Wednesday, 28 June 2017

California Games (Epyx/US Gold, 1987) - Part 2

Previously, we left California in a state of discord and mayhem, as the 8-bits were taking the lead over the 16-bits. Of course, like so often before, the games originally developed for a certain kind of a machine rarely translates well onto other platforms, but some of the console versions were of a surprisingly good quality, and were sometimes even better than the original. While working on Part 2, I have also updated Part 1, since I posted it a bit hastily before having figured out all the gameplay aspects of all versions, so you might want to read it through before heading on to the conclusive part. But if you're more interested in graphics and sounds, as well as the overall scores, feel free to continue with this entry.



Having promptly disposed of most of the hi-res sprites (and their occasional overlays) that were still used in Summer Games II in favour of multi-colour ones when creating World Games, Epyx apparently saw no reason to return to form. Considering the style of events that were used in both World Games and California Games, the fact is, that the style of hi-res sprites used for the early parts of the series wouldn't have fitted into most events, and they would have had to focus more on getting that one thing just right, instead of getting all the graphics fit together. To be fair, I'm not saying this was any more right a choice as the other way would have been, but the change in graphical style at least didn't cause any reducement in popularity for the series when California Games was selling like ice cream on a hot summer day.

But one could already get a hint from the title screen, that the team was getting tired of all this hard work on keeping the standards up. Instead of anything as elaborate as an opening ceremony, you just get a relatively simplistic animated title screen, in which the letters G A M E S appear onto a license plate, just below the words "Epyx presents: California", and there's also a yellow stylized underline under the word "presents", which has an animated shine effect after the aforementioned letters have been revealed. To view all the title screens, you need to click here for revisiting Part 1 of this comparison, and then find the Loading section. Sorry for the inconvenient click bait.

Main menu. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple2GS, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST.
Middle row: Apple ][, DOS, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, MSX.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Atari Lynx, Atari 2600.

Having gone through a series of conservative main menus, Epyx finally went for a more youthful one in California Games. Of course, text bits are still text bits, but at least most versions now have an 80's-style framing with lots of snazzy colours and shapes. The 16-bit versions in particular went a bit overboard with the idea, and forgot about the more symmetrical design used in the original C64 version and most of the other 8-bit versions. Only the 8-bit Choice conversions went with the familiar conservative look they used in the previous parts of the series. The A2600 and LYNX versions don't have an actual main menu, but you do get a sponsor menu for the A2600 version and an event menu for the LYNX version, both of which look very unique. The 16-bit SEGA version doesn't feature the snazzy random shapes that are featured in the A2GS, AMIGA and ST versions, but instead, you get a messy blue background and a very different styling for the menu itself.

Sponsors in the entrance screen. Top row, left to right: C64 European, C64 American, DOS, Atari 2600.
Middle row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Sega Master System, Nintendo.
Bottom row: Apple ][, Apple 2GS, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST.

One thing that I've noticed some people often mentioning is how the list of sponsors is so different in the North American version compared to the European version. I never thought it a very important aspect of the game, but it might have some meaning to extreme sports purists. In terms of graphical quantity, it offers only something extra for those platforms that have both European and American releases, or more to the point, in which cases both releases feature different sponsors. However, because you still need to have two different versions of the game to access all sponsors, I don't really think this particular feature should count as anything for the total Graphics scores.

Just for clarity's sake, the original U.S. release sponsors are: Maxx-Out, Costa Del Mar Sunglasses, Kawasaki, Santa Cruz Skateboards, Ocean Pacific, Casio, Auzzie Surfboards, Spin Jammer Flying Disc and Ray-D-O BMX Gear. Seeing as Maxx-Out was Epyx's label that released European games (from publishers like Palace Software and Gremlin Graphics) in the U.S., it's only natural that the European gamers would have trouble recognizing the label, so the European version has Epyx in its stead, although it's placed at a different spot in the grid. Also, Ocean Pacific is the only sponsor featured in both releases. The other European sponsors are: Burton, RAD Magazine, Bluebird, Pacer Skateboards, Morey Boogie, Frisbee and Hacky Sack. As if that weren't enough, the NES version, which is based on the U.S. release, has Milton Bradley instead of Ray-D-O BMX Gear, because Milton Bradley was the NES version's distributor.

You can already put all these versions in three major groups: the ones based on the original (C64, DOS, APPLE), the 16-bit versions of them (A2GS, AMIGA,ST), and the 8-bit Choice conversions (SPE, CPC, MSX). The remaining five (NES, SMS, SMD, A2600, LYNX) versions are a bit more random, and have their own particular sorts of identities. From the ones based on the original - the original(s) included, the DOS version is the only one to feature the speech-bubble version of the Maxx-Out! logo, but otherwise, I'd say they're all on the same line at this point. The 8-bit Choice conversions only feature the same old you've seen in the earlier parts of the series, and are equally boring. From the 16-bit versions, the APPLE 2GS version stands out to its advantage in some details, but the amount of colours is the same in all three. From the remaining versions, the A2600 is the most obviously ungraphical one, the 16-bit SEGA version the most surprisingly ungraphical one, and from the two remaining ones, the NES version is the more colourful one, but the SEGA MS version has a nicer font.

Screenshots from the Half Pipe event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Atari 2600.

