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California Games (NES) artwork

California Games (NES) review

"I once wasted most of a week doing nothing but playing California Games and attempting to perfect each of the six included sporting events. Just like I did more than two decades ago, I see quite clearly how the game could have been awesome. The problem is that it failed spectacularly. Each of the included diversions—half pipe, foot bag, surfing, skating, BMX and flying disk—have enough issues that the kindest compliment you might pay any of them is “semi-competent.”"

If you grew up playing games during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, you already know that there are a bunch of great games waiting for modern gamers to discover them. The advance of technology hasn’t improved everything, after all. Key elements that combined to produce a great game back when 5 colors on the screen at once qualified as a pipe dream aren’t so different from the key elements that have a similar effect in 2012. With that said, there are some games that were just barely decent in the NES days and today are downright bad. One such title is California Games.

Developed for play on the NES by the generally talented folks at Rare, California Games betrays that fine pedigree by serving as an interactive disaster. At the time of its release and for a few years that followed, the California Games license was red hot and interactive games bearing the same title were released on a relatively wide variety of platforms (my dad even bought a board game that you played in conjunction with a video tape). I haven’t played the other video game editions, but I can tell you this much: the NES version sucks.

I don’t say that lightly, as I once wasted most of a week doing nothing but playing California Games and attempting to perfect each of the six included sporting events. Just like I did more than two decades ago, I see quite clearly how the game could have been awesome. The problem is that it failed spectacularly. Each of the included diversions--half pipe, foot bag, surfing, skating, BMX and flying disk--have enough issues that the kindest compliment you might pay any of them is “semi-competent.”

Half pipe lives up to its name. A skater appears at one side of a half pipe and starts a run. Your goal is to score points by performing tricks, but that’s difficult to do without an instruction manual to consult. On-screen, there’s nothing in the way of instructions to let you know what does what. Nothing is intuitive and as a result, your skater usually just slows to a halt at the bottom of the half pipe, or maybe you press a button before then and he bails.

Foot Bag fares much better and is actually one of the most decent of the available offerings, though that’s not saying a lot. You kick a foot bag into the air and then you try to keep it aloft while performing tricks. There are score multipliers if you keep the sack from landing on the ground, plus you can take out seagulls that fly too low overhead. At the end of the event, which only ends when your time expires, you are awarded points based on the fancy moves you made, and you’re also assigned more points if your routine showed some variety. While the controls are laughably stiff (it feels like you’re controlling a poorly-animated robot), the mode is reasonably fun for an attempt or two.

California Games screenshotCalifornia Games screenshot

Surfing is another disaster. You surf from left to right, trying to stay ahead of the wave and perform some tricks that mostly amount to launching from the crest of the wave and then coming down at roughly the same angle. The A and B buttons don’t seem to do much of anything, and eventually the wave will overtake you. At the end, you’ll receive a score on a scale from the judges, but it’s hard to tell how they’re even rating your performance.

Skating had potential. You assume control of a girl in a ponytail. She skates from left to right while avoiding hazards that include cracks in the sidewalk, bouncing balls, sand pits and raised curbs. If she falls three times during her run, that’s the end of things. The A button increases her speed and B jumps, plus you can move up and down along the sidewalk to steer clear of hazards. However, there are frequent moments where you’ll leap to avoid a sand pit, then land and be unable to leap again before running afoul of a raised sidewalk curb or so forth. There are enough of these moments, in fact, that I’m not sure it’s even possible to reach the end of the course. My friends and I certainly attempted to survive the gauntlet throughout the years, but I’m not sure we ever even came close.

BMX is another mode with slight potential, but it mostly falls as flat as the others. You’re riding a BMX bike through a dirty off-road course and you need to weave to avoid mud slicks and rocks and other hazards. You can ride up hills and leap from them, then perform cool little tricks that hopefully complete before you land. Otherwise, words like “Dweeby” and “Dorky” will appear along the bottom of the screen and you won’t gain any points. Getting up enough speed to perform the fancier moves is risky, though, because it’s so easy to steer into one obstruction or another.

The final mode is Flying Disk, which is a game of Frisbee. You press the A button to start a toss, then let the indicator move left and then back right on a color-coded meter. It’s about like swinging at a ball when playing video golf. Once the disk is in the air, your job is then to move the person who will hopefully catch it. Hopefully you didn’t press A too often, because if you did that person has dived and is lying motionless in the turf, presumably with grass in her teeth. Even if you didn’t goof up, though, catching the disk is difficult because it likes to pass right through the receiver.

In summary, then, what California Games presents is a series of six sporting events. None of them provide much fun. They all lack visual flair, even by the standards of the time. Now they’re almost painful to watch. The best way to have fun is to enlist a few friends to join you as you play through either all of the events, or a set of your choosing. Then you can at least compare scores and talk. Otherwise, there’s basically no reason to touch the game at all except to laugh at its ineptitude. You likely have better things to do with your time.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 05, 2012)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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dagoss posted August 06, 2012:

I've never played this one. Had it not been for this review, I might have seen Rare's name on it and wasted a few hours trying to find the "good parts" that weren't there. Now I know to only nab it if I'm getting it from a shoe box at the flea market.

I can't help but notice that the box art on this site is a crotch shot of a chick in a yellow bikini. Intentional?
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joseph_valencia posted August 07, 2012:

Intentional, yes. But the real question is: how'd that sneak by the mods? I thought there was a rule against that sort of thing in box art submissions…
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SamildanachEmrys posted August 07, 2012:

I enjoy this sort of review that put a game in its original context but also detaches from nostalgia to see how fun it is today.

One criticism/remark: starting three consecutive paragraphs with '_____is another _____' jarred a bit, at least for me.
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pickhut posted August 07, 2012:

If the NES box art is anything like the Sega Genesis one I have, then the cover really is nothing but legs and crotch shots, with the woman being the "leader" of the pack. So there was really no choice there. >_>
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honestgamer posted August 07, 2012:

Thanks, Sam. I didn't notice that I had done that, and I would imagine most readers won't, either, but it's still something I try to avoid doing and I've tweaked accordingly.
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SamildanachEmrys posted August 07, 2012:

I'm certain that you're right. I seem to be unusually sensitive to that sort of thing.

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