probable and user-friendly way to play the DOS version these days, I'm going to have to score it accordingly.

Again, the SEGA G/MD version has more to it than the others, but this time, the differences do not necessarily make it any better. There are only really important differences here, that might be counted as bad redesign decisions: again, the wave catches you more effortlessly than in the original, and because of this, you really have no possibility to do backwards 180-degree mid-air turns, at least without a 99% chance of getting sweeped by a wave curl. Neither do you have a button to push to make turning quicker for you. This version seems allow for more fails than the other versions, and you get the scoring for your tricks shown live, during your performance, which is helpful. Also, you get an extra mission to deflect balls flying from the beach, which adds more points when successful. In addition to all that, you get three optional speed settings for the event in the parameters menu: normal, light and turbo. But to be honest, all this additional content doesn't help when the basic playability hasn't been honed to what it should be, and I can only place this into the mid-section of the list at best.

1. COMMODORE 64 / SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
2. ATARI LYNX / ATARI ST
3. SEGA GENESIS/MEGADRIVE
4. NINTENDO
5. APPLE ][ / COMMODORE AMIGA
6. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / MSX
7. ATARI 2600
8. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES


ROLLER SKATING

California Games has two events, which are not limited by time, but rather the length of the course. Roller Skating is one of them. The object is to avoid the obstacles and cover the course in the best possible time, with as many stunts as you can perform during the event. You will gain speed by pushing the joystick alternatingly up-right and down-right, and you can perform spins by moving the joystick in the opposite diagonals. You can squat by pressing and holding down the fire button, and your skater will jump only after releasing the fire button. Just plain avoiding obstacles by skating past them will give you the least amount of points, while jumping over them will give you a bit more, and spinning jumps will give you the most points, since they're the most dangerous ones to perform. If you fall during skating or regular jumping, you will be given another chance, but if you fall after or during a spinning jump, it's an immediate game over.

For once, we have an event that is surprisingly similar across most versions. Only the SEGA G/MD and AMIGA versions use up and down for gaining speed, while the twisty jumps are performed by tapping left or right while pushing the jump button, and the NES version is the only one that uses the action buttons for increasing speed (A) and jumping (B) - the D-pad is only used for doing the spins, and even then, you can only use the left direction. The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version is a bit faster than the original, and the APPLE ][ version feels a bit slower - or perhaps it's just the skater who feels more sluggish. Hard to tell.

The really big differences are mostly just problems. The ATARI ST version has some strange lag in its controls, and the skater never seems to catch enough speed to jump over missing blocks. In the AMIGA version, the speed is similar to the ST version, but the skater jumps further. The 8-bit Choice conversions are only slightly slower than the original, which makes them all almost enjoyable, but the MSX version has some collision detection bugs, which makes it nearly impossible to finish.

Last, and certainly the most peculiar, the DOS version really bugs me. The skater doesn't flow nearly as much as she does in the original, and her controllability feels a bit off - I can't really describe it properly, but it's as if the skater has a ranged "digital" sort of inertia, and you can only move her a certain length at a time. Also, she only seems to jump when she feels like she can accept your request (is this a feminist skater then?). As if that weren't enough, they decided to add another oddity into this particular version of the event by having some sort of a mission regarding ice cream, which baffles me to no end. To quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, "what were they thinking?"

1. C64 / SMS / SPE / CPC / AMIGA / SMD / NES
2. ATARI ST / DOS / APPLE ][
3. MSX


BMX BIKE RACING

The other coursed event in Cal.Games is one of my all-time favourite Epyx Games events: BMX. Similarly to the Roller Skating event, your mission is to get to the end of the course as quickly as possible while making as many stunts as you can muster while at it. The trouble is, the BMX course is full of not only obstacles, but also altitude changes, jump ramps and spots to trick you into attempting stunts, when there's no possible way to make it through them alive. Practice runs of this event are highly recommended, just for the sake of memorizing all the spots you can actually utilise properly for doing stunts. Once again, a couple of falls are permitted, but a proper wipe-out while performing a somersault will get you for good.

Speaking of which, there are two somersaults - forwards and backwards. These are ignited by pressing the fire button first to jump, and then pushing the joystick right or left, respectively. Pushing the joystick up or down in mid-air will make your biker attempt a Table Top stunt or a 360-turn. You can also do a wheelie by pulling the joystick left. Now, since you also have to keep your speed up by pushing the joystick right all the time, you can do a fast wheelie by doing a traditional, fast left-right waggling motion. There is a reported time limit of 2 minutes, but I have never managed to go as slowly and carefully and still not reach the end of the course. Still, the faster you go, the better score you will get.