The first event, being basically just a half-pipe with a skater and some optional background, doesn't sound like a difficult concept to get right in graphics. You can see from the ATARI 2600 version and the three 8-bit Choice conversions, though, that only the very basics can be expected from the less capable systems. Since the ramp only needs the shape and some colour resembling either wood or metal, as well as some metallic lines to make up for the structure, the ramp is the easy part to draw. Of course, the ZX SPECTRUM being a bit challenged in terms of colour, you don't get much of bordering or other details for the ramp, so consequently, the MSX version also looks a bit colourless and lacking in detail. At least you get the Hollywood sign (and the hill behind it) in the background, and some sort of a brick wall right next to the back end of the ramp. The AMSTRAD version is only barely better, with a couple of clouds in the sky and some splash of colour for the ramp and the skater. Funnily enough, the A2600 version has been bravely attempted to get some more details for the ramp, and the Hollywood sign is a blocky mess, but at least they got it in.

Compared to the lower half of the above picture, the DOS, APPLE and C64 versions look rather busy. Of course, you can't honestly call them pretty when strictly looking at these pictures, but in action, they give you plenty more than the previous four versions do. You get pop-up score displays for the opposite sides of the ramp each time you successfully complete a trick, some nice hillside formations, a bunch of palmtrees and some alternatives for sponsor graphics in the wall beside the ramp, depending on which version you're playing.

Aside from the A2600 version, all the above versions also feature some neat animations for the skater: a few different types of falling and even sliding over the ramp, the brilliant rail grab trick, and even some jittering when you're about to fail. In the A2600 version, you don't really even know all the time, which way the skater is aligned.

More screenshots from the Half Pipe event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis, Atari Lynx (x2).

As we approach the 16-bits, this might be a good time to take a quick look at the actual Hollywood sign, and see if there's any version that comes close to the real thing, and if possible, its surroundings as well. It should be common knowledge, that the sign's font is very angular, as the O's and the D letter have 45-degree angles instead of rounded shapes. In the NES version, the Hollywood sign has an even stranger design flaw: it's all yellow instead of white. Of course, due to the less-than-stellar screen resolutions even on the 16-bit platforms, getting the Hollywood sign just right must have been practically impossible, but in the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version, the sign and its surroundings look easily the most minutely similar to the original. Also, the skaters look more realistic than in any other version, although I'm a bit biased about the original skater design, who is wearing a yellow t-shirt, light blue shorts and has no helmet. Along with the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE skater, also the LYNX, NES and SEGA MASTER SYSTEM skaters have taken their safety lessons seriously.

Aside from the much more detailed and colourful overall graphics, the AMIGA, ST and A2GS versions have their own curiosities to look out for, but it's all really in the details, and there's no reason to point out the obvious. Here's some more weird details you might want to focus on, if you feel like focusing on some weird details: the yellow skateboard leaning on the front structural poles, or alternately, a worm going across the screen, neither of which is shown in nearly all the versions; the number and detailing of palm trees; the material from which the half-pipe is made; and last but definitely the least, the amount of empty space and actually useful information in the info panel (although you're going to have to play the game for yourselves, or read Part 1 of this comparison). Other unusual points of focus are the unnatural slide of the skater in the A2600 version, and the zoomed camera style in the LYNX version.

Screenshots from the Foot Bag event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Atari 2600.

Next, our virtual tourist guide of California will take us near the Golden Gate, unless you're playing the A2600 version, in which case you're in a sparse-looking forest clearing. Creepy. Since the Golden Gate is supposed to be red, I'm not sure which bridges are the NES, SMS and LYNX versions supposed to be showing. Still, the area is similar enough in most versions: it's a beach area with a walking path near the waterline, and some bushes or wooden fences leading to the left. You can also see some mountains in the background, and a small part of the city on the other side of the canal leading out of the right side of the screen. The LYNX version has the city more prominently featured, and the A2600 and 8-bit Choice conversions have no city-structural graphics at all.

The look of the foot bagging athlete is mostly kind of sporty-geeky, and the AMSTRAD foot bagger looks particularly awkward. At least both the SEGA versions and the LYNX version have more suitable-looking dudes handling the foot bag. For some reason, I didn't take any screenshots with the guy facing the other way, but you're just going to have to deal with it, and take my word on it, that the guy can face both directions in all versions.

More screenshots from the Foot Bag event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis, Atari Lynx.

And then some other minor details. You already know, that George the seagull isn't featured in the 8-bit Choice conversions or the A2600 version. The 16-bit SEGA version has him featured, only he's not interactible. Also, all the other versions feature some small dinghies or other small boats sailing in the canal, apart from the ones that have already become obvious.

The foot bagging athlete's animation is our last point of focus here. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, because the better the animation of the foot bagger is, the more likely it is to feel and act slower in his actions due to the amount of frames put into the animation. Don't get me wrong - I like good animations in games, but only when it doesn't mess up the playability. However, since we're only comparing the graphics, I have to give props to versions I wouldn't, if I were to give overall points at once. You need to have a point of origin, so we'll start with the C64 version and its closest clones. Most importantly, the flight speed and arches of the foot bag are nicely balanced to the fairly small movements of the shorts-wearing crew-cut athlete. Another good point of note is the speed and possible duration of each kick, which on the C64, DOS and APPLE versions are all timed exactly to suit the purpose of getting things done, rather than making the game either unnecessarily realistic or, contrarily, too slow and easy. In other words, it's all rather functional, rather than too fancy.

If you want something fancier, your best bet is the 16-bit SEGA conversion, which offers you a heap of new moves (which have no actual effect on the amount of tricks), which automatically result in more animations, and all the animations are brilliant. The ATARI 2600 and LYNX versions have an alterated set of tricks, but the animations are very good considering each platform, and certainly give the original a run for its money - although I do have to mention, that some of the moves in the LYNX version feel a bit jittery. The AMIGA, ST and A2GS versions are animated almost exactly like the original, only the Jester kick is too quick. Similarly, the Jester kick is too quick in the SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and MSX versions, but they also have some slight unevenness in the foot bag's flight path, and the guy's movements don't collide often enough with the foot bag's paths. Animations in the NES version feel a bit sluggish, but don't look half bad. The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version, on the other hand, is not only slow and sluggish (at least at first), but the animations feel a bit unnatural at places (bad sense of timing), and the side kicks only last for a brief moment, when they should last for as long as you keep the kick button pushed. That's a clear playability issue, as well.

