Wetsuits, sunshine, bikini babes and a competitive streak: Epyx California Games
Baywatch for nerds?
Antique Code Show California Games from Epyx cooked up a successful franchise with its winning combination of sunshine, grazed shins, wetsuits and bikini babes. Indeed, its well-considered play mechanics, delivered with multiplayer action and some slightly twisted humour, soon cemented its cult classic status in history.
California Games arrived in the midst of the 1980s video game boom – that time of creative innovation, when hardware improvements allowed games to branch out into unknown territory. Designers explored themes that would appeal to their youthful audience, and aside from the more obvious kung-fu ninja/racing car/machine gunning clichés, sports simulations emerged as an interesting way to tap into game players’ naturally competitive streaks.
Konami released the infamous button-basher Track and Field in 1983, swiftly followed by Hyper-Sports, with arcade cabinets punished to destruction by over-zealous teenagers trying to score a higher leaderboard spot with each 10-pence credit. Later, Atari would choose a less mainstream sporting angle, tapping into two burgeoning youth sports of the day with BMX-riding Paperboy and 720° skateboarding.
Atari splash screen
In the meantime, Epyx Computer Software – an archetypal '80s development team from San Francisco – scored minor successes with its Summer Games and Winter Games titles, focusing on more traditional Olympic-based disciplines. Yet, with Atari’s innovative direction clearly a success, Epyx came up trumps with its own intriguing mix of offbeat sports inspired by its home territory. Versions for the Commodore 64 and Apple II were first to be dispatched, and Epyx didn’t look back as it scrambled to produce California Games for every platform it could manage.
Like, totally dude
It also managed to strike a chord with the youth of the day with its six sun-drenched “cool dude” events: skateboarding, surfing, BMX, flying disk, roller-skating, and um, foot bag (otherwise known as hacky-sack). Some versions neglected to include one or two sports, but memory and programming time was limited back in those days, so you just had to get over it.
Taking the heat
Epyx worked hard to create game controls that required precise timing and a unique approach for each discipline. Events had their own nuances and an inherent complexity (in 1987 terms, at least) that left players desperate to come back for another try.
Take skateboarding, for example. Your on-screen compatriot would most probably “drop into” the half-pipe only to fall off on the other side and get a board in the knee-caps – again, and again, and again. Thus you played initially in a state of frustrated bewilderment, attempting to figure out how the buggery to control the darn thing. Yes, there probably was an instruction manual somewhere that explained the controls, but that would neglect the spirit of the game, surely?
Preparing for the drop
In time, experimentation and tenacity would eventually keep your boarder moving up and down the ramp, with tricks and turns perfectly timed along the way. It was practice makes perfect stuff, yet somehow the relationship between joystick (or joypad or keyboard) slotted into place perfectly.
Freedom of the great outdoors
California Games didn’t restrict players to a running order of sports, and allowed you to practise disciplines as required, or set up a competition containing events of your choice. In time you found that your mates all had different preferences and skills, making for great variety in the heated competition.
Paddling into a “bomb wave”
Surfing was one of the hardest to score consistently well on, with some delicate manœuvres needed to get “in the tube” or perform an “aerial”. Roller-skating required deft timing in order to get past tricky obstacles and perform tricks for extra points – not an easy balance to find, with the over-ambitious often deposited onto their derrières.
The BMX course took the form of a traditional race, yet to do well you needed to perform all sorts of flips and spins to bag the top points. For many, the flying disk event – or frisbee, as normal humans called it – was a bit of fun tagged along the end, though there were some high scores to be found by those in the know.
Flying high on the BMX circuit
Foot bag deserves its own special mention… being a work of such utter gaming genius. While the event saw your skinny hacky-sacker moving in a more pedestrian fashion compared to his frenzied motions in the other disciplines, only the foolish presumed it to be simple. The sequence, set in front of the Golden Gate bridge, included a full range of moves from “Five-in-a-row” and “Double Jester” to “Axle-Foley” – all of which needed to be pulled off under strict time constraints. If you managed to bop George the Seagull in the face a couple of times as he flew past, then all the better.
That sometimes peculiar, tongue-in-cheek humour running throughout California Games ensured plenty of memorable laughs. Bikini-clad women slipped on banana skins along the beachfront, or crashed to the ground while trying to catch frisbees.
Another day, another beach-ball takedown
There would be over-the-top comments along the way too, like the morbid death statement following a BMX exit: "Crashed on head. End of event". Comic oddities would present themselves too, such as the earthquake shudder – knocking letters from the skateboarder’s Hollywood backdrop – or a swift shark attack which was especially unfortunate if you'd just wiped out in the surf event.
Most home computer platforms and consoles of the era have a fondly remembered version of the game, although the Speccy one was a bit of a duffer. My particular exposure point was the 8-bit Sega Master System cartridge – surely one of the standout titles on that console. Indeed, the latterly released Megadrive version was famed for not playing quite as well, despite looking a bit prettier. Find and compare your own favourite release in this YouTube video.
While the multiplayer aspect wasn’t simultaneous on most systems, it didn’t really matter. The party-like fun you could have, laughing at – or congratulating – your friend’s best efforts, gave California Games its long-term playable appeal. There could be a real sense of tension and elation as the competition for points escalated towards the final event. Indeed, this was the type of game that could genuinely be classed as wholesome family entertainment, and could quite happily be picked up on impulse to kill a rainy Sunday hour or two.
Remember Atari’s moderately successful handheld console, the Lynx? It deserves a key mention, not least for the fact that Epyx originally developed the machine itself, blessing it with a particularly rubbish name: "The Handy".
The original Atari Lynx, quite a handful
Due to the prohibitive costs of releasing such a high-demand piece of hardware – as Epyx was on its way to bankruptcy – the development was sold on to Atari, which released the rebadged handheld in 1989. Check out the video below of what might be the original Epyx prototype, if you believe the oversized nipple-buttons to be true.
California Games became one of the Lynx’s most notable releases, with Atari’s machine capable of link-up via cable for that aficionado’s dream: simultaneous play. Now waves could be surfed together, BMXs raced against each other, hacky-sacks disrupted in mid-flight. Certainly great fun, though ultimately it didn’t take away the enjoyment of the turn-by-turn play either.
Unlike many classics, California Games has maintained its quiet legend relatively well without many sequels or reboots cropping up to spoil matters. 1993 did deliver a sequel, and the long wait was probably a good thing since the title itself was pretty dire. By containing far too much variation within each event, it tried to tell some kind of convoluted story that no one cared about anyway – how its designers could have misunderstood the original so badly is unfathomable.
Jumping forward to 2005, MFORMA published a Java-based mobile remake of the original, bringing graphics up to date somewhat but retaining the classic gameplay. High-fives all round there then, and you’ll find some other low budget mobile and PC/Mac-based attempts that have been floating around since, ranging from the reasonable to the frankly dreadful.
The original is always the best... as the dreadful California Games 2 proved
Still, the question remains: is that really going to be the last shot for California Games? Hopefully not. Surely a developer out there with a bit of foresight and cash could remake this lost classic into a classy title worthy of the latest round of console and PC hardware? If nothing else, it’s a free pass to render as many bikini babes as you fancy. Bodacious, no? ®
Publisher Epyx, US Gold, Sega
Platforms Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari 2600, ST and Lynx, Commodore 64, DOS, Megadrive, MSX, NES, Sega Master System, Wii, ZX Spectrum