BMX being one of my favourite events in the series has little to do with the event's playability, though. At least on the C64, the biker has a tendency to bump into things that aren't there, and contrarily ride through things that you should bump into, and also collide into elements that are misaligned with you on the same vertical level. Moving vertically on the course is often unnecessarily hazardous, because the BMX bike doesn't respond to the terrain very realistically. Only the sheer radness, coupled with its graphics and rocking music of the event is what saves it.

However, the C64 original isn't even nearly the most uncomfortable one of the lot. The 8-bit Choice conversions have the collision detection way off sometimes, and the bike seems to have a life of its own sometimes - for example, you veer of automatically into the center of the fork, and surviving the fork is more probable using the above route (opposite from the original); also, just to get from the starting platform takes 6 seconds; and yet also, after a fall, you start from the beginning, instead of where you fell. All in all, it's an impossible combination. The ATARI ST version, being the only 16-bit Choice conversion, plays closer to the C64 original, but the graphics offer no in-track clues for altitude changes, and the track feels overall somehow flatter.

For the majority of the Epyx Games series, the APPLE ][ and DOS conversions have been pretty close to the C64 original. This time, it seems as if the further we progress through the events, the further the two versions veer off from the C64 game. In this case, the APPLE version has a very choppy scrolling and some of the obstacles are misaligned. Also, the faster you go, the further you can jump, which wouldn't otherwise be such big news, but in the APPLE version, you get an almost moon-like gravity.

The DOS version feels almost completely different to the original. For one, you don't need to tap the joystick right to gain more speed - you just keep it pushed in the said direction. Also, the bike will reach higher speeds than the original, thus enabling easier stunts. This overdose of fun comes with a price, though: for some reason, the conversion team has given you a new focus for timing your somersaults properly. You can stop a somersault in the middle of it, and come crashing down head first, so you need to keep the joystick in position as long as necessary to complete the stunt. Regardless of this minor inconvenience, I have actually come to like this version quite a bit.

Happily, though, the AMIGA version plays even better. It controls similarly to the DOS version, but even the somersaults are performed fully on command, and you don't need to keep the joystick in position until the stunt is finished. What's best about the AMIGA and DOS versions, though, is that the pseudo-3D effect works a bit better than in the original. But only a bit.

Moving on to the consoles, let's start with the NES version. Again, the controls are made to utilise both the NES pad's action buttons: 'A' increases speed, 'B' jumps, and the D-pad does stunts. All in all, it's not too bad, but there are some odd collision problems, and the jumping feels oddly lunar. The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version performs a bit better, although the controls are similar enough. You can't wheelie and jump simultaneously, but at least the collision detection and pseudo-3D modeling is the best of the 8-bits, and the track is only slightly altered from the original. The 16-bit SEGA version has a more altered track, having less terrain shape variations, but the controls are similar enough to its 8-bit counterpart. Because of the more boring terrain, though, I like the SMS version better than the 16-bit version.

The ATARI 2600 and LYNX versions have the BMX event completely different. Both versions are some sort of downhill biking variations, but while the A2600 event has more of a fun, straight-forward ski jumping feel to it, the LYNX version has a rougher terrain and little sense of speed. Both versions also have plenty of obstacles to knock you out, but in the LYNX version, the amount and placing of them gets a bit ridiculous. At least in the A2600 version, you only need to worry about a few obstacles each screen, but then, you need to collect checkpoint flags to gain extra time to be able to make it through the course. Since most of the fun in the event is based on the extremely dangerous tricks, you do have a trick or two up your sleeve - literally. The LYNX version only has one trick to perform, and this is the backwards somersault. In the A2600 version, you can do both somersaults, as well as a tabletop trick. Because these two versions are so different from the original, I cannot really give them more than the last spots on the list, but because the A2600 version is more fun to play, it wins over the handheld.

1. COMMODORE AMIGA
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
4. COMMODORE 64 / NINTENDO
5. APPLE ][ / SEGA GENESIS/MEGADRIVE / ATARI ST
6. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / MSX
7. ATARI 2600
8. ATARI LYNX


FLYING DISK

For a long time, the last event in California Games evaded my attention. As a kid, I just wasn't very keen on throwing a virtual frisbee - which is what we all called them and still do, even though it has since become clear that the name Frisbee is a registered trademark of the Wham-O toy company. Later on in life, I realized what the event lacked. Throwing a flying disc in real life is both an artform and as technical a sport as, say, throwing darts or bowling, so such an activity would require proper simulation to be anywhere near as fun as the real deal. Now, with frisbee golf having become such a hugely trendy sport, perhaps some team of game developers would catch onto the idea.

