Review by THayes
Possibly the worst extreme sports game on any console
Made by Epyx in 1987, California games is one of the earliest extreme sports games to appear on the NES. It is almost one of the least popular sports games on the system, with arcade conversions like 720 becoming much more well known, as well as console only titles like Skate or Die and Ski or Die. While these later titles were strictly extreme sports, featuring only skateboarding or only skiing, California Dreams expands on the idea that an extreme sports title doesn't necessarily have to feature only one type of event, so it includes surfing, BMXing, skating and skateboarding as the extreme section, and blends it with two rather strange events in the form of disc throwing and foot bag kicking.
The game starts off by allowing players to compete in all events or some events, to practice one event or to view high scores. By competing in all or some events, players must name eight characters to participate, and a team for each player can be selected. There are nine teams in all, ranging from Costa Del Mar sunglasses to Casio, from Santa Cruz skateboards to Kawasaki. The teams don't actually affect the game in any way, and because a total of eight characters must be chosen, it can be quite repetitive if you only want a game between two or three players. The practice a single event option is useful though, and most players will likely find themselves using this rather than using the long tournament option. The high score table is simply a screen which displays the top score for each event in the game.
There are six events in all: Half Pipe, Foot Bag, Surfing, Skating, BMX and Flying Disk. Whereas the game Skate or Die featured a wonderfully designed half pipe and a trick system that worked like a dream, California Games features one of the worst trick systems on a half pipe in any extreme sports game on the NES, even worse than the one in 720. The half pipe is just a bland, grey curve with no details evident anywhere on the surface of it. In the background, boards can be seen advertising some of the sponsors in the game. Palm trees are seen beyond this, with the Hollywood sign on top of a grassy hill in the background. This is the single view throughout the entire half pipe event, and it quickly gets boring.
After pressing the A button to drop into the half pipe, the skateboarder will start rolling up and down the curves of the ramp, eventually coming to a stop at the bottom if the player chooses to do nothing. Whereas Skate or Die used an excellent method of pressing A to pump at the correct parts of the ramp, the player in this game must guess and press up or down just right to gain height. The difference here is that Skate or Die actually changed the animation of the skater to let you know that something was happening, whereas in California Games he just stays in exactly the same position throughout. When he does actually gain his maximum height of two feet above the top of the ramp, the animation remains the same and the skater continues to retain the same unchanging position on the board.
And now we come to the trick system on the half pipe, which is basically non-existent. To actually make the skater do a trick he must first be riding in the correct direction (which is difficult to judge as he looks the same going both ways), and then the player must press the correct direction on the d-pad to make him spin. Below the coping (the bar at the top of the ramp), the skater will, with a complete lack of style, half turn before riding back down the ramp, and above the coping the skater will grab his board and spin slowly before attempting to land back on the half pipe. Pressing A at the top of the ramp will make the skater do a hand plant, which is undoubtedly the best move in the entire event. And the grinds? There are none. Even 720 with it's limited trick system allowed players to handstand on the flat of the ramp, or to grind along the coping. This is by far one of the worst half pipe events to be featured in any game on the NES.
After the disappointment of the half pipe event, players will next come to the foot bag event. Not extreme in the least, but this is only a semi-extreme-sport game so we can let that slide. This event sees a man dressed in odd purple shorts and a black shirt standing with a small ball at his foot. Pressing the A button will make the man kick the ball up high into the air, and when the ball falls the player can then press A to make the man kick it up into the air again from various parts of his body. Pressing A when the ball is above his waist for example will make him knee the ball, above his foot will make him kick the ball and out to the side will make him attempt side kick the ball providing it is close enough.
A surprising variety of tricks can be performed throughout this event. Adding onto the knees and kicks already mentioned, the man can jump up to head the ball up into the air, and also can spin around to face the opposite way. This allows for some nice tricks like the full axle where the man kicks the ball, spins around once and then kicks or heads the ball again. Other tricks may involve different kicks, like the Jester which is performed by kicking across the other leg, or the five in a row which is done by kicking or using different parts of the body to launch the ball up in the air five times. There are many other tricks like the Horse Shoe, Double Arch, Dizzy Dean, and Doda, and it seems strange that so much variety has been put into this event while such little effort was put into the dire half pipe event.