Screenshots from the Surfing event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Atari 2600.

How many different ways are there to pixelate waves? If the Surfing event from California Games is anything to judge by, there's plenty enough. Some versions are foamier than others (C64, DOS, SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD, MSX, AMIGA, ST, A2GS), some versions have a clearer patterned style (NES, SEGA MASTER SYSTEM, GENESIS/MEGADRIVE, APPLE ][), and the rest of them feel a bit more random - the A2600 version in a less successful way, and the LYNX version more. Unfortunately, we still have the rad surfer dude and the cameo participants to worry about.

More screenshots from the Surfing event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis, Atari Lynx (x2).
Just from a quick look at these screenshots, you can already see that the LYNX version of the surfer dude and even his surf board are the most believable sons of the beach. Even a screenshot of the LYNX version seems to have some urgency and radness to it. Urgency and speed aren't necessarily a good thing, as you can see when you try out the A2600 version, which is just too quick and has no proper feel in how the waves and the surfer dude act. But then again, the A2600 is what it is. Most versions have the surfer dude and his board look pretty much the same, so any variation is mostly welcome, unless it's the monochrome blue-and-white against more monochrome white-and-blue. Funnily enough, the biggest differences in the 16-bit versions are the colours of the surf board and the surfer dude's pants. As for the cameo appearances, I can't really say if all the versions have them, since there are differences even in the rate of their appearances, but the versions that I know for sure of having them, feature at least a pelican, a shark and a dolphin. One more strange point of focus: the Casio timer is only featured in four versions: C64, DOS and the two APPLE versions, and all the others have just basic timer with no sponsor connection or other embellishments.

Overall, the 16-bit SEGA version looks easily the best, although I do like the cloudy backgrounds in the AMIGA, ST and APPLE ][ versions more than the blue gradient. If you want to take the safe and familiar route, the original surfer dude and most of the other graphics can be found in the C64, DOS, AMIGA, ST and the two APPLE versions. From the other versions, the NES and SMS versions have the least compromised overall look to them, and the LYNX version goes the opposite direction and has a bit more speed, but the pop-up messages are a bit silly and unnecessary. However, I have to say that for a handheld console, Atari's LYNX keeps throwing positive surprises at you, and California Games has so far exceeded my expectations in graphics. The 8-bit Choice conversions haven't exceeded my expectations, but at least this time, there are some minor differences between the SPECTRUM and MSX versions in other ways than just their natural palette. This time, the SPECTRUM version has a bit of cyan sky in the background, while the solid light blue ocean in the MSX version continues past the horizon.

Surfing results screens. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64, NES, Sega MD/Genesis.
Bottom row: Sega Master System, Apple 2GS, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga.

Although Surfing is not the only event in California Games that features its own separate scoring screen, it differs from Foot Bag's scoring screen by having some actual graphics. Also, you get no real explanations for your scores, unlike in the Foot Bag scoring screen - there's just five judges inside a judging platform of sorts, holding up score cards. The judging platform is in most versions decorated with two speakers and a suitable sponsor, which in the US versions is Kawasaki Pro Am, and in the European C64 version, it's Ocean Pacific. The NES version has no sponsor, nor does it feature any of the judges, or any of the other cool teenagers. Which brings us to another fun little thing for you detail enthusiasts to pick and tear apart: the amount and styles of all the people, as well as the amount of beach accessories in the judging picture. The 16-bit SEGA version takes yet another unexpected route here, and goes with a similar scoring screen to the Foot Bag one. The ones you see that are missing from the above picture, are missing.

Screenshots from the Skating event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX.
Since playing California Games when it was still relatively fresh, it never occured to me that it might actually have been a cool thing at some point in time, because it certainly wasn't from where I come from. Only one thing managed to bring roller skating into being somewhat iconic once again, although I cannot say the publicity was necessarily good. Of course, I'm talking about Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic masterpiece about the adult entertainment industry in the 1970's: Boogie Nights, and Heather Graham's never off-taken rollerskates. Which kind of puts this event in a weird light: should roller skating be considered sexy or fun? Or both? And if neither, then is there a point?

The star in the Roller Skating event is a visually traditionally girly girl, with ponytails and everything. Only the AMIGA, ST and the two SEGA versions have the girl wear more sporty clothes, which adds some to the sex appeal, if you're the kind of gamer that finds half-naked pixelated girls exciting. Of course, being a traditionally girly girl, she throws a tantrum on the concrete slabs when she falls badly and your game is over. That said, the animations are as good as in any other event, and in true Epyx fashion, there's always some amount of humour to be found in the graphics. You might also get slipped on a banana peel or something as classic, and you might fall on your bum and spin around while sitting. Of course, after having seen the few different falls more times than enough, you will start to focus on the backgrounds, which can be rewarding on its own.

More screenshots from the Skating event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis.

All the junk on the pavement is one thing to focus on, and you really need to do so in order to get anywhere, so let's pick on a few of those. You get your regular trash on the pavement, such as the aforementioned banana peels, ice creams, newspapers, old shoes and other such things. Some people have even left cassette decks on the pavement, as if everyone was so rich or drunk (or both) that they didn't really focus on or care where they left their junk. Every once in a while, a stray beach ball comes bouncing at you, unless you're playing any of the 8-bit Choice conversions.

