As winter in the northern hemisphere winds down and the days get longer, my thoughts turn to palm tree lined sidewalks, orange sunsets and the crowded beaches of Southern California. In anticipation of breaking my annual hibernation and venturing back into the sun, I’ll be honing my nonexistent half pipe and big wave riding skills by grabbing my virtual boards.
Guest Review by Will Williams https://twitter.com/willwilliams68k
While sporting my mirror shades and gelled back hair, I’ll be filling my quotient of Californication, 8-bit NES style.
Assisting me in my pixelated virtual tour of the Golden State, is someone who holds more street cred than I, and quite frankly, is more likely to bust some gnarly skate board moves - my 8 year old. We’ll be playing 3 titles that I believe capture that summertime/California feeling: T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, California Games (how could we not!) and Kings of the Beach.
What we’ll be looking for in each of the titles, is not the overall quality of the games or how they rank in terms of playability. Instead we want to compare their ability to impart a sense of summer and nostalgia for the Californian outdoors.
Surf Designs: Wood Water Rage
While the brand of Town & Country Surf Designs has its origins in Hawaii, its stores are found worldwide. The two events of the game: street skating and surfing, lend themselves to the West Coast culture we’re looking for in our game selection. Players choose between four cartoon characters, known as “Tha Boys”, who are based on the artwork of Steve Nazar (Wikipedia): Joe Cool (sun glasses, slick back hair), Tiki Man (think Mexican wrestler), Kool Kat (a cat in a suit, huh?) and Thrilla Gorilla (you guessed it, a gorilla in a swimsuit).
The truth is, it’s hard not to make a vibrant summer-like game with the color palette of the NES. T&C captures the summer vibes through its art work, huge ocean dwelling clouds rising against brilliant blue and pink skies. If it wasn’t for the backdrop and the crazy cast, the setting of this game could anywhere. Pothole ridden streets and old brick built apartments punctured by ocean revealing landscapes, line the course of obstacles your skater navigates. Your moves are a combination of jumps, with or without your board and directional changes, viewed from a tilted perspective.
In short, the street skating gameplay is fun, if not a little repetitive as you progress through the levels, but engaging enough to encourage you to want to improve. Surfing on the other hand… Holy-Mother-ofMegatron is it hard! There doesn’t appear to be any reasoning behind the controls and how those movements impact your path across the wave. The wave and water animations are sublime, I get a real sense of big wave riding from the 2d, limited color animations. If the control mechanisms weren't so flawed, I swear I’d be sitting here in my board shorts and Ray-Bans.
Assistant Reviewer’s Opinion
I like the clouds and the sky, it makes me think of summer. In skating, the ocean, buildings and roads don’t make me think of California, the game reminds me of New Jersey because of all the construction, you mostly fall into black holes!
There we have it folks, the observational skills of an 8 year old summarized the game as: bloody hard and just like Jersey. T&C missed the Cali mark but that’s ok, grinding the rails in skating is still darn good fun.
Here is a game that needs little introduction. Even if you didn’t own a NES, it’s likely you encountered this game in one of its many other incarnations. From my count, California Games was released on no less than 15 platforms from the 80’s into the 90’s, and is still gracing modern systems and mobile platforms. For the sake of this article, I’ll briefly recap the game’s events: skateboarding, footbag, surfing, roller skating, flying disc and BMX.
California Games is true to its name sake, the event selection takes the player on a tour of the “Golden State”. The background detail and art identify your location with landmarks like the Hollywood sign or the Golden Gate Bridge. Well considered design elements like the beach side walk in roller skating, scream Long Beach, a popular destination south of Los Angeles.
Of all systems California Games was released on, the NES, in my opinion, is the ultimate platform for this game. The combination of quick load times, a stunningly vibrant color palette and 8-bit pixel art, are perfect for getting a few mates over to play for a few rounds before heading to the skate park. All of us 40 plus year olds do still skate, right?
Assistant Reviewer’s Opinion
The beach sidewalk in skating looks a lot like summer in California when I visited, but the obstacles in skating are very challenging! I like the palm trees and Hollywood sign in Halfpipe, it’s very Californian.
Kings of The Beach
First impressions of this volley ball themed game, come from the neon pink, 80’s styled cartridge art. This alone wins me over any time! Kings captures the essence of cooperative sport with its 4 player (with controller adaptor), beach volley ball action. Players take the role of 80’s professional volley ball athletes: Sinjin Smith and Randy Stools. Your avatars have the option of competing cooperatively or opposing in one off matches, or in a lengthy tournament spanning 4 cities.
This game is unique from California Games and T&C in that the game play is less about instant gratification, the player is committed to long form play. If I had to classify Kings of the Beach, I would label it as a volley ball simulator. As you can imagine, the matches take place on beach courts, surrounded by advertising banners and crowds of spectators. The background and sprite art is simple, yet effective in portraying a sun drenched sporting event, there’s no mistaking the setting of a coastal location.
The game’s documentation describes the tournament locations.Without reading this, it’s hard to discern exactly where in world the first match is held, apparently it’s San Diego. In retrospect, the ships in the background do resemble navy vessels, San Diego is known for its large navel presence - granted, the artists did have their work cut out for them. Later levels utilize well known landmarks like the Sydney Opera house to identify the level’s setting.
My Assistants View
In the Kings of the Beach, the beach is crowded and all the people are wearing beach clothes, it looks really hot, just like in California. Kings of the Beach is a challenging team sport.
So How Ready For Summer Are We?
Summer can’t get here soon enough!
I previously mentioned the palette of NES, but I’d like to emphasize it’s vibrant kaleidoscope of color - on the over cast days of an East Coast winter, the little console that could, always lifts the spirit. My 8-year old and I have played California Games extensively on the C64. The level of artwork in the skating and surfing events on the Commodore version, add a richness to the gaming experience. I’ll honestly admit, the ’64 is nearly always my platform of choice. Despite the simplified artwork of the NES, the colors and social playability inherent to consoles, beats the ’64 in this case. California Games embodies the “fun-in-the-sun” personality of the West Coast. It’s probably not a surprise to the reader, that this game is our number one choice for our California nostalgia review criteria.
Kings of the Beach is the perfect choice for a game that virtually warms the frost bitten toes. The immersive nature of the game, draws the player/s into multiple beach locations. While the court may look the same in each level, the personality and playability of the game are very endearing. From the bikini clad hostess of the registration tent, to the sand kicking tantrums of the player sprites, this aptly titled game is an entertaining rendition of a characteristically summer sport.
We would love to know the readers’ top summer inspired 8-bit games! (comment below or on twitter)
Quirky, colorful cooperative games are a mainstay in this house, they’re the original social games. But alas, it’s time for me to go shovel the drive from last night’s snow storm, while I day dream about hitting up the drive through at a West Coast “In and Out” burger.
About the Author
Will Williams is an avid writer, artist, programmer and retro gamer, residing on the east coast of the USA.
He is an unapologetic Commodore and Amiga fanboy who finds strange comfort in the Amiga’s disk drive checking click.