Surfing places the character at the top of a large wave. After the player presses A, the surfer will drop into the wave, at which point left must be held on the D-pad to prevent him from riding off screen into the shark-infested waters. From here on it is simply a matter of tapping either left on the d-pad to move higher on the wave or right on the d-pad to move lower. It is possible to gain height off the wave simply by pointing the board toward the top of the wave and riding up, though landing is a different matter as the surfer must land in exactly the right direction to prevent falling off. No tricks can be performed in the air at all. No grabs, no spins, no grinds along the top of the wave, nothing. This severely detracts from the replay value, and takes what could have been a fun and entertaining event into a very poor one.
The skating event is simply a side scrolling affair along a road littered with various obstacles. In this case, the skater is a woman who uses quad skates (that is, two wheels on each side of the skate). In the background is a plain beach and a motionless ocean, which is about as interesting as this event gets. As is tradition in this game, the A button is used to start the event, and the A button is then repeatedly pressed to make the skater move quickly through the level. Along the way, she will come to various forbidding and hideously dangerous obstacles like... a crack in the road, a deviously placed banana skin, and worst of all... the ever-terrible bouncing beachball! You get the idea. Needless to say, the various obstacles are so boring and uninteresting that many players will find themselves to bored make it through to the end.
Now we move onto the actual control of the skater, which is absolutely awful. Up and down on the d-pad is obvious, as they simply move the skater toward either side of the road. Left on the d-pad makes the skater spin, and the B button is used to make her jump. The previous two buttons can be combined to make the skater to do quite a nice 360 spin in the air, though that is most definitely where the niceness ends. It is replaced by the nastiness that is the falling over, which happens very, very frequently. As the jumping is so delayed, an obstacle can appear at the right side of the screen and no matter how fast the player presses the A button, the skater will not jump in time to avoid falling over it. Collision detection is also way off, so the skater can be inches away from an obstacle and still fall over it. The lack of restart points, the failure to introduce many new objects or changes in scenery toward the end and the lack of tricks all add up to make another bad event.
But wait, could there be some ray of hope in BMX racing? Well, despite featuring a similar sort of barren background to the skating event (this one seems to be based in a desert), there is actually much more hope in this event straight from the start as it features a much more interesting looking track. The A button is repeatedly pressed to gain speed, and the B button is used to jump. As with the skating event there are similar sorts of obstacles to jump over like rocks and bones, but the lack of interesting scenery isn't such a problem here as there is for once in this game a reasonable trick system. After jumping in the air, the D-pad is pressed in a direction to perform a trick. There are only four tricks: A tabletop where the bike is flat in the air, a 360 spin, a back flip and a front flip, but this is far better than the surfing and half pipe events. The track design with it's various slopes, jumps and obstacles is interesting enough to make it through to the end of the track, and the event is fun enough to play through many times.
And now we come to the final event in the game: The flying disk. Like the foot bag event, this is another event which seems to have no place at all in an extreme sports game. In this case, a discus must be thrown across a field so that a character in the distance can catch it. A gauge at the bottom of the screen has the word 'speed' at the left side of it and 'angle' at the other side. Tapping left on the d-pad will start the bar on the gauge moving quickly left, and tapping right on the d-pad will move the bar back the other way. The disk is then thrown by tapping left again when it reaches the angle. At this point all attention is drawn to the map at the top of the screen, which shows the disc and the character on the right, who will now move when the player uses the d-pad. He must be positioned under the disc, and when it gets near the d-pad is pressed up so that he can catch it. The aim is to try and get the character to catch the disc at the greatest distance possible. This is a completely dull event, and the only form of replay is found by trying to throw the disc further.
Though California Games contains a total of six events, the lack of detail or any kind of knowledge on these events whatsoever seems to have been completely missed. The half pipe is a prime example, which is poorly designed with an outrageously bad trick system. No grinds, stalls or grabs can be done, and the only worthwhile tricks are a handplant and a strange, uncontrollable spin in the air. Surfing and skating similarly seem to have had no research, with BMX seeming to have slightly more knowledge behind it with the odd spin and flip. Foot bag and flying disk are very strange events that seem out of place, and it's a sad shame that the best event in the game, foot bag, has nothing do with extreme sports at all. Graphics are poor, soundtrack unmemorable, and the replay is minimal. Overall, California Games is quite possibly the worst extreme sports game on the NES, or any console for that matter.
Rating: 0.5 - Unplayable
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