There's also enough distance to cover for you to see plenty of different things on the beach further in the background. The most memorable scenes feature the ice cream cart, people playing volleyball or throwing frisbees, and a dog standing by a signpost that disallows the presence of dogs, although I think the last one might only be featured on some of the 16-bit versions. In the SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS version, most people are just sunbathing, which is a bit boring, but it still looks alive enough. The MASTER SYSTEM version doesn't have that much of anything happening on the beach, but it's not completely deserted either. The beach in the NES version is completely deserted, though, so it should probably get some sort of an award for the most depressing rendition of a summer event in any game ever. But then, I can't say it's not better than the A2600 version of Foot Bag. The APPLE ][ version doesn't have the wooden pole fence for some reason, but otherwise it's pretty much the same as the original. The SPECTRUM and MSX versions are awkward with their monochrome sections, which results in really awkward occasional colour changes, such as the cassette deck you see in the MSX screenshot above. The AMSTRAD version is much more colourful, but doesn't scroll quite as well as the SPECTRUM version.

Screenshots from the BMX event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Atari 2600.

Because of this event, I have always had a wish to get myself a proper BMX bike, and I still haven't fulfilled that wish. Likely never will either, because I'm not very keen on the idea of breaking my bones in dangerous forest paths or other extreme conditions, like the adrenaline junkie in this event has a tendency to do. Once again, I would have loved to include screenshots of each trick for each version, but you're going to have to just play the game to see everything, because the tricks don't have that much of animation frames in them to make them look particularly interesting, or make them easy enough to take screenshots of. Now, let's get to the point.

Somehow, I can't imagine anyone, even a small team of men to actually build a real track which is completely hand-made to fit the requirements of an evil track designer: fill the assumed one-and-a-half kilometer stretch with a mixture of sand, very likely some clay, wood frames for both sides of the whole length and drop some random tires, rocks and logs to make your performance on the bike even more miserably difficult. Come to think of it, this feels like a BMX version of a track from Stunt Car Racer, without any curves of course, but this is a 2.5D event. In most cases, that is - the A2600 version is very much 2D, and almost completely different in every way to the original design. Sure, it's fun, but it's still too different to be actually comparable, and strictly graphically speaking, it sure looks like an ATARI 2600 game.

More screenshots from the BMX event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom row: NES, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis, Atari Lynx.

By default, the animation and scrolling feels a bit clunky, but only enough to make it feel that you're not handling a particularly smoothly riding vehicle. In some versions, it can become a bit of a nuisance in certain bits. For instance, the C64 original has a rather iffy feel to the BMX bike's ride and its collision detection - when doing a wheelie, your back tire goes lower on the screen than where it is in normal state, and this makes the back tire hit anything it's not supposed to. In most versions, this little dimensional problem hasn't been fixed, so you might as well get used to bumping into objects that your bike sprite is barely scratching, even while seemingly being on a different horizontal or vertical level, depending on how you look at it. From what I could tell, only the LYNX, SEGA MASTER SYSTEM and MEGADRIVE/GENESIS versions have the pseudo-3D aspect fixed so that you're actually on the same level with the objects or the wooden frames when you seem to be so. Also, the SEGA versions seem to be the only ones that have the collision detection thing properly done, as well as the scrolling entirely smooth.

The actual look of the event varies quite a lot depending on the version you're playing. The track is built in an area that looks like a bit of prairie, unless you're playing either the A2600 or the LYNX version, in which case you're either riding down a green mountain with lots of rocks, buffalo skulls, trees and flags, or a grassy bumpy hillside with lots of weird pipes and grass cubes. Normally, though, you would have plenty of sand with some cacti and rocks in the background, and a line of mountains further in the back. None of the 8-bit Choice conversions have the mountains in the background, and only the AMSTRAD version has more than two colours in the action area. From the 16-bit versions, the SEGA version looks easily the best, with more details and colours in the background, and the track itself being much more believable in its appearance, with most of the unnecessary angles having been smoothed and rounded to look more natural. Also from the 16-bit versions, the A2GS version looks easily the worst, with the naturally sandy look of the background turned into a horrible 8-bitish beige-to-brown gradient. Surprisingly, the NES version looks a lot like the original, at least in colouring and animations. If you're looking for an upgraded similarity to the original, I guess the ATARI ST is your best option, but the track surface pattern in the AMIGA version looks better. Of the 8-bit versions I haven't mentioned so far in this paragraph, I'd say the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM and ATARI LYNX versions probably have the most believable appearance, but the clearly patterned graphics in the SMS version cheapen the graphical overall value. Seeing as the background graphics were mostly hand-made all the way for the C64, DOS, APPLE, SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and MSX versions, I should give some extra consideration for them. This is a difficult event to give points to, but luckily, I'm only giving the overall points for the whole Graphics section.

Screenshots from the Flying Disc event. Top row, left to right: DOS, Apple ][, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX.

Our final event takes place in what I would guess is some sort of a national park, within an area which includes a few disallowance signs, a lake, some flowers and rocks, as well as a dense forest and a view of some impressive-looking mountain range further in the background. If any of you have visited California, perhaps you could tell, which mountain peak should be the most obvious one to recognize from these screenshots - I have no clue.

Before and between throwing and catching the flying disc, your most important items on the screen are the Speed/Angle meter below the action screen, and the simple location map above the action screen. The Speed/Angle meter is fairly similar in all versions: the optimal areas are marked with green, the less useful areas with yellow (pink in the AMSTRAD version) and fail areas with red (purple in the APPLE version and black in the AMSTRAD version). Some versions even have dotting or lining throughout the Speed/Angle meter to help you spot the middle from each green, but it's hardly necessary. It makes the meter look a bit better and unique for the event, though. The location map shows small stick figures (literally!) of the thrower and the catcher, as well as the flying disc, while it's airbourne. For most versions, the map is just a box with the frames, the frisbee and the stick figures all in different colours. The 8-bit Choice conversions have it all in black and white. The NES version has the stick figures show each person's shirt colour, and the SMS version makes the stick figures look more like actual animated miniature people, who follow each participant's actions, which I thought was highly amusing when I first noticed it.