Anyway, the way the Flying Disk event is played here, is rather simple, and offers the least variation between all the versions. First, get some leverage by pulling the joystick left until it reaches the left green area on the scale, then pull the joystick right until it reaches the right green area, where the throwing angle is set, and then finally release the disc by either pushing the designated throw button or pulling the joystick back left, depending on the version you're playing. The versions based on the original will have both ways in use. All of the Choice conversions and the NES version use only the latter style. After the disk has been set off, you take control of the girl at the right end of the area, a "map" of which you can see above the action screen. Now, your job is just to catch the disc, either by catching it regularly while running, or catching it by throwing yourself to the ground. Of course, the latter choice is the more difficult one to accomplish, and it gives you more points. You get three attempts, regardless of your success, and the points pile up along with your potential successes.

Because of the apparent simplicity of this event, there are not too many differences beside the initial controls. The APPLE ][ and DOS versions are for a change similar to the original, although there's a small detail difference in the DOS version - the disc's highest flying speed is only slightly faster than the catcher's running speed. In the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM, ATARI ST and AMIGA versions, the disc flies faster than in the original, and the area is a bit smaller, too, but both of these changes make the event feel slightly more realistic. Also, despite the smaller area, it seems like the disc will never fly as far as the area's far end.

While the 8-bit Choice conversions and the NES conversion play fundamentally well enough, they do have some awkward changes made. In the NES version, the catcher jumps very differently from the other versions, which requires some time to get used to. However, it's not as awkward as the SPE/CPC/MSX version, which has the disc fly a bit randomly, and performing a dive-catch is more a matter of luck than skill.

1. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM / ATARI ST / COMMODORE AMIGA
2. COMMODORE 64 / APPLE ][ / IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. NINTENDO
4. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / MSX

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OTHER DETAILS AND CONCLUSION, PART 1


It's been such a long time since I last focused on any of the Epyx sports games, that I had to take a brief look at my previous entries on the two Summer Gameses and Winter Games. Perhaps this is going to sound a bit weird, but I was surprised to realize, how different the line-up of conversions for California Games is compared to the previous three comparisons. The most surprising version so far has been the NES conversion, which had all the events included this time. The least surprising part of this comparison so far has been the 8-bit Choice conversions threesome. About positives and negatives I cannot really speak yet, because we've only gone through one section - I shall leave it until the end of Part 2.

Some of you might have wondered, why did I give all the 8-bit Choice conversions the same spots in the above lists. As you might remember, I explained before the events, that all three versions play at a different speed - a consideration I shall put into use now, when compiling the Overall scores for this section. Also, I have been pondering on whether or not to give any bonus points for the ST version over the AMIGA version for faster loading, even though the AMIGA version has the advantage of having all the necessary data on one disk, because both ST and AMIGA versions were distributed on two floppy disks. The thing is, though, that the AMIGA version plays so much better on the whole, that it makes no difference, which version loads faster. And one more thing: the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM features a bonus "ceremony" screen, which is accessed by finishing two or more events consecutively. The bonus screen is a gamble, and will give you one of three prizes on getting all three randomly changing icons have the same picture, which are either a new BMX bike, a new skateboard or better reflexes for the Footbag event, which is kind of nice, but too much of a game of chance (hence the single bonus point you see in the below list). So, without further ado, onto the scores for the Playability section...

1. COMMODORE 64: 5 + 7 + 8 + 3 + 5 + 3 = TOTAL 31
2. SEGA 8-BIT: 4 + 3 + 8 + 3 + 6 + 4 + 1 = TOTAL 29
3. SEGA 16-BIT: 6 + 8 + 6 + 4 + 3 = TOTAL 27
4. COMMODORE AMIGA: 1 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 8 + 4 = TOTAL 25
5. APPLE ][: 5 + 6 + 4 + 2 + 4 + 3 = TOTAL 24
6. ATARI ST: 1 + 5 + 7 + 2 + 4 + 4 = TOTAL 23
7. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: 5 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 7 + 3 = TOTAL 22
7. NINTENDO: 4 + 3 + 5 + 3 + 5 + 2 = TOTAL 22
8. ATARI LYNX: 3 + 2 + 7 + 1 = TOTAL 13
8. ZX SPECTRUM: 2 + 1 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = TOTAL 13
9. AMSTRAD CPC: above -1 = TOTAL 12
10. MSX: above -1 = TOTAL 11
11. ATARI 2600: 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 = TOTAL 7

It's still not an exact science, I admit, but it tells you quite an interesting conclusion, that when the programmers are skilled enough, they can make their product work at least as well, if not better, on an 8-bit platform, as another team can make it work on a 16-bit platform. And certainly, I would rather play the LYNX version - and in fact, even the A2600 version - over any of the 8-bit Choice conversions, even though each of them only have four of the game's six events. The 16-bit SEGA version could have been much better, but it lacks one event and has too much focus on the first three events. At this point, it's useless to ponder further on, so wait for Part 2 to see how things really turn out!

Note: Pictures depicting each event are cut from the original instructions manual.

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