More screenshots from the Flying Disc event. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple 2GS.
Bottom left: NES. Bottom right: Sega Master System.

Regarding the 8-bit versions, there is really nothing to be said that hasn't been said in the previous events, which wouldn't ring true here as well. As for the 16-bits, I'll be quick: there are some differences between all three available versions, which you might have already come to expect in light of all the previous events, such as the basic colouring and the looks of the two frisbee-contesting partners. But still, all the differences in the ATARI ST version feel almost radical compared to the A2GS version, which looks like the first phase of a complete graphical overhaul of the event, with the AMIGA version between the two. Also, I still can't really get over the fact, that the MD/GENESIS version doesn't feature this event at all.

Before moving on to the less interesting, yet still important parts of this section, I should talk about parallax scrolling, which has been an important part of the Epyx Games series' backgrounds since Summer Games II. Since California Games still represented the old-school multi-event sports game genre, all the events were basically two-dimensional side-scrollers or single-screeners, so the parallax scrolling graphics were only used to add some depth to the fore- and backgrounds. From the original set, only the Half-Pipe and Foot Bag events were single-screeners, and all the others were side-scrollers, the Surfing event being the only one with no real parallax scrolling. Now, because this whole parallax scrolling thing is such a difficult subject to cover, I decided to make a little chart for what events have parallax scrolling, and how many layers of them each version has.

There's only so much information you can put into a simple chart like that, so I shall elaborate a little. If you see a dash on the marked event of your chosen version, it means that there either is no scrolling at all, or there is only one scrolling layer, therefore no parallax. If the event version has two of more
scrolling layers, all the layers scroll at a different speed, and the background layer that stands still doesn't count as scrolling. Even with parallax scrolling, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's for the advantage of the version in question - some of them have rather slow and clunky parallax scrolling, like the APPLE ][ version's Skating event, which even doesn't have much of background details. It's just a sad thing to look at. The only event in the 8-bit Choice conversions, that has some parallax scrolling is the Flying Disc event, and it's somewhat less clunky than the A][ Skating event's parallax scrolling. For all the other cases, I don't have anything to complain about regarding the scrolling speed.

As for the strange special markings, there's the obvious "n/a" marking, which means "not available" in case you didn't know; the asterisk (*) markings mean, that these particular versions of these events have something special about them, and the "2+" marking in the LYNX Foot Bag means that there are two foreground layers that use push-scrolling, and the river in the background has two parallax scrolling layers of its own. Explanations for the special markings: Half-Pipe and BMX in the LYNX version uses a chase camera, but no parallax scrolling; Foot Bag in the A2600 version push-scrolls both left and right, and the BMX in the A2600 version uses a flip-screen method.


I didn't originally think showing you all the trophies from all the versions would be all that necessary or even interesting, but this was the first set of screenshots I compiled for this comparison, and early on during that process, I started noticing, how different the three main 16-bit contestants were from each other, so I ended up with a nearly complete set, only missing the absolutely unnecessary. To my utter bafflement, the ATARI ST version doesn't have a trophy for the Final Results - or perhaps it does, but it wasn't used, who knows. Also, a funny detail: in the DOS and Apple ][ versions, "Ocean Pacific" is missing the first 'i' letter.

In any case, the APPLE ][ version's trophies look exactly (or, as close as you can imagine) like the C64 trophies, and the DOS trophies, as you can see, are not too far off, and only really differ from the originals by colouring. The 8-bit Choice conversions feature no trophy screens at all, nor do the A2600 and LYNX versions, which make the already lacking conversions even more so, although in this case, the omissions are perhaps more permittable. The AMIGA and A2GS versions have a specific style to the "Event Results" logos above the trophies, and only differ from each other by the rather odd colouring in the A2GS version's Skating event logo. Although the ST version doesn't have the "Final Results" trophy, it does feature slightly more decorative "Event Results" logos - most particularly in Surfing and Skating. The NES and SMS versions have a rather unusual yet somewhat shared style with each other: there are no similarly stylized event logos, but rather all the trophy screens have the same styled big title above the trophies. In the NES version, even some of the trophies have a completely different design, most notably the Surfing and BMX trophies. Perhaps they're all interesting little details, but I admit, it's mostly hardly useful.

Bonus card screens from the Sega Master System version.

The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version has a unique bonus feature, in which you need to match three flipping cards to gain bonus things. The card pictures are illustrations of the Foot Bag, Surfing and BMX events, and for each three-in-a-row matches, you will gain something for the matching event. For the Foot Bag event, you have the chance to gain faster reflexes (useful); matching the Surfing cards will give you a new surfboard (more graphics) and the BMX cards will give you a new BMX bike (still more graphics). Each prize win has its own card-related effect, two of which resemble the effect used for completing a set in Windows' Solitaire game, and one of which is more like the random card effect used in Drelbs.

High Scores screens, if necessary or available.
Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari Lynx, NES, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: DOS, Amstrad/Spectrum/MSX, Sega Master System, Sega MD/Genesis.

As we reach the end of California Games, you will find that there is no closing ceremony or anything special - just the Final Results trophy. The only thing you might want to take a look at afterwards is the High Scores list, which usually has a similar appearance to the main menu. Only the ATARI LYNX and SEGA GENESIS/MD versions differ from the norm in a more radical manner. In the LYNX version, you get no trophies, so you will get the High Scores screen shown after the chosen event ends, regardless of whether you get your current score on the list or not. Uniquely, you actually get a "Top 3 scores" for the LYNX version, but it's of little use, since you don't really get to compete against anybody. The SMD/GEN version's High Scores screen has a nice sunset picture in the background, and it also gives you scores for the unique Double/Team events. I also have to point out another curiosity in the DOS version, which puts Flying Disc as the third event on the list, even though it's the second-to-last in the actual playing order, which in itself is odd enough.

In order to reach a believable order of quality as a conclusion, we will have to take into consideration the quantity and quality of graphics, the latter of which comprises of the colouring, the detailing, the smoothness and depth in scrolling, and of course, screen resolution. Naturally, the versions with less events will amount for less graphics, so the A2600 and LYNX versions are not very high by nature, but their uniqueness might have to be taken into some consideration. Even more special consideration shall have to be given for the two SEGA versions, since the 16-bit one is missing an event, but has some other special ingredients, and the 8-bit one has a bonus screen and some unlockable graphics. Keeping all this in mind, we might eventually reach a verdict that might look something like this:

8. NES
9. APPLE ][
12. MSX
13. ATARI 2600



By Summer Games II at the very latest, most of us had gotten used to the Epyx Games series having plenty of classical anthems and other well-known melodies. World Games took a new direction, having a couple of Scottish traditional tunes, an Austrian folk song, the Pythons' "Lumberjack Song" and a few originals to go along with the aforementioned rearrangements, and for the first time then, the title screen tune was an original. For California Games, they chose to SIDify a couple of famous surf rock songs to go with the theme of the game, starting with the Kingsmen's biggest hit, "Louie Louie" in the title screen. Other previously known tunes used in the game are a variation of "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris (at the beginning of the Surfing event), the two famous notes from the "Jaws" theme (used in the same event), and Neal Hefti's "Batman Theme" from the 60's TV series (used in the BMX event). All the other tunes are originals. It should be also noted, that while some tunes play only at the beginning of an event (Foot Bag, Skating, BMX), other events have the music featured more prominently (Half Pipe, Surfing, Flying Disc).

The sound effects in the C64 original are mostly just there, if the occasion requires any. Because the Half Pipe event features music throughout the event, there are only a few sound effects to go with the music - some crashes for when you fall off the skateboard, a blirpy sound for scoring, and a swish noise for passing through certain parts of the half pipe. In the Foot Bag event, you get faint waves in the background, tapping noises from the foot bag hitting any part of your body, George the seagull's bird chatter, some scoring "bup-bup-bup" sounds and a low beep at the end when the time runs out. For Surfing, you only get a splash noise for when you fall off the surf board, a signal for "time's up!" and some animal noises or the Jaws theme when an animal passes by the screen when you're down. In Skating, you get some tapping noises from the rollerskates, a low bounce sound from the occasional beach ball, and a couple of other weird noises for falling off and such. The BMX event only has some random and slight mechanical noises from the bike, and a couple of different crash noises when you fall off. The Flying Disc event features the flapping of the disc as it flies, a failed attempt "beep", and a couple of different sound effects for catching the disc. Finally, the trophy screens have two short, slightly different fanfares that are only played on a single instrument.

While the original soundtrack is undoubtedly iconic and follows the tradition of Epyx's other games in the series to a certain point, I cannot help but admit, that some versions do sound better than the C64 one. The ATARI ST soundtrack is pretty much on the same line as the C64, because while all the music sounds a bit of a compromise due to how the AY-chip works and works, the ST team did at least include some voice samples for most events - some ouches and thuds and such. As a combination, it works rather well, but it's still only the weakest one of the 16-bits. Unsurprisingly, the AMIGA version uses samples all the way, because that's how the Amiga works. Some of the instruments used in some of the tunes sound a bit cheap and plastic, but for the most part, it's all right, and the sound effects are of a better quality than in the ATARI ST version. My favourite 16-bit soundtrack, however, has to be the APPLE //GS version, which only upgrades the C64 soundtrack to its advantage by changing some of the instruments to proper samples and leaves the most important ones pretty much as they were, or only enhancing them a bit. I particularly love the drum sounds in the A2GS tunes - brings a whole new energy to the soundtrack. Most of the sound effects are also just slight upgrades from their C64 equivalents, but there are a few samples as well.

At the other end of the similar-to-the-original soundtracks, you get the DOS and APPLE ][ versions. Naturally, the DOS version only has a single-channel beeper soundtrack - even in Tandy mode. At least all the music is featured, and there are plenty of different kinds of sound effects to listen to, if you feel like it. There is an option to turn the sounds completely off in the configuration menu, if you don't want the PC beeper to rape your ears too much, but happily, us DOSbox users have the chance to just turn the volume down. The APPLE ][ version uses that god-forbidden frequency trick to generate multiple voices from the single channel speaker, so in a way, it's even worse than the DOS version, but hey - at least it does have multiple voices for the soundtrack. Not all tunes are included, though: the menu tune is missing. Most of the sound effects are just basic blips, pips and crashes, but there's a couple of different whistle sounds used in the Skating and Flying Disc events. The Skating event in the APPLE ][ version also features a "tick" sound for landing a jump, a crash sound for a bigger fall, and a mid-range beep noise for a Game Over.

If you're into Japanese-style soundtracks, you might enjoy the ATARI LYNX version more than us Epyx traditionalists. Only Louie Louie and the Surfing tune have been kept in from the original soundtrack - all the others are new and feel more than slightly out of context. Don't get me wrong, it's all nicely made and there's nothing particularly wrong about the tunes themselves - they just don't fit that well into this particular game. The sound effects in the LYNX version are a bit bulky and boring - it's just a few sorts of bumps, thuds, crashes and a watery swoosh and splash for the most part. Only the Surfing event features some various weird bleepy sounds that basically just mark the different sorts of tricks having gone successfully.

Speaking of altered soundtracks, the ATARI 2600 version also has a very altered set. You get Louie Louie for the title screen, and it also plays every time you finish an event; and then you also get another rocking tune which I can't recognize (could be an original one), which plays at the start of each event. That's only two tunes, but that's still quite enough for an A2600 game. The A2600 sound effects are also classic Atari stuff, which mostly brings to mind some really old platformers like Miner 2049'er, Pitfall! or Donkey Kong. It all works with this highly modified version of California Games, but you sort of forgive it for being an A2600 game.

The 8-bit Choice conversions once more demonstrate their lack of... everything, really. So far, their playability hasn't been worth much, their graphics have been just as much, and now we get to the sounds, of which there are little. First of all, you get no music at all in any version. For a multi-loader game, you sort of expect there being at least some memory for even single-channel tunes, but seeing as the game is kind of choppy and slow even on SPECTRUM, which is the fastest of the threesome, I guess they gave up on the idea of getting music fitted into the game. Sound-wise, the SPECTRUM version is the most pitiful of the three. You barely get some ticks and blips for four events; the Surfing event makes some sort of a "schpout" effect when falling off the surfboard and diving; and the menu and the BMX event have no sound effects at all.

The MSX version does a little better: the menu still has no sounds, but all the events do. In Half Pipe, you get swishes and crashes. In Foot Bag, you can hear waves faintly swooshing in the back ground, and you get bump sounds for the foot bag hitting parts of your body, and there's a long beep at the end of the event. The Surfing event features only splashes, and the Skating event only has a fists banging effect when you fall. The BMX event features two kinds of effects: a tapping noise when you move your bike sideways on the track, and a longer "pfffft" noise when falling. Finally, in the Flying Disc event, you get "bip" sounds for adjusting the throw, a flapping noise for the disc flying, and a weird fast "du-du-du-du-du" sound when you catch the disc. No sounds for failed attempts.

From the three 8-bit Choice conversions, the AMSTRAD version does the best in this case. Even the menu features a "bing" sound for moving the cursor, which can become annoying after a while, but at least it's there. The Half Pipe event has some swooshes and bump noises. For Foot Bag, you get a similar set of sounds as in the MSX version. In Surfing, though, you get some waves swooshing as well as your falling splashes - very progress, much wow. For the Skating event, you get some occasional scratch noises and your fists banging at the end, too. Then, the BMX and Flying Disc sounds are similar to those in the MSX version. Minor differences, but enough to make a difference.

Now, the NES version features a very NES-like soundtrack in a certain sense: you get almost no break from the nearly ever-present music. The only time I can think of, when there is no music playing, is in the Foot Bag scoring screen. For the European release, you get no Louie Louie for the intro, but rather, the slightly modified menu tune starts playing as the game boots up. The North American gamers can enjoy their Louie Louie for all they care. Most other tunes are only slightly modified versions of the originals, only the European Surfing event has a completely new tune, which still fits the surf-rock genre nicely. But since we're talking about two versions for practically the same console, I see no reason to separate them into two different scores, since it's otherwise very much the same. The sound effects naturally take a lesser role on the NES due to all the nearly-constant music. Some events feature no sound effects at all (Skating and BMX), and the events that have some sound effects, only have one or two different effects - usually just a blirpy sound for scoring, or perhaps a flapping noise of the flying disc.

Only the two SEGA versions left, and we'll go with the MASTER SYSTEM version first. In an all too familiar Sega manner, the soundtrack in its entirety sounds very plastic and tinny. Most of the original tunes are kept sort of as they should be, but the Surfing scoring screen features the menu tune again (as if you didn't hear it enough already), the Skating tune is a completely new one, and the BMX tune doesn't stop playing when you start the event. What I mean by "sort of", though, is that most of the old tunes have some additional instruments playing unnecessary or even bad melodic lines, that lessen the impact of the intended surf-rock idea. The sound effects are mostly just what they need to be, although because there's a similarly constant presence of music as in the NES version, you don't get all the atmosphere included, such as faint waves swooshing in the background or birds cawing in the background in Foot Bag - just all the necessary stuff, for the most part. There's a few minor things worth noting, though: in Skating, your rollerskates make a chopping noise all the time, and the only other sound effects are related to the randomly bouncing beach ball, and in BMX, you will hear these weird low and long "bonnnggg" sounds when you land a trick in addition to the various different crash noises. However, because of the unnecessarily embellished soundtrack, the entire game has a bit of an off-the-track feel to it.

Finally, while the GENESIS/MEGADRIVE version follows the SEGA tradition of slightly metallic-plastic and tinny, most of its music is rearranged, and a couple of tunes are completely new. The relatively modern (or at least contemporary) title tune is one of the new ones, and what was originally the main menu tune, is now slightly altered and used in the BMX event. Weird, huh. Also, the Half Pipe tune is now in the Skating event, the Skating tune is also (more than slightly) altered and is used in the Foot Bag event, and the Foot Bag tune is kind of latinized and now used in the Half Pipe event. It's hard to get my head around these changes, but it's not completely bollocks. The Surfing event also has a new tune, which in all its mellowness feels like it rather belongs in the second or third Leisure Suit Larry game. The G/MD version's library sound effects are gradually revealed to be rather low in presence. In Half Pipe, you don't really get to hear more than a thud when you fall off; in Foot Bag, you get a few bumps, thumps and bleepy acknowledgements of successful tricks, as well as George's cawing; and in Surfing, you only get a couple of different splashes and a collision bump with a ball. Only once you get to Skating, the more subtle style of the sound effects start to pay off, as the rollerskates rolling and ball bouncing feel more realistic part of the whole deal, and all the other sounds are just what they need to be - tricks scoring bleepy sounds and such. Unfortunately, the sound effects in the BMX event feel a bit underachieving, but realistically thinking, you shouldn't even get much of other sounds in this sort of a thing. They just somehow don't serve the purpose because the music is so loud in the foreground. Overall, I'm not a very big fan of either SEGA versions' sounds or music because of their tinny plasticity and lack of focus - only the Roller Skating event in the G/MD version sounds excellent.

In conclusion, it's the other 16-bits that take the lead this time. The original soundtrack and its featured sound effects have such a well thought-out presence, that I cannot but give it a higher spot than all console versions. I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit sorry for the ones who had to settle for one of the 8-bit Choice conversions, because not only did you get often unoptimized playability, but also slow and choppy scrolling and mostly uninviting graphics, and on top of all that, you get barely any sounds at all. I mean, even the A2600 version is rich in sounds by comparison. So, this is what we end up with:

8. ATARI 2600
10. APPLE ][
12. MSX



As thorough as I attempt to be in my comparisons, video footage is always helpful at putting my words in a more immediately observable mode. This time, however, the Gaming History Source channel didn't manage to get footage of the DOS and the MSX versions (mind you, this video was posted in August 2012), and also the last three events from the AMSTRAD version are missing for some reason. It's not as if switching disks on the run is all that difficult, so I do wonder... Regardless of the missing bits, the video passes the one hour mark by a couple of minutes, which is admittedly quite a lot to take in all at once, but hey, it's still a video.



I know, we're skating on thin ice here, but we need to come to some sort of a conclusion. Based on my lately received ability to actually have a chance to check the A2GS version's gameplay, I managed to update Part 1 of this comparison properly to actually have the A2GS scores, even though I haven't bothered to update the informational portions in the previous entry about the matter. As it happens, the A2GS version is, apart from some of its graphical aspects, the best version out there of California Games - or at least, the best compromise of it. The AMIGA version comes close enough, but if you want sheer unadulterated gameplay perfection, you might want to stick to the C64 original, or perhaps try out the 16-bit SEGA version for certain events and its special features. All in all, this is the order I came up with:

1. APPLE //GS: Playability 10, Graphics 10, Sounds 13 = TOTAL 33
2. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 8, Graphics 12, Sounds 12 = TOTAL 32
3. SEGA GENESIS/MD: Playability 9, Graphics 13, Sounds 9 = TOTAL 31
4. COMMODORE 64: Playability 11, Graphics 8, Sounds 10 = TOTAL 29
5. ATARI ST: Playability 6, Graphics 11, Sounds 11 = TOTAL 28
6. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM: Playability 10, Graphics 9, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 27
7. NINTENDO: Playability 5, Graphics 6, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 19
8. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 5, Graphics 7, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 17
9. APPLE ][: Playability 7, Graphics 5, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 16
10. ATARI LYNX: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 7 = TOTAL 16
11. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
12. ATARI 2600: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 8
12. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 8
13. MSX: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6

So, yes, the 8-bit Choice conversions look dire, but you can make them a bit better through emulation: MSX version, for instance, becomes almost enjoyable when you turn the emulation speed knob up to around 250-300% in the most clunky events, but at least 175% in the less clunky ones. It comes as no surprise, that the 16-bit versions do certain things much better than the 8-bits, but considering this is 1987 already, and with the 16-bit market having only started to bloom properly, and the game development having started turning more and more towards the increasingly popular consoles, the C64 original did surprisingly well. But once again, I urge you to make your own conclusions by testing all the versions out, and see what you feel is your own order of preference. California Games has the advantage of being one of the most interesting subjects of comparison due to all its major and minor differences, so there's plenty to focus on.

Before I wrap this entry up, I should probably mention the other games in the series, just in case. If I ever do another comparison of a game from the Epyx Games series, World Games from 1986 will be the last one, but it certainly deserves equal focus, since it has the biggest variety in the style of events. After California Games, though, the team dedicated for developing these multi-event sports games disbanded and moved on to other teams, so the further games in the series were considerably different. The first one after California was a rehash of Winter Games, called The Games: Winter Edition (1988), which used most of the events from its predecessor, but most of the fun was gone. The Games: Summer Edition took things on a new track, and was considerably better with a couple of completely new events and new graphical styles and all that, but was developed primarily for the 16-bit platforms.

Screenshots from the later parts in the series. Screenshots from the Atari ST and DOS versions.

It took Epyx another couple of years before they made their final attempt at a multi-event sports game, in which they returned back to California. In 1990, Epyx released California Games II, initially only for IBM-PC compatibles. The game includes only five events: hang gliding, jet skiing, snowboarding, bodysurfing and another variation of skateboarding. At the time, the game was very heavy on graphics, and the smaller number of events was compensated with more content in the few events, so it couldn't have been produced for the 8-bits anymore. Only in 1992 and 1993, conversions were released for Amiga, ST, SNES and Sega Master System, but it never reached any particular level of success, perhaps for good reasons, too. It was also developed for the Atari Lynx, but it never got released, and only a preview version is known to exist.

That's it for this month, hope it was worth the wait. Next month, something completely different - stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. EPYX was known for those multisports "whatever games" and those were often slightly less "joystick breakers" than OCEAN games in the same vein (Daley Tomson Decathlon anyone ?). Funnily, the Amstrad GX4000 World of Sport game would include 2 of the california games events : BMX and Surf, somewhat ported from the Lynx version, while Sky and Diving were ported from other Epyx games (summer/winter/world games ? not sure which ones). Sega versions were quite good in my fond memory. Lynx version was quite limited in the number of events but was the game sold with the console and had some fun events actually.